If You Can’t Pronounce It……

If there was to be an award for the most mind-numbingly moronic claim ever seen on the internet (in connection with cosmetics), the front runner must surely be “if you can’t pronounce it, it can’t be safe”!

I have seen this (or very similar wording) on far too many occasions during my regular fun-packed surfing on beauty blogs. I have no idea where this gem started, but I DO know that the most public display of this outrageous nonsense was at Expo West in 2010, where the EWG Skin Deep database had a display booth. Above the booth, a banner proclaimed “If you can’t pronounce it, it can’t be safe” (according to a source of mine present at the event).

The problem is that too many people seem to be able to bypass normal thought processes and are actually willing to believe this garbage. So let’s go through those “normal thought processes”:

Imagine if the toxicity of a chemical (natural or synthetic) were truly dependent on the ease/difficulty of pronouncing the name. . . . . .

No dyslexic would survive to maturity!

Better educated people would live longer.

Speech trainers would make a fortune.

The toxicity of the same chemical would somehow alter and behave in different ways depending upon the ability of the person to say the name!

How about if we give simple names to all chemicals – this would make them safe, and the EWG can close its “Silly Scares” file and go home.

But seriously – where is the logic in this statement?

Water – easily pronounced – safe

Cyanide – easily pronounced – but safe? I don’t think so!

Sodium chloride – easily pronounced – safe (unless you eat too much, of course)

Sodium chlorate – easily pronounced – and even sounds very similar to sodium chloride, but would you sprinkle a non-specific weed-killer on your French fries? Perhaps it should be renamed to make it less easily pronounceable!

How about β-D-fructofuranosyl-(2→1)-α-D-glucopyranoside? Woah – this must be incredibly deadly as, even as a chemist, I struggle a little with the pronunciation! If, however, I call it sucrose (or sugar), the toxicity plummets to the point where I can relax sufficiently to dare to put some in my coffee drink. (Although it may rot my teeth – does that count as toxic?)

Many common chemicals have two (or more) names – a common name, eg  sucrose, and a systematic chemical name (see above example). The systematic name has to follow very specific naming rules because, for chemists, the structure has to be clear from the name, and there must be no ambiguity. Hence, for complex compounds, the name is also complex in order to fully describe the molecular structure. As is obvious, I hope, from the above example of sucrose, there really is no connection between the chemical name and the toxicity.

One final example(hurrah!) – thalidomide. I know it is easy to pronounce, but that is not the point I wish to make, in this instance. Thalidomide exists in two forms, both with exactly the same chemical formula, but with a VERY slight difference in the way the atoms are arranged (known as optical isomers – Google this term if you need to know more detail, as I won’t dwell on this here). One of the forms is safe, and therapeutic; the other form causes severe malformation of the developing foetus. The only difference in the correct chemical names for these two forms of the compound is that one has a “R-” in the name, the other has a “S-“. (The systematic chemical name for the mixture of the two isomers is (RS)-2-(2,6-dioxopiperidin-3-yl)-1H-isoindole-1,3(2H)-dione.) Equally easy (or difficult!) to pronounce, but a world of difference in their toxicity.

I hope I have made (and probably laboured) my point – there is NO relationship between the complexity of any chemical name and its toxicity, and anyone making this claim either does not know what they are talking about, or are deliberately setting out to scare consumers (unnecessarily).

If I come across here as angry, frustrated and heavily sarcastic, that’s because I am. The EWG and their acolytes claim to “have the science”, and yet they resort to this type of scaremongering, which many people (myself included – surprise!) feel is immoral. There is no science whatsoever behind this statement. If you HAVE the science, USE the science and don’t use the tactics of the morally bankrupt on the gullible/naive amongst us. Strong words, I know, but as a friend of mine once said (in vaguely similar circumstances) – “stupidity deserves strong words”. The use of this despicable tactic should be seen to undermine any possible credibility the EWG can ever lay claim to. They don’t care; they just scare!

Believe it or not, I have held back on my true feelings over the use of this statement. My real feelings are unpronounceable and, therefore, highly dangerous! Sorry if that scares you!

