Ask the Scientist: Which Products are “Chemical Free”?

Question: Which products are chemical free?
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That’s an easy one. None of them.

Not a single thing on the planet fits the description “chemical free.”

In order to explain why this term is meaningless, you’re going to get a short course in the seedy underbelly of cosmetic marketing. Stay tuned!

“Chemical free” is a marketing term, but a deceptive one. This term intends to resemble something called “free-from” marketing, which we’ve all seen on packages from pretzels to lotion. In honest “free-from” marketing, the company implies that its product is better than other products simply because it does not contain a certain ingredient (i.e. fat-free, gluten-free–for example, we’re a cruelty-free and animal-free company, so that would be our free-from!) “Free from” language has been used in food for many years to sell low-fat products, products free from specific allergens, or products designed to fit certain religious/dietary requirements.

In cosmetics, you’re more likely to see that the product is “free-from” an ingredient you can’t pronounce. The unconscious fear you feel when you see a product is “free-from” an unfamiliar chemical name is intended to play on chemophobia, and your fear helps the company make the sale. Sometimes brands will claim that their products are “free from” things that aren’t normally even in the product! The point of this style of marketing is to cause an emotional reaction that makes you think that a certain product is somehow “safer” by implying that other products may be “dangerous.” When used this way, free-froms can be a rather deceptive sales tactic.

The term “chemical free” is probably the worst offender of this type of marketing. To understand why the term “chemical free” doesn’t make any sense, we need to revisit a little bit of high school chemistry:

1. All things are made of matter.

2. All matter is made up of atoms.

3. Anything containing an atom is a chemical.

In order for a product to actually be “chemical free,” you would have to open the bottle and listen as the whoosh of air filled the vacuum within. After all, air is a chemical, as well as water–and all natural products are chemicals, too. So in order for a product to be “chemical free” the product would have to contain absolutely nothing (but the glass bottle would still be made of chemicals!) In fact, you’re made up of chemicals. Without chemicals, nothing would exist.

If you tell someone their ‘chemical free’ product really isn’t, they’ll usually say “well, we mean no synthetic chemicals,” as if that’s a meaningful statement. (To a non-chemist, this sounds like it makes sense, but it actually doesn’t. I’ll save that confusing topic for another day.)

So, to recap: “chemical-free” products don’t exist–but asking questions makes you smart! And we all know…

Smart is sexy!