Petrochemicals: Confusion and Hypocrisy

It is all too common these days to see claims on cosmetic packs and cosmetics web sites that the products are “free from” something or other. There is a good deal of debate as to the acceptability of this practice and, in fact, certain countries (eg. France, South Africa, Canada) ban this either by regulatory means or by industry Code Of Practice. The rights and wrongs of this practice are not the focus of this discussion, however, as I would like to challenge people to think about what they are saying when they claim “petrochemical free”.

It is virtually impossible to see the word “petrochemical” without it being associated with the word “free”, “does not contain” or some aggressive, negative adjective – usually “nasty” or “toxic”. I give below an example taken from the recent Annie Leonard video “The Story of Cosmetics”:

This is Proctor & Gamble. They’re the ones offering me Herbal Essences, the number two shampoo in the country. It contains toxic petrochemicals made from oil. Since when is oil an herb?

Leaving aside the irritation of stating “petrochemical made from oil” (what else could petrochemicals be made from?), and the fact that, whilst oil is not a herb, Herbal Essences does not claim to be totally made from herbs, I ask the question “why are “oil” and petrochemical” such dirty words?

Oil itself is totally natural in origin. OK, I accept that the synthetic chemicals produced from oil are not natural (although many may be described as “nature-identical”), but this still doesn’t explain the hysteria invoked by the mere mention of the word “petrochemical”. Nor does it explain why it is almost mandatory to use “toxic” as a prefix with every mention of the word. For a start, the fact that a chemical has been derived from oil/petroleum in no way determines the toxicity of the chemical, so it is a facile generalisation to use the term, and totally inaccurate, but so typical of the chemophobic response to anything associated with substances that do not fit in with their narrow definition of being acceptable.

Why is there such hysteria about the use of petrochemicals in cosmetics?

As I stated before, the toxicity of any substance is not related to its origin, nor to the origin of its precursors. So why do so many insist that all petrochemicals are toxic and should never be used in cosmetics?

Is it an environmental thing?

The exploration, extraction and refining of oil are not especially environmentally-friendly activities, but why is so much of the vehemence towards petrochemicals reserved for the cosmetics industry? I see no pharmacuetical companies making “petrochemical free” claims for their products, for example, and I know of no other industry where this is an issue.

Do those who claim “petrochemical free” or accuse all petrochemicals of being toxic avoid ALL petrochemicals in their daily existence? Do they avoid all means of transport that use petrochemicals as fuel? Do they refuse to take pharmaceutical drugs for medical conditions? Do they refuse to buy ANY product manufactured using plastic components? Unlikely, so why the focus on cosmetics?

A couple of oil and petrochemical facts:

1)   Around 80% of oil consumption is simply burned to provide energy

2)   Less than 0.1% of total oil production is used to provide ingredients for cosmetics

This information was presented during a symposium on green chemistry, but I don’t have the reference to the original source of this information, unfortunately, but it is highly plausible that these figures reflect the reality.

So this brings me back to the original question – why are oil and petrochemical such dirty words in the cosmetics industry?

If the argument against their use is one of sustainability, I have three comments:

1)    If you are so concerned about sustainability, try using only biodiesil, wear thicker clothing in winter and turn off the aircon in summer – this will have a much greater impact on the rate of depletion of oil reserves than demonising their use in cosmetics

2)    If all petrochemicals were replaced with “sustainable”, i.e. vegetable-derived ingredients, there would not be sufficient land available to grow the required crops to provide the ingredients.

3)    If the concerns are great enough, why not consider stopping using any cosmetics?

Finally, a word of caution – don’t assume that all products that proclaim “petrochemical free” don’t contain any petrochemicals! Many manufacturers make this claim because they want to be perceived as, somehow, better people (because petrochemicals are so” toxic” and, therefore, they are not trying to kill their customers, unlike those who DO use them!), but the reality is very different, because these claims are often made either in ignorance, or in an attempt to deceive. All too often, the claims are made on the basis that the ingredient doesn’t SOUND like a petrochemical – this is far too simple an approach – what does a petrochemical sound like? Many, many “petrochemical free” products contain sodium benzoate and/or potassium sorbate. Guess what – they are petrochemicals! OK, they do exist in nature, but there are no sources of either ingredient that extract the material from natural sources, and anyone who tells you that their supplier does this is being misled, or is lying (unless they are paying several hundred dollars per kilo, in which case they have been misled AND ripped off!). These ingredients require a multistage synthesis, with many petrochemicals involved along the way. Does this make them any less safe/more dangerous? No, but it does mean that the petrochemical free claim should not be used!

I write this, not to fire criticism at those who have genuinely good intentions, but to suggest that people put petrochemicals into some sort of perspective, in the hope that some sanity will prevail when petrochemicals are considered and discussed in cosmetics.

  • Dene Godfrey

    I seem to have stunned everyone into silence with this one, but that is not why I am adding a comment myself!

    I forgot the include the fact that the EWG has compared the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with the quantity of petrochemicals used in cosmetics – unfavourably for cosmetics! This beggars belief!

  • Lisa M. Rodgers

    I wish for more dialogue and that consumers would turn away from the fear mongering and believe the true science and not the “junk science” of the EWG and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

    To all reading this post, if you have the slightest doubt of what you are being fed by the groups that are scaring you into believing cosmetics are full of toxic chemicals, please…..please ask questions. If we don't have an immediate answer, we will find it and believe me when I say, it will be truthful. We're not in the business to scare. Educating consumers about personal care products based on truthful scientific information is our priority.

  • Stumptry

    Okay, I’m still confused. I personally don’t have a problem with petrochemicals. But can you direct me to an article that states why they are perceived as toxic?

  • Dene Godfrey

    Whilst this post didn’t generate many comments, it has made a difference, if only to one person. Please check the link below, as Melissa comes up with some interesting additional points to consider (that I wish I had thought of myself!):

  • Lise

    great post amd very enlightening about sodium benzoate! thank you.

  • Amelia

    What an excellent post! I was on the ‘petrochemical free’ bandwagon, constantly stressing if I bought something that contained petrochemicals. Now that I’ve gained some perspective I won’t worry so much! Thank you!

    • Dene62

      Thanks Amelia :-)