  • http://www.sterlingminerals.com/ Katherine

    How about a dose of Arsenic to go with that sharp wit. Easy to pronounce, but I wouldn’t recommend taking it. Fantastic analogies! As usual Dene you have left me in stitches with tears streaming down my face.

    • Dene Godfrey

      Thanks Katherine – praise indeed, and greatly appreciated, as always. It was quite pleasantly cathartic to put all that down in writing. My only slight frustration is that I had meant to include the term “intellectually bankrupt” as well, but forgot!

  • http://www.cactusandivy.com Lisa M. Rodgers

    Love your articles Dene! Over the weekend, I was watching Dessert First With Anne Thornton on The Food Network. She was making a Chocolate Peppermint Ice Cream Cake. I was thinking how much I wanted to jump through the TV and lick the bowl and then she said it! “When choosing ice cream, look at the ingredients. My rule of thumb is if you can’t pronounce, don’t eat it”! Seriously? Is ice cream the only product she applies this completely misguided statement? So, it seems that “mind numbing, moronic claims” are not only just for cosmetics.

    I turned the channel after that. It’s a shame too ’cause her desserts rocked!

    • Dene Godfrey

      I think the best rule of thumb is “don’t use your thumb to make rules”. This phrase is equally nonsensical in food as it is in cosmetics, and for exactly the same reasons! Presumably, Ms. Thornton would starve if she had to live in France (unless she can speak French, of course!).

      • http://www.cactusandivy.com Lisa M. Rodgers

        LOL! That’s a great rule of thumb! I wouldn’t starve in France or anywhere else, for that matter. I know how to point or find a translator!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nathan-Rivas/100001195250784 Nathan Rivas

      Oh, inductive logic rears its ugly head! Sadly, I can relate to your frustration, Lisa. It seems as if stupidity is the new clap, and it’s 1976 again! I was watching “What Not to Wear,” (don’t judge,) and the makeup artist recommended a foundation that was “paraben-free.” My eyes rolled so fast that inertia was broken and my head actually kicked back. Why??

      Dene – wonderful article, as always, and I feel that more articles should be ended with, “sorry if that scares you!”

      • http://www.cactusandivy.com Lisa M. Rodgers

        LOL, Nathan! So glad to see more people join the party. I’m amazed at just how many people buy into this statement and repeat it as it were the gospel. And……then again…..I’m not surprised if they’ve never been educated as to why statements such as this are wrong and just plain ludicrous.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joseph.colas Joseph Colas

    i love when you come across …”heavily sarcastic”, intelligence with a bit of snark, when well deserved, is always fun in my book!

  • http://twitter.com/beautybySaria Maria

    Another great article on Personal Care Truth!

    I love the break down of the simple- yet often overlooked- ideas and concepts that, by default, one agrees with when believing their ability to pronounce an ingredient has an actual impact on its safety….

    “No dyslexic would survive to maturity!
    Better educated people would live longer.
    Speech trainers would make a fortune.
    The toxicity of the same chemical would somehow alter and behave in different ways depending upon the ability of the person to say the name!”

    If we carried this same thinking over into other areas of life, then I think something needs to be done about Massachusetts. Since I have such issues trying to pronounce it, obviously anything and anyone associated with Massachusetts must be “bad”.

    I will need to start a website; form a ‘Campaign for Safe Citizens'; build an organization that will support my movement…something like “State Protection Group” or along those lines. As for evidence, I am sure I can prove that Massachusetts is just bad, bad, bad.

    Matter of fact, I just asked 3 friends of mine if they could say ‘Massachusetts’ and 2 of them could not – so including myself, that’s 75% who have an issue with it. This is the evidence I need! How can anyone argue with data that clearly shows that Massachusetts is bad?

    Ok, sarcastic rant over! I couldn’t help myself! Like you Dene, this is one of those topics that just makes my skin crawl with frustration and anger. If people would stop for a minute – actually take the time to THINK about what pronouncing an ingredient has to do with what it is or does – they would quickly realize how ridiculous the idea even sounds!

