People often assume that all chemicals must either be harmful, toxic or unsustainably sourced, however there are plenty of naturally occurring chemicals that are not only non-toxic but are essential for all life on earth.
Let's start with the definition of a chemical:
‘Any substance used in or resulting from a reaction involving changes to atoms or molecules’. - The New Collins Concise English Dictionary
'Distinct compound or substance, especially one that has been artificially prepared or purified’. - The Oxford Dictionary
According to these definitions, almost everything around us is a chemical:
The air we breathe is a mixture of gases that are all chemicals.
The water we drink contains 2 atoms of hydrogen and 1 atom of oxygen combined together to form a water molecule - most certainly a chemical.
The soil we walk on contains countless chemicals, consisting of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and other minerals.
The food we eat, be it plant-based or animal products, all contain chemicals - even if grown organically - as chemicals are the basic building blocks of all matter.
Chemicals are all around us
Let’s take a lemon tree as an example. The tree itself is not a chemical, neither are its roots, leaves or the fruit. But, what makes the lemon tree survive and grow in the first place? Chemicals.
Trees and other green plants get their energy via photosynthesis:
Chlorophyll (chemical in the leaves) absorbs light (not a chemical) which then converts water (a chemical) and carbon dioxide (a chemical) to glucose (chemical that provides energy) and oxygen (a chemical).
Chemicals found in lemons 🍋
When you think of lemons, you usually think about their characteristic sharp taste and citrus smell due to the presence of citric acid. You might therefore assume that citric acid is a natural product and not a chemical. But what if you saw the name: 2-hydroxypropane-1,2,3-tricarboxylic acid. Would you still assume it’s not a chemical?
These two examples are in fact the same chemical: citric acid, described using its INCI (International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient), and its IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) name, respectively. Citric acid is an extremely useful chemical and is often used in cleaning products thanks to its limescale-busting qualities.
The smell of lemons is largely due to the high content of limonene (INCI name), or should I say 1-methyl-4-(1-methylethenyl)-cyclohexane (IUPAC name)? Again, subconsciously, you might think twice if someone offered you soap with the latter. Luckily, we tend to use the INCI name in cosmetic (and cleaning) products, but even these names can be complicated and misleading.
How do I know if a chemical is bad?
So how can YOU know what chemicals are toxic or made synthetically when you read a list of ingredients on the label of your favourite product? Unfortunately, the answer is you cannot really judge a chemical by its name. There are some general hints in ingredient names that you can learn to recognise, such as if the name contains ‘gluco-‘ it means it has something to do with sugars and will very often be derived from sugar cane or other plants (and thus natural). However, it does not mean it is completely harmless in all cases.
Another great example of natural chemicals are saponins; produced in many plant species for defence against insects. Some saponins have been used throughout history as soaps and are extremely mild to skin, however, other variations have been used to make poison arrows - again proving that not everything that is natural is non-toxic.
In summary, even though we wouldn't describe a plant as a chemical, we should acknowledge it is a collection of many chemical ingredients working together, if you look closely enough. While these are completely naturally occurring, they are still chemicals. What people often mean when they describe products as containing ‘no chemicals’ is that the product is naturally derived, or that it is non-toxic, or often both. However, there is no such thing as a ‘free from chemical’ cosmetic or cleaning product. And that is completely okay, because not all chemicals are bad for us, or the environment!
Chemicals to look out for in cleaning products
The word 'fragrance' can hide more than 100 different chemicals, some of them completely harmless while others can be purely synthetic and toxic, including phthalates that are known endocrine (hormone) disruptors.
Disinfectants and antibacterials can often have an adverse effect on the body, harming the ‘good’ bacteria in our bodies and in our homes. Check out my last blog on why we don't need antibacterial products to clean our home.
Bleach is one of the cleaning products that people tend to associate most with the harsh, chemically smell. Bleach not only harms the surfaces in our homes but it can end up in our waterways and impact local wildlife.