17.11.14

Can we claim a skincare product to be chemical free?


I find natural and organic skincare fascinating, a never ending journey of discovery and education. In my eyes, mainstream beauty (the stuff normally found in Boots/Superdrug) was never this exciting. Bloggers and brands show great passion in their aim of living a "greener" lifestyle. I am always learning and my opinions are forever changing and evolving. When I first started trawling the internet looking at ingredients and natural skincare, I noticed it was popular to advertise products as "chemical free or non toxic". It was (and still is) a blanket term referring to cutting out SLS, parabens, petrochemicals and similar ingredients that raise concerns. I always felt that unless you are following a holistic lifestyle this phrase probably means very little. It requires you to have an understanding of certain ingredients.

I recently questioned Human & Kind (on Twitter) on their use of the term "chemical free". You can see the conversation we had below.

Can we claim a skincare product to be chemical free?

I appreciate the limitations of twitter and 140 characters is restrictive but Human & Kind also use the term on their website (it's right there on their home page). Of course, they are not the only ones doing this but for the purpose of this post they drew the short straw as my example. I'm sure that will come back to haunt me. I could spend all day picking apart their ingredients. Yes, products do contain ingredients of natural origins, like aloe vera or shea butter but can you really claim "chemical free" when I spy ingredients like Butylphenyl methylpropional (a synthetic liquid with a floral aroma) or Parfum? Lets not forget water is a chemical.


I am aware that the environment around us and our bodies are made up of chemicals. Ingredients that are derived from natural sources can often go through laboratory processes. One example is Cocamidopropyl betaine which is derived from coconut but classed as a synthetic surfactant. 

As for “toxic free or non toxic”, Alex from Skinsmatter.com, made an interesting point in a recent article (link), “What too many appear to forget or ignore is that toxicity is not a characteristic of a chemical, but of a chemical at a specific dose.” That sentence pretty much sums up why I think marketing non toxic is a grey area. Even natural ingredients can pose health risks, not all mushrooms are safe to eat and sunlight can cause cancer.

I would like to see companies drop the tag lines "chemical free and non toxic". I would rather we turn our attentions to ingredients that matter, the ones that benefit our skin and are better for the environment. I am perfectly happy for companies to mention that products are free from synthetic ingredients and identify which ones they avoid. You'll often see me referring to "undesirable ingredients" not sure if that works for marketing but I am comfortable it is suitable for blog posts.

Can we claim a skincare product to be chemical free? For me the answer is no. I will leave you with this food for thought. 
ingredients of all natural blueberries



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20 comments:

  1. A very valid and well-written post Sarah. I agree with you regarding the terms chemical free and non toxic are somewhat misleading, especially when you're not familiar with what they actually mean since as you correctly said, even natural ingredients are made up of chemicals. Once again, it comes down to asking questions and being discerning which isn't the easiest with confusing ingredients lists but it's the only way to learn! I really enjoyed reading this post Sarah. xx

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    1. Thanks Nic, I'm glad you found this an enjoyable read. It's easy for those in the know to take for granted the meaning of these common phrases but if we want to expand outside of the "green" community we need to remember others may critic or not understand :)

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    2. Absolutely. I am definitely guilty of not expanding my thoughts entirely in my blog and your post has reminded me of the responsibility to do so! Especially if we want to avoid misleading those who aren't so familiar with the green beauty community.xx

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  2. Yes, undesirable ingredients was a good term I think!

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    1. It's the one I'm sticking with for the time being as I think it works best for me and if readers want an explanation I am more than happy to assist :)

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  3. Isn't everything a chemical? As in even water is a chemical? I give you this blog/opinion as a reference: http://icanhasscience.com/chemistry/what-is-and-what-isnt-a-chemical/

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    1. Thanks for the link. That was the point I was trying to make that everything around us is a chemical. I thought the blueberries poster was a good demonstration of this :)

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  4. Chemical-free is an expression that I never use in my blog and does not have much meaning for me. This expression has been initially and unfortunately wrongly used in the natural and green world to defend the use of "un-beneficial" and unwanted ingredients for the skin.
    it is also important to point out that there is a vast arrays of chemicals that are naturally produced in the body/environnement and are not at all harmfull. I hope to explain that in a post sometimes!
    Nice post Sarah. x

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    1. I hoped to demonstrate that chemicals naturally in environments with the blueberries image. I have used chemical free in the past as a short handed phrase but it's very clear to me it's not appropriate that's why I wrote this post. I look forward to reading yours :)

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  5. Someone said to me this weekend: what did our ancestors call organic food? The answer is food. So too, what do we use in products that sit on shelves? Chemicals. Not all are toxic and harmful though. I love this post and love the distinctions that you make. Honesty and integrity in a company is a value to me. If they are misleading the consumer in one area, perhaps they are doing so in other areas too. Or perhaps they are not careful about their marketing claims which sends another message as well. Thank you for calling this to our attention.

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    1. I love that question about organic food, very true indeed. I agree with you about raising questions in your mind about the integrity of a company. I wasn't impressed with the rather blunt attitude I received on twitter.

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  6. Thanks for the mention Sarah. For us at SkinsMatter.com it's all about specificity - i.e. naming the 'free from' attributes. 'Free from synthetics' is certainly an improvement, and I don't object it to it per se, but I do think it's potentially misleading to some - I'd rather drink synthetic vitamin C than non-synthetic poison ivy juice .... I'm given to understand that, occasionally, synthetic but 'nature identical' materials are used in natural skincare....

    It's really tricky. We've used 'free from undesirable ingredients' too - but again, what's undesirable to one person, may not be to another - so it's probably imperfect. There's no 'umbrella' term which is ideal, I don't think.

    My other issue with the H&K tweets is the assumption that natural is necessarily good for you. The ivy example above should remind us it isn't. Another point is that it very much depends on the individual. Some people react horribly to natural fragrance allergens present in thinks like natural cinnamon oil, natural lemon oil and other natural oils.

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    1. I agree it's a tricky area and I see how "undesirable ingredients" may not suit. I hadn't thought about what H&K said re: natural being good for you because of course you are right, not everyone can handle natural ingredients.

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  7. I really enjoyed this post Sarah. Too many people associate 'natural' with 'harmless', mostly due to the marketing tactics of companies who aren't actually natural at all! I think true green beauty aims to step away from synthetically produced chemicals, and towards those beneficial ingredients which nature readily provides. We need to stop standing science and green beauty against each other and treating 'chemical' as a dirty word to be avoided. As far as I'm concerned we should be avoiding synthetic chemicals and embracing the beneficial and healing natural ones :)

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    1. Chemical doesn't need to be a dirty word but I think it needs to be used in the appropriate context. I agree the focus should be more on the beneficial ingredients. Interesting point you have raised that the "greenwashers" are the ones who are perhaps more to blame for the chemical free phrase which I am speaking out against.

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  8. Good piece Sarah. This is also important: 'Chemical toxicity is a sliding scale, not black and white – whether a chemical is naturally occurring or man-made tells us nothing about its toxicity.' It's convenient for us to brand everything that's not natural as bad, but this is way too simplistic.
    http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/SAS_-_Natural_vs._Man-Made_Toxicity_FINAL.pdf

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    1. Thanks Polly, it's such a complex area I've only just touched the surface in this blog post :)

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  9. Absolutely love this point. You are absolutely right. When I see a company promote something as "chemical-free" I automatically think they are green-washing or simply not very educated about what a chemical is. xx

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    1. took me a while but I've come around to that way of thinking, definitely more inclined to question a company using the term "chemical free"

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