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Are We Silently Suffering from Chemophobia?

Posted on December 4th, 2015 by in Chemistry


As a chemist you work with chemical compounds every day studying, mixing, separating, modifying. You know that we are made up of chemicals, and that if we zoom in close enough we will be visible as clusters of proteins, lipids, sugars, some metals and nonmetals. You know that a polypeptide is a sexier name for protein and triglyceride is a fancy sounding fat. A non-chemist would get a bit uneasy seeing hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde on any hand lotion label, even though it is a very common fragrance used in cosmetics. But how many people know that?

It seems that media and whoever wants to sell something, will angle the wording so chemicals play exactly the role they want in their message. And more often than not, it will be the bad character part.

Have you seen adverts of chemical-free nail polish, body lotion or shampoo? I guess what they mean is that they are “free” from synthetic chemical compounds and even then it is almost impossible to create a cosmetic product without adding at least a bit of pure, synthesized ingredients. So why would the manufacturers want the public to see the products as “chemical free?”

There is definitely a misconception that synthesized equals bad, artificial and dirty. It is amazing how things have been turned on their head. Especially in healthcare, pure and synthesized compounds are much better than natural and isolated ones. Pure and synthesized will be contaminant free, with no molecules interfering or able to cause some sort of additional side effect, with full control over its stereochemistry, pH, you name it!

Chemophobia is definitely running wild in society. It does not cause public commotion, but it is quietly fed by the fear-creating mass media and smart marketing campaigns of companies labeling their products as “safe” and “natural.”

I do not support censorship. Anyone has the right to voice their views. At the same time if you make your opinions or claims public, you should take the responsibility for it. If your product claims to be chemical-free you should be able to prove it. Ditto if your newspaper claims that a certain substance is harmful. Those who push those ideas forward know how well they resonate in the public and, in my understanding, this is abuse. False claims are clearly applied to reach a certain goal, whether it is to increase sales or visibility. And please don’t tell me that a cosmetic manufacturer does not have someone on-board who fully understands what a chemical compound is…

I love ‘A comprehensive overview of chemical-free consumer products’ by Alexander F. G. Goldberg and CJ Chemjobber. It’s blank.

On another note, maybe we should actively give new compounds more cozy nicknames? What about calling hexyl cinnamaldehyde – chamomile breeze, or benzyl alcohol – the fragrance savior. People do feel better taking an aspirin pill rather than acetylsalicylic acid tablet, or ibuprofen instead of isobutylphenylpropanoic acid.

In the end “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

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