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!


Dene Godfrey has been involved with preservatives for cosmetics since 1981, from both technical and commercial angles and has a degree in chemistry. Dene worked for one of the largest manufacturers of parabens from 1992 – 2002, and currently works for a UK company involved in the distribution of ingredients for cosmetics, health care and food. The Boots Company, 1973 – 92, Dene spent 11 years working with bronopol, although he was also involved in the initial development of Myavert C, now known as Biovert – a well-known “non-preservative”. Latterly was responsible (as Technical Manager) for the operation of the Formulation Laboratory and the Microbiology Laboratory. As Technical Manager when at Nipa Laboratories, Dene was responsible for development and sales of new preservative products, mainly into personal care. Developed the Nipaguard range of preservatives and co-patented a preservative system based on phenoxyethanol and IPBC. In 2002, Dene founded MGS MicroPure (as Technical & Sales Director) to compete with the giants of preservation, establishing the Paratexin brand name in the UK and several other markets (EU/ global). MGS MicroPure ceased trading in 2005. Since 2005, Dene has been employed by a major UK distributor of personal care ingredients, with his focus primarily on preservation systems. Dene’s articles are based solely on his personal opinions, observations and research, and are not intended to represent any official position of the part of his employer. Dene obtained a BSc (Hons) in Chemistry from the Open University in 1996. He also obtained the Professional Certificate in Management from the Open University in 1997. He has been an active member of the UK Society of Cosmetic Scientists since 1992, and has served 4 terms on the SCS Council, and is involved with the SCS Social Committee from 1993 to date; from 2004 – 7 as Social Secretary. Dene has presented papers at many SCS meetings and was President of the SCS (2009/10)

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