Beauty Bullshit: Chemical-Free Cosmetics
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.”
|DON’T YOU KNOW THE DANGER?!|
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.”
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.