As I trawl through websites and discussion groups related to cosmetics, I am increasingly irritated by the use of the word “pure” to describe ingredients and products. This may sound like an over-reaction, but the word is being grossly misused and misapplied.
In chemical terms (i.e., the terms relevant to the usage in question), purity is best expressed as a percentage as, otherwise (using only the single word “pure”), the implication is that the ingredient is 100% pure, which is virtually impossible.
One of the most common phrases used is “using only the purest natural ingredients”. The nonsense here is on two levels:
1) No natural ingredients are remotely pure (unless they have been very highly processed)
2) There is a subliminal message that purity implies a greater degree of safety
All natural ingredients are mixtures, ranging from fairly complex to highly complex, some with thousands of components. It is not possible to describe ANY mixture as “pure” and, in any case, once the “pure” material is added to others, it is not longer “pure” – and this also applies to ingredients that are, within the commonly accepted region as being “pure” – >99%.
Purity cannot be automatically linked to safety. The safety of the “impure” substance depends entirely on the nature of the impurities. It is entirely possible for the main substance to have a higher level of toxicity than any of the impurities. It is NOT a given that impurities are bad. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be interpreted as such!
The word is even more grossly distorted when used to describe a product, and I have seen this happen on many occasions. Again, this implies greater safety – a “pure” product MUST be safe, mustn’t it? No.
I was recently involved in a discussion (that actually prompted me to write this article) where one of the “combatants” claimed the following definition of “pure”:
“Pure – Having a homogeneous or uniform composition and free from adulterants or impurities.”
The justification from the person involved was explained thus:
“Some time back, when we were in the business of created products for clients, we decided to clearly define some key terms related to product ingredients, so that we and our clients would always understand clearly what we were all talking about. These definitions were subsequently adopted by the Asia-Pacific Spa and Wellness Coalition [APSWC], the group representing the national/country spa associations in the Asia-Pacific region. “
It seems that any self-appointed body can take it upon themselves to redefine a word! The definition itself is confused – homogeniety IS uniformity, and what they are claiming is that if a natural substance is free from adulterants and impurities, it is pure. Homogeneity and uniformity are totally different from pure, and it beggars belief that such an organisation should feel free to completely change the definition of a very basic word. This redefinition was subsequently used in the ensuing discussion to justify the continued misuse of the word. I find that unacceptable.
I accept that the majority of people are using the word with the best of intentions, and I am not trying to upset or offend anyone reading this article, but I AM trying to draw attention to the reality of the situation and that, in my opinion, is that the word “pure” should not be used to describe any cosmetics, or their ingredients. There is far more justification for claiming “pure” synthetic ingredients (many are <99% pure, but many are also complex mixtures), but this is never done. This misuse further adds to the false perception that natural ingredients are always safe, because the implication of “pure natural ingredients” is that synthetic ingredients may be neither pure, nor safe.
And breathe . . . . . .
More about the author: Dene Godfrey has been involved with preservatives for cosmetics since 1981, from both technical and commercial angles and has a degree in chemistry. Read more from this author