Sunday, 16 May 2010

Can we be Chemical-free?

In the good tradition of any scientific article with a question as a title the answer to the question posed in this title is no.

The reason for bringing this up is that in the Lifestyle section, published Friday, under the banner of Body and Soul, of the Otago Daily Times (ODT) was an article about a mother in Wanaka who was starting a cosmetics business from her kitchen.

Susan Helmore is not a chemist, a herbalist or a computer whizz - although she says she's fast becoming a "geek".

She makes lists, has an indexed bright-ideas book, Google is her "friend" - and there's peanut butter on her lap top.

Her passion is chemical-free skin-care and cleaning products.

I am all for people having good ideas and making a business and a living of their own abilities. But this is clearly not a good idea. Why I hear you asking, well let me explain.

The problem rests on the word chemical. Everything in the universe is a chemical, whether it be an element, a molecule or a compound. So water is a chemical, oxygen is a chemical, as is sodium lauryl sulfate (one of the main ingredients in most soaps and body washes). So for something to be chemical free it has to have nothing at all in it - in other words it is a vacuum.

This is a fallacy that comes up quite often from people who claim to be using "natural" solutions that are chemical free, both in the terms of cosmetics and cleaning products like here but also things like organic farming, which also claims to be a chemical free process.

Yes some people have allergies and will react badly to some chemicals, but that does not mean that chemicals are bad, and the are certainly not avoidable. Diagnoses like MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity) are rarer than even people who believe they have them think.

Substances like detergents and soaps need to contain certain classes of chemicals such as surfactants so that they can react with both the water and the grease, or else they will not work. So what ever the source of the chemicals be them synthetic or "natural" they still must perform the same job in the same way, and so will in all likelihood have the same interactions with the body.