Navigating the Language of Chemicals (Introduction)

A simple Google search for a product or service usually unleashes a flood of sources both denouncing and celebrating it. The chatter accompanying food, health, or beauty products/procedures is often intimately tied to the science of chemistry. Unfortunately, most consumers have only a minimal or nonexistent background in chemistry, so wading through the mess of propaganda can prove near impossible.

navigating the language of chemistry

Lately I’ve been keeping up with the formaldehyde controversy surrounding a “miracle” hair straightening product called Brazilian Blowout. This controversy exemplifies the confusion that chemistry tends to leave in its wake. As I’ve followed this misunderstanding play out on the interwebs, however, I keep noticing a disturbing knee-jerk reaction to the formaldehyde revelation, something along the lines of:

OMG it contains formaldehyde, you HAVE TO AVOID all hair products that contain any formaldehyde or ANY OTHER ‘HYDE’, everything needs to be all natural and all organic and CHEMICAL–FREE ! ! !

This opinion is nearly as extreme as the claim that methylene glycol is perfectly safe. Thus I’ve been musing about how the average consumer is supposed to deal with all the opinions that they’re bombarded with. No one wants to be irrational, but the majority of information available to the public whispers (or screams) “Draw a hasty, confused, fear- or hype-driven conclusion, NOW!”

Over the next week or two, I’m going to try to write a little series of posts on navigating the language of chemicals surrounding products or services. Maybe it’ll be helpful to someone, but at the very least I’m looking forward to struggling with these ideas for myself. Here’s the tentative plan:

Part 1: What is and isn’t a chemical?

Part 2: Myths, hyperboles, and buzzwords about chemicals.

Part 3: Reliable information is written respectfully.

These won’t necessarily be my next three consecutive posts, but they’re on their way. Meanwhile, here’s my take on the best way to get started researching the chemicals in a product:

Step One: Stay calm. Don’t get too excited about a product, and don’t get too freaked out about it either. Try to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to what you read.

Step Two: Be aware of the presence of buzzwords that could be distorting your perception of the facts. Many such words have negative or positive connotations that put a spin on a statement, whether intentionally or not.

Step Three: Try to figure out if there is legit primary research – like with controls, published in a respectable journal – that supports claims made about the safety/dangers of chemicals in a given product. Beware of claims that aren’t corroborated by data.

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13 Responses to Navigating the Language of Chemicals (Introduction)

  1. Adam L. says:

    Ah yes, “chemicals in my x” causing all sorts of problems.

    I fear that there’s not going to be a great paradigm shift anytime soon with regard to this phenomenon. I’m especially looking forward to being a physician, when I get to deal with patients like the one I saw while shadowing last week who didn’t think medical treatment for depression was a good idea because of all the chemicals.

    Looking forward to your posts!

  2. Matt says:

    Excellent, Sharon!
    Can’t wait for the rest.

  3. Elly says:

    Here, let me write Part 1 for you. EVERYTHING is a chemical. Even water!! H2O is a chemical!!1 ;)

    Okay, seriously, you’re doing a great service here. I’m a biologist/environmental scientist, so I’m not your average consumer, but I can see how someone without any chemistry classes at all can be so confused by ingredient labels etc. Even things like vitamins can sound sinister when one uses the chemical name. Tocopheryl acetate anyone?

  4. Thanks all, I will see what I come up with!

    @Adam – it’s so much a semantics thing! It’s like the term French fries – when they changed it to Freedom fries – as I recall from my U.S. history class in high school. Eventually Americans lost their aversion to the word “French”… maybe that can happen to the word “chemical” too…? Anyway, you can teach your patients someday to be more tolerant of some chemicals : )

    @Elly – You’ve basically written the Cliff Notes version already! Now I shall attempt to expand… ; )

  5. Glen says:

    Admirable, yet very difficult task you’re undertaking. I think you’re off to a great start!

    It doesn’t help the situation when the mainstream media adds to the hysteria. Dumbing it down is fine — but getting it wrong isn’t.

  6. Paul says:

    For the record, I would avoid eating or covering myself with most substances that contain ingredients that end in “-hyde”.

    • Quantity and/or concentration Paul. I can’t think of any particular IUPAC nomenclature suffix that I would bathe in and/or eat – can you? (Maybe one or two of the “-ol’s” but not categorically so, and again, not the neat substance : )

      • Paul says:

        Point taken, though I wonder whether there is a cut-off mass or percentage below which ingredients are not listed…or get listed as “natural fragrance/flavoring” (vs. what the molecules are). If something has a significant quantity of a -hyde (i dunno…>5 mg per serving), it’s probably not something I want to eat.

        In contrast, I find many -ides, acetates, and oils very tasty.

      • @Paul – Yeah I think you’re right that under a certain concentration the FDA doesn’t require many things to be reported. Like “fragrance” or “natural and artificial flavors”.

        … Trying to figure out what -ides you are referring to…

        On a related note, while checking the GCMS for leaks with a can of Dust-Off yesterday, I discovered the following words on the can: “Contains difluoroethane. CAS #75-37-6″ How cool would that be if all ingredient lists included CAS numbers?! (cool might be the wrong word, but you get the idea)

  7. milkshake says:

    Now I know why I refused to eat vegetables. My clueless parents did not realize that plants are full of chemicals.

  8. Genius! I love this idea for a post series. Although I also giggle when people say they’re “all natural, chemical-free” types, I am one of those consumers who tries to make sense of the labels on most everything I buy and use. For food, it’s easy enough to just stick to the produce aisles where the ingredients are WYSIWYG. But in the cosmetics/hygiene aisles, my brain starts to hurt. Wish I had a chem degree to make it all better. Your wise guidance will have to do :)

    (For what it’s worth re: your last point about evidence against certain chemicals, the Environmental Working Group has a Cosmetics Database that rates products based on their ingredients, with a breakdown of the ingredients’ known effects in lab trials. It’s a decent resource, although definitely far from perfect.)

    btw – if there isn’t already a light, funny, everyday book on chemistry for the layperson (that explains, for example, what exactly I slather in my hair every day, or brush my teeth with, etc.) that would be a great idea for someone to jump on. Heck, I’d buy it. I’m thinking a combination of “What Einstein Told his Cook” and “Your Inner Fish.” Anyone?

    • Astrid says:

      The thing about the EWG is that they look at the MSDS and then rate cosmetics based on the worst-case scenario presented in the MSDS. For example, if a certain compound is listed as being an irritant in a certain dose, then the EWG will give the whole cosmetic a bad rating for containing compounds that are irritants, despite the fact that said compounds are not present in concentrations that would cause irritation. It’s an alarmist tactic and a rather unfair one.

  9. I have to admit, the reference to formaldehyde being used in a hair straightening product makes me wince… a little anyway. My grandfather was a commercial seahorse and starfish fisherman in the 50′s and 60′s. We preserved everything we caught in formaldehyde before selling them to the souvenir industry. I can remember the smell to this day!

    George Thompson