Chemical Conundrum

Ask the average person on the street what comes to mind when they hear the word "chemical" and you are likely to get responses varying from the mildly apprehensive to the downright antagonistic. Rarely will a person look at you and respond, "Everything." As Michelle Francl, professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College, says in one article, "To the general public, the word 'chemical' has come to mean a toxic contaminant, not a medicine capable of saving a half-million children’s lives. Forget telling people that everything is a chemical." In today's society where people put an enormous value on healthy and "natural" living, eating, cleaning, and more, chemicals seem to be getting the "toxic" label slapped on them at every turn. But is this terrible label justly deserved? Many individuals seem to think so, especially those that have gone towards what they perceive to be a more natural, healthier lifestyle. To a great number of this population, anything cooked up in a lab is automatically suspect, and most of those substances can be disregarded as bad for your health because they are ultimately "unnatural" and toxic. One example of such a mentality is below:

Ditch the d*** chemicals. No more benzoyl peroxide. No more salicylic acid. No – stop it – no. I used to be addicted to these chemicals – my skin actually seemed to build up a tolerance to them, so I’d have to use more and more to see any results at all. But that all changed once I had a little revelation. Not only are “skin-clearing” chemicals like these incredibly drying, they’re also… chemicals! They’re toxins. As soon as you put them on your skin, they’ll be absorbed into your body for your liver to process and get rid of – likely in the form of acne – which is essentially the whole reason you’re using them to begin with. A vicious cycle.

This is a quotation taken from a website that I was investigating because of its natural remedies for various ailments, including, as the passage above mentions, acne and facial breakouts. Is it possible that this woman was correct in her theory that the chemical "toxins" she was putting on her skin were ultimately causing more acne in the long run as her body tried to get rid of them in any way it could? Yes, it is possible; although, I will say that without further scientific testing, her claims are ungrounded and that it could be that only she was having this bad reaction to the acne formula. It seems to me that there is some sort of revolution against the chemicals we have used for decades in our daily lives. Using a shampoo with sulfates? Who does that anymore? Now it's good to use sulfate-free formulas for the health of your hair. (I even ran across one natural blog that made the claim that the sulfates in your shampoo were carcinogens because they were absorbed so easily through the skin. As far as I have been able to find out, this is not true.) Still eating that food with high fructose corn syrup? Do you really want to kill yourself or your children at such an early age? And remember, folks, if you can't pronounce the name on the bottle, or aren't sure what the name means, then don't use the product!

Of course, there is an obvious problem with this mentality. As mentioned earlier, everything on this earth is a chemical. Your body itself could not function without chemicals and chemical processes. The very water you drink and foods you eat are made up of chemicals that your body needs to function. Are all of the chemicals exactly what your body needs? Of course not. But the majority of them probably fall into that category. And as for the statement that you shouldn't be using products with chemicals that you can't pronounce, well, let's see a little demonstration of that mentality in action.

I remember one time in elementary school science class when the textbook we were using had a section describing a very dangerous chemical – dihydrogen monoxide. Any chemist worth his salt already knows what I'm referencing in this example, but as an elementary schooler who had not had lessons on word parts of proper chemical names, I had no clue what the chemical was in the example. All I knew was that this thing was fatal to humans in sufficient quantities, could corrode metal, was the most powerful solvent known to man, and sounded pretty awful overall. The class was then asked what should be done with this dangerous chemical. Some of us said that it should be regulated carefully but still be used for appropriate purposes, a very small portion said that it should be banned entirely, and another portion said that it should be completely unregulated. The class was in for quite a shock when the teacher informed us that this dangerous chemical was something that we encountered on a frequent basis every day. Water! The chemical name for water, dihydrogen monoxide, makes it sound like a frightening man-made chemical, when in reality, it's something that is essential for life. Can you picture a person picking up a bottle of water to check the ingredients and seeing that it contained dihydrogen monoxide? I'm quite certain they would drop the bottle as fast as if they had been scalded, despite the fact that the bottle really only contains good old water.

Imagine what other substances might be demonized due to this erroneous way of determining whether a compound is "natural." For instance, coconut oil is widely touted now by the natural community as a fantastic oil to use for just about anything, from cooking, to massage, to hair treatment. But what if you just use the names for the individual natural chemicals found in the coconut oil as a whole? Caprylic acid, decanoic acid, lauric acid, myristic acid, palmitic acid, and oleic acid certainly would not sound all that great to people who have been instructed to not use a product if they can't pronounce its ingredients, since most of the fatty acids naturally found in coconut oil sound as though they were concocted artificially in a laboratory.  And what about some of the most popular essential oils?  Lavender contains a plethora of monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, alcohols, esters, oxides, aldehydes, lactones, and coumarins, all of which occur naturally in the plant and nearly all of which have names that the majority of people would probably have difficulty pronouncing or recognizing.  (I mean, who is going to look at 2,6-dimethyl-37-octadiene-2-ol-6-yl and assume it's one of the chemicals naturally found in lavender?)

Some might look at this post and think that I'm simply bashing the position of those wanting to include more natural substances in their lifestyle. This is not true. As a massage therapist and aromatherapist, I appreciate more natural ways of doing things and try to implement them in my own life, but I also realize that not everything that is considered a "chemical" according to the popular definition is actually bad for us. My point is, don't judge substances solely by the chemical compounds listed on the labels because, as already stated, everything is a chemical. You cannot escape that fact and still live, because biological processes can only occur when the proper chemicals are in place. Now, obtaining the right chemicals for your biological processes is a different story, but don't let a confusing scientific name put you off purchasing your favorite shampoo. You never know.  It might just contain coconut oil in disguise.

(Also, the below is just fun satire and not meant to be seriously critical in any way of those who drink kale juice or related beverages, but point three is especially relevant to this post.)


Clickbait Chemistry

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