The Definition of Chemical-Free

This blog post is inspired by Deborah Blum’s A Chemical-Free Resolution from her Speakeasy Science blog. She writes,

“Let’s resolve to give up the ridiculous, the misleading, the this-is-simply-not-possible-so-just-let-it-go phrase “chemical-free”.”

I couldn’t agree more. In fact there’s nothing she wrote that I don’t agree with. As a Chemist I have a nervous twitch upon sighting labels when braving the gauntlet that is the shopping centre boldly stating “CHEMICAL FREE” in letters larger. I fight the urge to start yelling at inanimate bags, bottles and produce that they are not chemical free. And when a lovely representative from any cosmetics company starts to tell me how their manufactured products are natural and chemical free I need to resist the urge to roll up one of their catalogues giving them a whap over the head for lying to me.

There is nothing that you come in contact with that is chemical free. Nothing. Everything is made up of a chemicals, even natural things like rocks, minerals, plants, organic grain fed free-range animals served at dinner, the air that you breathe and even you, (yes, YOU!), are made of chemicals.

A chemical substance is any material with a chemical composition. This means that the chemical substance can be defined by its molecules and atoms that it is made up of. It also means that physical properties like density, electric conductivity and melting point, to name a few, are also characteristic of that chemical.

A chemical can include pure chemical elements like gold and iron and also chemical compounds like water . Water for instance with its structure of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom is a chemical. Complex biological structures like deoxyribonucleic acid, also known as DNA are also chemicals. Yes, that’s right, the DNA that makes you, well, you is a chemical too. Have a look at the what makes up DNA.

Adenine and Thymine, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Guanine and Cytosine, Source Wikimedia Commons

They look like chemical structures because they are chemical compounds. I cannot stress enough that this is not a new development. This has been the case for a while now. In fact chemicals have been around for much longer than us mere humans. We just happened to put a name to them.

What then, is meant by “chemical free”? From the packaging these days and relentless advertising, it seems that chemical free means no synthetic man-made chemicals. It also seems to imply that very little Chemistry has occurred to create, say the facial cleanser you might use. This is especially the case when statements like “calming lavender” and “witch hazel extract” adorn a bottle but what they don’t tell you is that chemical processes have been used to extract the plants’ extracts and concentrate them before being added to the gloop you use on your face. That goes for every face product out of a jar bought from the supermarket.

And when it comes to natural chemical substances. Not all of them are safe. Carbon dioxide is produced from plants from photosynthesis except that it is a deadly gas that can starve people of oxygen. Natural events like that of the 1986 incident at Lake Nyos where 1700 people died as they slept as well as thousands of animals. What about naturally occurring lead and arsenic? You would not want to decrease the level of safety in handling them any more than you would if they had been chemically extracted from ore.

The ludicrous term chemical free is a marketing ploy that serves to complicate the understanding of Chemistry. It also makes naturally occurring substances seem safer. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard, “It’s safe. It’s 100% natural.” which makes no sense in a time where schools ban peanut butter sandwiches due to acute peanut allergies. Peanuts are natural.

If you honestly believe that you have a 100% chemical-free substance, by all means leave a comment or even perhaps a better idea is to contact the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK. They are offering a £1 million prize to the first person that can create a 100% chemical-free substance.


Filed under chemistry365, Opinionated Orations, Science

6 responses to “The Definition of Chemical-Free

  1. Great post! I was glad you linked it to my post but even more it was just a pleasure to read this very smart exploration of the chemical-free issue. I happen to think that these little wars are very important in shaping people’s perspectives. Hope we win!

    • Thank you. It’s a topic that’s close to my heart since my high school days and became especially important when I was teaching first year university chemistry. Many students had a notion of chemical-free. It was a little depressing.

      I hope we win the war. It would be even better if we won it during the International Year of Chemistry!

  2. Stu

    Nice to see the anti ‘chemical-free’ effort growing. And apologies for the pedantry, I’m sure it’s just a slip of the keyboard, but DNA is not made up of amino acids… they make up proteins.

    • It is indeed the slip of the keyboard. Will be fixed straight away. Just don’t tell my biochemistry lecturers! They would insist that I sit through the lectures once more.

  3. Pingback: Chemical Free Chemistry Kit | Philosophically Disturbed

  4. Pingback: Chemical Free Naming and Shaming | Philosophically Disturbed

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