This is Part 1 of a 3 ± 2 part series on navigating the language of chemicals. Please see this earlier post for an introduction.
If you try to look up the ingredients in Suave shampoo – Google search Suave shampoo ingredients – the number one hit is a site that condemns the Suave shampoo brand, and instead directs you to read a review of their favorite “herbal shampoo.” In said review, the writer makes the following statement:
“I shudder to think now about how many chemicals I have previously soaked my scalp in.”
Now frankly, it’s impossible to imagine soaking your scalp in anything that’s not a chemical, unless you take extreme poetic license and cleanse your hair with daydreams or something.
The problem with statements like this is that all matter – stuff, substances, material – whatever you’d like to call it – is composed of one or more chemicals. Thus the wording of the above sentence is undesirable for a couple of reasons:
(1) It’s nonsensical – even water is a chemical.
(2) It helps perpetuate the misconception that chemicals are bad, and thus just adds to the confusion about chemistry.
What isn’t a chemical? It’s technically unfair to say that everything is a chemical. All matter is made of chemicals.
But not all is matter.
As implied above, daydreams aren’t chemicals, because they’re not something materialthough one could argue that daydreams are the product of chemical reactions in your brain, but let’s not go there. Abstract nouns aside though, to find scientific entities that are not made of chemicals you have to start digging into physics. Energy itself isn’t a chemical. Light waves and sound waves (both forms of energy), heat, electricity, and magnetic fields aren’t chemicals. Subatomic particles – like protons, neutrons, electrons and crazy things like the Higgs boson would not traditionally be called chemicals.
What is a chemical? Everything else. Anything you can put in a bottle or hold in your hand, anything you can breathe or see or ingest or touch is made of chemicals. Some things are single chemicals, such as pure water or oxygen. Others are mixtures of chemicals – such as shampoos. ALL shampoos.
Anything made of atoms can be called a chemical. Atoms are like individual Lego blocks. They are the smallest unit that anything can be broken down into without doing something crazy (like taking a blow torch to a Lego, or smashing atoms in a nuclear reactor). So if atoms are Lego blocks, chemicals are the structures you can build with them.
But even what is not a chemical is naught without chemicals.
Light, sound, daydreams, etc. couldn’t exist – or at least couldn’t be observed – without chemicals. A rainbow is not a chemical per se, but we can only see it (and it only exists) because of the way light interacts with water (chemical) droplets in the air (mixture of chemicals).
In conclusion, with all due respect to chemicals, the word “chemical” should be commonplace. It shouldn’t carry nearly the power that it does, as its meaning is practically on par with “stuff”.