Chemical Free? Safe Cosmetics?

I have previously written about the undesirable existence of various “free from” claims in cosmetics but in this article I would like to concentrate on one very specific “free from” claim, and look at it in a little more depth:

“Chemical free”, aka “free from chemicals”, aka “does not contain chemicals”etc.

It has been stated many times before that everything is chemical, so it is a ludicrous statement to claim “no chemicals” – who wants to buy a vacuum?

The response, when pressed on this claim is usually – “well I meant synthetic chemicals”. OK – so SAY “free from synthetic chemicals” . . . . . . then check your ingredient list again, just to be sure you are not making a false claim.

Many people seem to make the assumption that, if a product is certified “organic”, then it does not contain synthetic chemicals. This is not true. Many organic standards allow certain synthetic processes to be performed on natural materials without them losing their “organic” status (without any particular logic being applied in terms of which ones are permitted and which ones are not, in many cases). Esterification is one common example of a permitted process. In this particular case, as far as I am aware, it is justified on the premise that esterification occurs in many natural chemical reactions.

However, let’s just ponder for a moment the status of the product of the esterification reaction between the natural alcohol and the natural acid – esterification is a reaction between an alcohol and an acid, resulting in the production of the ester plus water. There is no doubt that the two starting materials are natural; they have been extracted from nature, but what about the ester produced in this process? This SYNTHETIC process! The ester MUST be synthetic – it is the result of a process carried on outside of any biological (i.e. “natural”) mechanism. It does not matter one iota that a self-appointed certification body has arbitrarily determined that the ester thereby produced may be described as “organic” – it is unequivocally a synthetic chemical. Nor does it matter one iota if that particular ester actually exists in nature – it has still been produced synthetically, so it is still a synthetic chemical. OK, it may be acceptable to describe it as “nature-identical”, but synthetic it remains. The most common examples of “nature-identical” substances are the preservatives, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate. (Not only are these substances synthetic, but also they are manufactured from petrochemical feedstock, so any claim to also be “free from petrochemicals” is also false – they are both great preservatives, though!).

So, whilst a product may well be certified “organic”, some, or many of the “organic” ingredients may be synthetic chemicals. I am sure that there are many “organic” products on the market that do consist solely of materials extracted from nature without chemical modification, but the more robust products, “organic”, or “natural” will almost certainly contain some synthetic chemicals.

“Organic” does NOT mean “free of synthetic chemicals” any more than it means “safer cosmetics”; and it doesn’t always mean “free from petrochemicals” either! We should all have choices, but false claims lead to wrong choices.

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