    I could go off on another tangent about how people are so willing to believe the craziest internet rumors (still waiting on my free Applebee’s gift card and my payment from Bill Gates), but I’ll save that for another time! Instead, I’ll share a quote I came across a while back that seems rather fitting. It is from Rutherford Rogers, a librarian at Yale University…

    “We are drowning in information and starving for knowledge.”

    Pretty much says it all…

  • Suzanne Hall

    I hope you will write a companion article to this one. I’m an esthetician. My massage therapist has proclaimed she won’t put anything on her face she can’t eat. I imagine this came from one of those “health” magazines that regularly sell fear, often based on the EWG’s “findings”

    • Philippe Papadimitriou

      Everyone has the right to make choices.

      One should on the other side know that ingestion, subcutaneous injection, topical application and inhalation of a substance are very often going to have different “body responses” (to make things simple).

      It is for this reason cigarette smoke isn’t as toxic on your skin as in your throat or lungs. It is for this reason chocolate tastes and smells better than is pleasant when put on the skin or injected therein… I know this sounds quite ridiculous, but you here have the whole problem of mixing routes of exposure addressed.
      Some things you can not eat safely will have no effect if applied on your skin and vice-versa.

      “Mourir pour ses idées ne prouve pas qu’elles soient bonnes.”
      Yvan Audouard

      This translates into “Dying for beliefs does not prove they are good”…

  • andrea

    This site has been eye opening to me. I was one of those who bought into the “toxic” hype–spent a lot of money on expensive, green washed products, scrubbed my hair with baking soda and vinegar for fear of chemicals, threw out perfectly ok stuff, and searched in vain for products on the Cosmetic Database. If I couldn’t pronounce it, I didn’t want it in my body! It caused me a lot of worry and concern–I was always thinking of what I was going to put on my skin or hair. Now, I’m seeing the hype behind it all. It’s so nice to know that my shampoo isn’t going to kill me! It sounds silly, but I’m now enjoying my old products. I don’t use many, but I’m not afraid to use them anymore! Thank you for this blog, I hope it will bring light to many who are open-minded and willing to see the science.

    • http://www.cactusandivy.com Lisa M. Rodgers

      Andrea –

      Thank you for your comments. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hear you say you are seeing through the hype! Your comments made my day in so many ways. I hope you will continue to come back and contribute to the dialogue!

      Thanks again and have a great night!


    • http://greenskincareblog.com/ Kristin Fraser Cotte

      Yay Andrea! Thanks for sharing your comments with us. This is exactly why we started this blog… and why all of our industry experts contribute their research and work to Personal Care Truth with absolutely no pay in return. Comments like this are our pay! We want consumers to understand the science behind the truth. You deserve that as a consumer, and we deserve it as an industry. The fear mongering scare tactics have gotten way out of control. We will continue to provide science backed info on cosmetic safety and you can make the right decision for your own use. Education is the key to change…

    • Cindy

      That’s great Andrea. Its funny that in grade school we are taught to improve our vocabularies but many adults do not see this as important. Understanding chemistry starts with just learning more vocabulary words and how to pronounce them. Don’t give up on green products either though, because there are good ones out there too. Its all about consumer choice.

    • Dene62

      Thanks Andrea – it maks it all worthwhile to read comments like yours. The only other thing I can say is – please tell all your friends!!!

    • http://www.indiebusinessblog.com Donna Maria Coles Johnson


      I’m thrilled to know that this site is opening your eyes to a new way of looking at your cosmetics. I’m sorry to learn that the untrue reports out there have caused you to toss out perfect good products (and your perfectly good dollars with them!), but glad to know that this site is serving its purpose.

      Please tell all of your friends not to believe everything they read, but to use sites like this to collect the facts from people who are devoted to finding them and using them to create more great products and choices for you to enjoy. I love having choices, and buying products that give my family variety. I know you like the same for yourself. Welcome to a new perspective! Kristen and Lisa and their entire team are here to serve you and we look forward to seeing you here again!