In my recent series on cosmetic chemistry I’ve covered topics such as ‘can cosmetics be absorbed into your bloodstream?‘, ‘what’s the main ingredient in your beauty products?‘ and ‘are you eating parabens?‘. Today I’d like to look at another contentious issue – that of chemicals being used in your cosmetics. Are your cosmetics truly chemical-free? First a bit of background about me: I spent five years at university studying science. I got my Bachelors of Science in Ecology with Biology which I had the pleasure of studying for in the UK and the US. Then I went back to get my Masters of Science in Environmental Management. Since then I have also successfully studied for two diplomas in Botanical Cosmetic Science. My partner has a PhD and is a Geologist/Zoologist. We keep mounds of New Scientist magazines next to the toilet and have geeky conversations about science. In other words – I like science. So I have a bone to pick with the world of natural skincare and I’m sorry if this offends the people who put lots of hard work into creating beautiful natural cosmetic products, but this needs to be said:
There is no such thing as a Chemical-Free Beauty Product
There. I said it. Whenever you buy a moisturiser, cleanser, lotion, serum, shampoo, etc. which advertises itself as ‘chemical-free’, it’s somehow defying the laws of chemistry. That, or the marketing team doesn’t understand basic science. Or even worse – they are happy to make ridiculous marketing claims to dumb their product down for the public.
What is a chemical?
In the immortal words of Wikipedia, a chemical substance is ‘a form of matter that has constant chemical composition and characteristic properties. It cannot be separated into components by physical separation methods, i.e. without breaking chemical bonds. It can be solid, liquid, gas, or plasma.‘ Everything is a chemical because everything is made of matter. Anything that has mass and occupies space is matter. Matter consists of particles. So basically anything you can taste, smell or hold is made up of chemicals. This means that all of your personal care products and cosmetics are made out of chemicals. The bottles and jars they come in are made of chemicals. The packaging they’re shipped in is made of chemicals.
We’re all chemicals
Let’s take that one step further – your meal of pasta is made of chemicals. The plate it was served on is made of chemicals. Your drink of water is made of chemicals. The glass you’re drinking it out of is made of chemicals. You are made of chemicals and I am made of chemicals. 99% of the mass of the human body is made up of just six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. In other words, it is even remotely possible that your skincare product is ‘chemical-free’? I think you know the answer to that now: no, it is not. If you are truly buying a chemical-free product, then you are effectively being sold a a vacuum in a jar.
The boom of synthetic chemicals
Of course I understand what marketers are trying to say. They think that by saying that their cosmetics don’t contain any chemicals, people will understand that they mean “no synthetic chemicals”. However, many skincare manufacturers will also find it virtually impossible to guarantee that particular claim as many of the natural ingredients you will find listed on the back of your anti-ageing lotion might be identical to the ones found in nature but still have been manufactured in a lab – allantoin is a great example.
Nonetheless, it’s good to be aware of what you’re putting on your skin and hair. Just 100 years ago, many of the chemicals being used today in the world of cosmetics did not exist, at least not in a known form. According to this article by the Guardian, there are now over 70,000 chemicals in commercial use, with about 1,000 new ones added each year. And despite reassurances from the regulators, we don’t always know what combinations of all of these chemicals do over a longer period of time. To test just the commonest 1,000 toxic chemicals in unique combinations of three would require at least 166 million experiments, ignoring the need to study varying doses. (See my recent article on ‘Can cosmetics be absorbed into your bloodstream?’)
So next time you see a product advertised as ‘chemical-free’, you might just want to turn over the label and check what the first ingredient is in the bottle. You might find that it is actually … a chemical.
What does ‘chemical-free’ mean to you? Do you think that skincare manufacturers mean the same thing as consumers when they make advertising claims?