The number one question I am asked is how people can avoid chemicals in their cosmetics.
I always preface my response with the statement: "I think consumers should have access to well formulated, safe to use, and effective cosmetics." This is a statement I stand behind 100%. I am absolutely not a subscriber to the the "chemicals are bad" bandwagon that permeates the industry today.
Consumers have, by and large, been fed misinformation through over simplified headlines, reinforced by "expert" books published by authors who have no business offering pseudo science as fact.
Are there dangerous chemicals to which we can be exposed? Absolutely! (How many people reading this have any cleaning supplies in their homes?)
Does that mean your cosmetics will cause some irreparable health problem? Absolutely not. There is not one study proving it; not one documented case reported of, or even one causal link between, consumer cosmetics manufactured under current legal guidelines causing cancer, gene mutation, or birth defects.
As a consumer, you certainly have the right to choose your cosmetics based on what you think is the correct choice for you, and if that means not buying a product due to ingredients it may contain that is certainly an appropriate choice to make. I do the same with a great many products.
What I want readers to understand is that the word "chemical" is misused and has caused more fear of cosmetics than is warranted based on reality.
The majority of arguments, against "chemicals" in cosmetics are based on a lack of knowledge. A level of knowledge, equal to basic high school level chemistry, is all that needs to be employed to determine truth from fiction; truth which is easily verified and based on actual scientific fact.
All matter is made of chemicals.
Everything from the water you drink, to the herbal remedies you take as supplements, to the computer or mobile device on which you are reading this is comprised of chemicals. When someone says "they don't want a cosmetic containing chemicals," I am always quick to say: "There is no such cosmetic available."
A totally chemical-free life is impossible. In fact (and without any hyperbole), without chemicals, life would cease to exist within minutes.
Oxygen itself is a chemical, and no one would survive more than 1 or 2 minutes without it. The ability to convert oxygen into the needed elements for life is based in chemical uptake. Breathing is actually the act of your body being used as an electron acceptor to allow cellular respiration. This complex process requires glucose to release carbon dioxide, water and adenosine triphosphate to create energy to fuel the body. This entire process takes numerous enzymes and electron acceptors such as acytle coenzyme A and nicotine adenine dinucleotide to properly function.
I am using the full chemical names to make the points that:
a) the length of the chemical's name is no indication of toxicity
b) just because a chemical name may be difficult to pronounce doesn't immediately make the chemical itself dangerous
Consider these chemical names: retinyl palmitate, cyanocobalamin, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, and cholecalcifero. These are simply Vitamin A, Vitamin B, Vitamin C, and Vitamin D.
All chemicals can be toxic. Conversely, all chemicals can be non-toxic. Toxic is just another word for poisonous.
Even water can be lethally poisonous. If you ingest more than 6L of water in a 24 hour period, you would be at the toxic levels which, yes, can kill you - not from drowning, but from water poisoning.
The dose of any given chemical determines the level at which it becomes unsafe for human life. All of us are currently carrying non toxic levels of mercury, arsenic, cyanide, formaldehyde, aluminum, lead, and a host of other chemicals in our bodies - all of which have been maligned as "toxic." In fact, some of these the body actually produces of its own accord.
We are exposed to these chemicals, everyday, simply by living on the planet (they are all present in our biosphere are low levels) and there is absolutely no way to avoid them. Granted these chemicals can be fatal at even slightly elevated levels, but what's important to understand is what those levels are. This is the only way to assess if a chemical is indeed harmful to our health. The mere presence of a chemical, without measuring the toxicity level, is not enough to determine the risk of danger in using a product containing said chemical. There is no bio-accumulation at the levels which chemicals are used in cosmetics.
Here's another easy example: Cyanide is toxic at around a dosage of 50mg. A single apple seed contains about 0.6mg of cyanide. You would need to ingest 85g of apple seeds (1/2 cup, or almost 14 apples' worth) in one sitting to be exposed to enough cyanide to be fatal. Does that make the apple or the apple seed toxic? Only if you ingest enough (or, in other words get the toxic dose).
No chemical is inherently safe or inherently dangerous. The next time you hear or read about “toxic chemicals” in your cosmetics, ask two questions:
Knowing the answers, to these question,s is critical in evaluating the safety of the cosmetic. The mere presence of a chemical does not determine if the product is toxic or not.
"Natural" does not mean safe or better and "synthetic" does not mean dangerous or inferior with regard to chemical composition. To claim otherwise demonstrates a misunderstanding of the most fundamental concept of chemistry.
All matter is created by combining atoms. Molecules are formed by combining atoms, and the various combinations determine the molecule's properties and behavior. The process by which these atoms are combined is irrelevant to the molecules' properties. There is a myth that in a lab chemists create something out of nothing. This is impossible. Chemists always begin with atoms (elements) - these cannot be made from nothing. Whether combined naturally in the biosphere or synthetically in a lab, the overall molecule is identical in every way.
Natural or synthetic only determines where a molecule was created, not how a molecule will behave. As a side note, synthetic does not always mean artificial.
Thinking that something created in nature is automatically better than something artificially created in a lab (and not appearing in nature) is illogical on many levels. The concept simply feeds into the "nature fallacy." It is illogical to assume that only arrangements of atoms found in the biosphere are healthy choices while any created independent of the biosphere are unhealthy.
From a purely scientific perspective, the only way to defend that synthetic molecules are different would be to employ the nature fallacy, and that defense simply cannot not stand up under scrutiny.
To fully understand chemical properties is to understand chemical reactions. When elements are bound to each other in specific patterns, the individual properties of the combined elements change and become very different than those prior to the combination.
A good example is sodium and chlorine: Sodium is a highly reactive element, so much so it will explode if it contacts water. Chlorine is toxic at even extremely low doses.
However, when combined to create sodium chloride, neither of these statements remain true. By combining the two elements a new compound is created with its own unique properties. Sodium chloride is more commonly known as table salt. It would be grossly incorrect to state that table salt is dangerous because it contains sodium and chlorine.
The point is that the inclusion of a specific chemical in a cosmetic must be understood only as it relates to the other chemicals to which it is bound in the finished formula.
A full comprehension of the molecular structure of a formula is the only way to determine how the individual elements will behave. Singling out one part of a complete compound as a potential health risk is like stating "sodium is dangerous, and salt contains sodium, therefore salt is dangerous."
I have said it many times, and I will continue to say it: consumer cosmetics manufactured under the current legal guidelines are safe and effective to use. To state otherwise is simply fear mongering for the sake of publicity.
To consumers I say: buy formulas which you feel are appropriate for you, but also know the truth about how chemistry is employed to formulate consumer products. There is no cosmetics company actively looking for ways to poison their customers. And, contrary to what you may have read, consumer cosmetics ingredients are some of the most regulated, studied and reviewed ingredients available to the buying public today.