The beauty industry is oversaturated with hundreds of brands and thousands of different cosmetics, skin care, and hair care products, and there’s even more being introduced day by day. Since so many brands are trying to stand out on shelves, they employ clever marketing tactics to set their product line apart from the rest. In doing so, brands often mislead consumers using false advertising, unsubstantiated claims, and alluring labels.
One such label that has been co-opted by cosmetic and personal care brands is the term chemical free.
A large sum of consumers have become wary of what is in their personal care products due to a never ending flow of new research on various ingredients and chemicals in the products we use and consume, and their suspected harm to human health. This information quickly circulates on social media apps like Instagram and TikTok and before you know it, a new ingredient has been exiled from the skin care community.
To the untrained eye, the label chemical free indicates a lack of all those villainous ingredients, but does this claim have any legitimate meaning and significance? Keep reading to find out.
What does chemical free mean?
If you ever see a product labeled chemical free it might as well have no label at all. Chemical free has no FDA regulated meaning, so any product can claim to be chemical free without repercussions, but when brands use this phrase, what exactly are they trying to communicate to their customers?
Cosmetics companies don’t just want to ensure the safety of their products. They are also seeking moral superiority over other brands by being the cleanest brand possible, which is why labels like clean, natural, green, and chemical free keep popping up on labels and in the advertising for personal care products. This constant stream of marketing feeds into the newfound consumer obsession with clean beauty which prioritizes using only products that are free of ingredients that can potentially be harmful.
Chemical free skin care has garnered a lot of appeal since for decades skin care and cosmetic companies cut corners by using ingredients like formaldehyde, parabens, sulfates, and ethanol. Those harsh chemical ingredients have given the word chemical a negative connotation over time, but in reality it’s a very vague label that truly has no adverse implications.
What is a chemical?
Here’s the thing, in order for a product to be truly chemical free, it would have to – well – not exist at all. That is because almost everything is made up of chemicals. Water, salt, oxygen, humans, plants, face creams, shampoos, you name it, they are all chemicals.
Let’s define chemicals so we can get a better understanding. A chemical is a substance used in chemistry or produced by a process involving chemistry. Ok, got it. So what is chemistry exactly? Chemistry is the scientific study of the structure of substances and the way they react with other substances.
Basically chemistry is the science of what makes things exist, and chemicals are the things doing the existing. And so, all things (aside from energy like light, sounds, and heat) are chemicals and chemicals combine to make other chemicals.
Chemicals make up our very being so you should never shy away from using them on your skin, or fall for the anti-chemical rhetoric surrounding personal care products.
Natural Skin Care isn’t always better
In the world of greenwashing and clean beauty, the opposite of chemical ridden products are natural ones. Like “chemical free,” the term “natural” is not regulated by the FDA so the label can be used on anything.
Even if we define natural ingredients as ones sourced from nature, natural beauty products are not necessarily the holy grail sent to save your skin from all of its problems. Just because something grows from the ground does not mean that it is inherently better for your skin than those produced synthetically in a lab setting. For instance, you wouldn’t buy a face cream formulated with poison oak, right?
Natural does not equal better, and the idea that it does has led to a lot of skin care being formulated with plant extracts and essential oils which are often allergens and irritants. Some natural skincare ingredients like aloe vera, 100% pure shea butter, and soybean oil have a wealth of benefits for the skin, but synthetic ingredients like hyaluronic acid, peptides, and vitamin C are all praised in the skin care world.
Natural and organic products can be safe for the skin, sure, but sometimes the synthetic products are even more beneficial. Even if they were grown in a lab rather than the ground.
Why do brands use Clean Marketing
What it all boils down to is skincare brands and other personal care brands trying to profit off of consumers’ interest in taking care of themselves, and being conscious of what goes in and on their bodies.
The world is full of “do not use these ingredients” lists (we even have our own list of ingredients to avoid), and Prop 65 chemical warnings on everything from plastic cups to new furniture. Of course people are going to be cautious, but there comes a point where brands are just using fear mongering to sell their products.
Any time you see labeling along the lines of chemical free, non-toxic, or clean, don’t get caught up in the marketing, and do your own research to evaluate whether or not that product will be safe and effective for your body.
Other Misleading Skin Care LabelsChemical Free isn't the only label without a concrete meaning. Be on the lookout for these other misleading labels designed to sell the fantasy of clean beauty.
How to Choose the Best Skin Care Products
Yes, there are some harmful chemicals you should avoid in your skin care products. However, the best way to evaluate and choose a new product is not to buy based on the bold writing on the label, but rather, to learn how to thoroughly read the ingredient list. Having a basic understanding of what ingredients are, and how they work in tandem with one another will help you choose the right products without having to rely on labels and marketing to guide your purchase decisions.
The best skin care products will formulate a balanced concoction of both natural and synthetic ingredients based on what works best together for various skin types and concerns, not what will sound good on the label.
You can trust that Cleure will always have high quality, dermatologist-recommended skincare products that do not rely on baseless claims like chemical free. Dr. Stay and her team of cosmetic chemists are dedicated to using only the best quality ingredients with intention. And, yes, they are chemicals, but they are chemicals that are rated safe by the American Contact Dermatitis Society and Mayo Clinic, and formulated with sensitive skin in mind.
Trying to live better with a Balsam of Peru allergy. I just tried your toothpaste without Balsam of Peru. Thank you for making this toothpaste. I haven’t seen toothpaste like this in stores.
Dear Dr. Stay,
Thank you for having all of this information available to us ! You and I talked about the chemical free ,plant based etc. craze and how misleading it is.
Keep up the great work! I look forward to seeing more videos of you sharing how important our skin and oral health are!
I also think that instructions as to how to apply creams , lotions , and how seasonal changes can change what type of routine we have! I use the night cream during winter every night. But in Spring and Summer my skin doesn’t need it. So, one size doesn’t fit all. What’s important is that Cleure works beautifully in all seasons!
Thank you for all your hard work,
Mary Ellen Porter