Beauty Bullshit: Chemical-Free Cosmetics

Since the 1980s, a popular hoax has been passed around. “Dihydrogen monoxide”, the individuals spreading this information warn, “also known as hydroxyl acid, is the colorless, odorless chemical. Its basis is a highly reactive hydroxyl radical, a species shown to mutate DNA, denature proteins, disrupt cell membranes, and chemically alter critical neurotransmitters. The atomic components of DHMO are found in a number of caustic, explosive and poisonous compounds such as sulfuric acid, nitroglycerine and ethyl alcohol. It constitutes the major component of acid rain. It is fatal if inhaled, and has been found in the tumors of cancer patients.

Every year, it directly causes thousands of deaths. Despite these dangers, it is not classified as toxic by either the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers For Disease Control. It is often used as an additive in junk food and even baby foods, and is found in common household products ranging from shampoo to coffee. It contributes to the spread of pesticides and remains on produce even after the fruits and vegetables have been washed.”


All of these statements are factually accurate. Dihydrogen monoxide, of course, is a benign chemical: water. Public reaction to these statements provides a powerful illustration of how scientific illiteracy and fear of chemicals work together to create unnecessary hysteria.

This worrying public perception problem also extends to products we purchase. For example, people are much more likely to characterize chemical products as “dangerous” than as “useful”. Even people who should clearly know better have fallen into the “chemicals are bad” trap. Science Magazine published an article stating that a process that creates fiber from milk proteins “uses no chemicals or pesticides.”

“Chemical Free”

As a result, it is not surprising that a myriad of cosmetics and skincare companies have embraced the term “chemical free” when describing their products.  Burt’s Bees sells a “Chemical-Free Sunscreen”.The Josie Maran website has the tagline “Eco-Friendly and Chemical Free”. Xenna offers a “Chemical Free Curl Relaxer”. Made From Earth boasts, “You will never find any chemical ingredients in our products”.  Skin Botanica suggests that their cosmetics are free of “toxins, chemicals, [and] artificial chemicals”. Simply Divine Botanicals, who claims to be “merging science with energy and love” (What?!) state that their products are “100% chemical free”. Pure Skn also states that their foundations are “chemical free”. There are now whole websites dedicated to “chemical free” beauty regimes. Major women’s magazines have endorsed switching to a “chemical free” beauty regime.

So what exactly is a chemical? Roughly speaking, the word “chemical” is synonymous with the word “matter”. Anything that is a physical substance is a chemical. So, just from a purely factual perspective, no cosmetic or skincare product can legitimately be “chemical free”. If a company makes that claim, they are lying to you. Period.

Oh no! Science!

Are products that claim to be “chemical free” any better? Obviously the term “chemical free” doesn’t mean anything because it’s an impossible-to-satisfy requirement. But words like “natural” and “safe” don’t legally mean anything either. They are arbitrary labels used for marketing purposes, not to give you any legitimate information about the product. Companies even intentionally use labeling that make their products seem more “natural”, such as Juice Beauty’s decision to use “willow bark” instead of “salicylic acid”, even though they are relying on salicylic acid (a component of willow bark) for their product to do anything. (The rest of the willow bark doesn’t serve a function. It’s just filler.)

General structure for a paraben.

People can give you terrifying-sounding studies on the supposed dangers of any number of products. For example, some purport the dangers of “natural” products, citing the 2004 study that found that lavender oil is cytotoxic. However, that study was done in vitro and hasn’t been replicated using any real live skin on real live faces. On the other side, “eco-warriors” discuss the supposed horrors of ingredients such as parabens in makeup products, pointing to another 2004 study that found parabens in a small sample of breast cancer tissue. Contrary to these warnings, though, further research has indicated that it is “biologically implausible that parabens could increase the risk of any estrogen-mediated endpoint, including effects on the male reproductive tract or breast cancer.” The American Cancer Society has a fantastic page dedicated to debunking this pseudoscientific myth. You can read more about it here. (So seriously, makeup companies, cool it with the boasts about your paraben-free products. You’re scaring people.)

The fact is, natural or unnatural, your makeup and skincare products, assuming they were purchased from legitimate brands, are probably safe.

Photoshop: the ultimate chemical-free cosmetic.

Can we conceive of a truly chemical free cosmetic? Hypothetically, if we extended our definition of a cosmetic, a chemical free cosmetic is possible. Some sort of device that manipulated light patterns, for example, could possibly be conceived of as a chemical free cosmetic. However, since we definitely don’t have that technology (at all) and since most people wouldn’t recognize that as a cosmetic, the “chemical free” label is, at the present time, totally meaningless.

The bottom line is that there is nothing wrong with using “natural” cosmetic products. But there is also nothing wrong with using “unnatural” products. If you find natural products work better for you, go for it! I am not
trying to stop you! But it should come down to what works well for your
skin, not for some misplaced and impossible desire to avoid “chemicals”. Chemistry is not scary. I pinky promise.

If you have any beauty claims you want researched in future Beauty
Bullshit blogs, feel free to leave them in the comments below. 

  1. Goddess of Negativity

    Great article! This is a huge annoying issue when buying beauty products as for them scaring people I think they do that on purpose so you buy their “free of such and such” products.

  2. Goddess of Negativity

    Love the new subtitle btw “beauty for critical minds” even better than the last one!


      Thanks! I thought it was a bit more accurate and descriptive.

  3. knh

    So much love for this. It kills me.
    There was just recently an article in the NYTimes about “natural pharmaceuticals” and an absolutely beautiful article with molecular pictures of the two different molecules that are actually the active ingredients.

    It makes me really sad to have graduated school and lost my access to academic journals to try and see what “natural” products actually do/have been studied.


      That’s a spectacular Slate article! Thank you for linking me over!

      Also, it’s not the same as unlimited access to any journal of your choosing, but usually a nice google scholar search + a quick glance at the abstract will tell you most of what you need to know…

  4. earthsapothecary

    what is a nice comment.

  5. blooonblack

    this is the best. i once got in an argument with an ex-bf’s mom about her recent change to be “toxin” and chemical-free and tried explaining that everyTHING has a chemical name.
    idk why people assume nature is the best and safest thing ever ever ever.

  6. Jen

    Love it. The term natural really bugs me because it’s such a subjective term. In my opinion soap isn’t natural because it’s made through a chemical process. You don’t just find soap laying around on the ground in nature. Yet everyone and their uncle labels soap as 100% natural! My only concession to the natural/no chemical hype is to list the ingredients in layman’s terms on the web site. Legally on the packaging I have to label everything by the INCI names.

  7. Aysha

    I was wondering if you would mind please writing a post about the risk or lack of with the presence of talc and bismuth oxychloride in cosmetics. Thank you very much!

  8. Aysha

    Hello again,
    Sorry for commenting twice but just one additional request: do you believe there is any validity to the claims that skincare products in jars as opposed to airless pumps, are chemically less stable and thereby not effective when applied to the skin?
    Thanks again!

  9. jlfittro

    Could you explain exactly what are parabens and why it is safe to find them stored in our fatty tissues?