Lisa Guerrera on Understanding Chemophobia: A Societal Fear Of Chemicals
Newsflash: Water is technically a chemical! And arsenic and led are naturally occurring. So, why is “chemical” bad, and “natural” good? This week, we go #inthemirra with Lisa Guerrera - a chemist, skincare entrepreneur (and Mirra reader!) to understand the history and implications of chemophobia: a societal fear of chemicals.
What is the mission behind your company See Thru?
We’re creating a widget that quickly allows you to decode cosmetic ingredients directly on the site you’re shopping on. Our goal is for consumers to have complete transparency when shopping online and for people to really understand the ingredients in their products before making a purchase. We want to make the industry a more friendly place!
How did you get into skincare?
I got into skincare at a really early age! It all started when I got my first few pimples at age 12. And I’m not talking about small little whiteheads - I’m talking about big, painful cysts that would stay on my face for months.
Those first few years of puberty we’re rough. Acne kept building on my face, so I turned to makeup to cover it up. Very quickly though, I realized that makeup wasn’t the solution and that if I really wanted to focus on getting my skin clear I needed to focus on skincare.
How did your passion for chemistry develop?
When I first got into chemistry, I thought that I would ultimately end up formulating cosmetics. I really wanted to become a cosmetic formulator with the mission to make products that truly helped people.
I graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in Chemistry. During my senior year of college, when it came time to write a thesis, I decided to dive into the education around cosmetic ingredients. I was fascinated by the fact that people fear chemicals and that chemicals are considered “dirty.” Beauty is propelled by chemistry, and chemistry is paramount to beauty’s success! As someone who loves chemistry, I really wanted to explore why chemicals are so broadly feared, and find ways in which we can fix the way products and ingredients are marketed towards consumers.
I’ve noticed that on social media specifically, a number of brands use language that fuels the idea that all chemicals are bad. Terms like “natural,” “chemical free,” “no nasty chemicals” assume that all chemicals are bad, which is simply not the case. Water is a chemical! And arsenic is a naturally occurring! So, why is “chemical” bad, and “natural” good?
During my research, I came across a phenomenon called “chemophobia” which became the cornerstone of my thesis. When I wrote my thesis two years ago, there was far less information on the topic than there is today. Actually, my paper was the first time someone wrote about chemophobia in beauty academically.
What exactly is chemophobia?
Chemophobia literally means “fear of chemicals.”
What’s interesting about chemophobia is that it is not an individual fear (like a fear of spiders). It’s a societal fear. There are a number of expressions that we use in our everyday lives that reinforce this idea that chemicals are bad. For example, we use expressions like, “this smells like chemicals,” or “this tastes like chemicals.” Everything is comprised of chemicals, but the world “chemical” is used as a dirty place holder for things that seem synthetic or foreign. And we see this sort of language being used across society.
When did chemophobia begin?
It started back in World War I with the birth of chemical weapons. There was a popular saying at that went something like this: “chemists have the ability to turn air into poison, but you’d ever know because it’s a colorless gas.” That is a very scary thought and immediately casts chemistry in a negative light, as chemistry has the power to magically turn something into poisoning without you even knowing.
Chemophobia gained steam as World War II broke out. And then in the 70s, during the environmental movement, a book called Silent Spring was released which had a huge impact on the way chemicals were viewed. The book highlighted the ways in which chemicals were leaking into waterways and into the air we breath. While the author raised a number of important issues, the word “chemical” became synonymous with the word “pollution.”
Chemicals came to symbolize greed, destruction and pollution, which resulted in a severe backlash and movement to go back to the way things use to be. People were looking for clean air, to get out of the city and to get back to nature and the natural world.
Are there any other reasons for why chemophobia is so pervasive?
There are several other factors that contribute to chemophobia as we know it. For one, chemistry doesn’t have an advocate the way other fields do. For example, there are a number of famous physicists like Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson, and even Nasa that advocate for physics. And biology feels friendly - it’s the discipline that people think of when they think of nature. Plus, it breeds doctors who help us.
Additionally, you can’t “see” chemistry the way that we can see rockets or surgery. It feels like magic before your eyes. Not being able to see chemistry happening means that we are less likely to understand it, and therefore more likely to fear it.
How did we come to fear the chemicals in our cosmetics?
One of the places where chemistry is absolutely necessary is in cosmetics. After examining a number of court cases against various cosmetic companies in the early days, it seems as though a lot of “bad” ingredients were used early on mostly because of the fact that there was a lack of understanding of how those ingredients would ultimately impact our health. For example, lipstick used to contain lead. In the early days of cosmetic formulation, lead was used as a colorant before we really understood the dangers around using it. Originally, lead was successfully used as a colorant in paint, so at the time, it seemed like a natural fit to use lead in cosmetics. In the past 50 years, science has moved quickly and we know a lot more today than we did back then.
Additionally, the rise of competition in the beauty industry led to the rise of ingredient secrecy. A number of newcomers would copy the formulas of brands that we’re investing in R&D. In an effort to protect themselves from copycats, companies like Estee Lauder began creating proprietary fragrances and ingredients to protect their IP. That sort of “secrecy” that developed became a natural place for chemophobia to take root.
A big misconception is that natural means better. It does not!
Totally. “Natural” is one of those words that means so much to the consumer but absolutely nothing when you break it down. There is no universal definition for the word “natural.” And the word “natural” has become such a buzzword that marketers will often do everything in their power to make sure that the word ends up on the label. Unfortunately though, because the word “natural” is not regulated, it’s pretty meaningless and really means whatever the brand or marketer wants it to mean.
It’s important to understand that natural does not equate to good. There are a number of ingredients from nature that can be good or bad, just like a chemical made in a lab can be good or bad. Unfortunately, organizations like the EWG propagate the tension between “natural” and “chemical” ingredients by saying things like “the average consumer is using X amount of chemicals everyday.” So what if you’re using chemicals? When you shower, aren’t you quite literally bathing in chemicals? I believe that vocabulary and dialogue matter a lot. I hope that as an industry, we can find a more universal definition around terms and claims so that consumers won’t be duped by marketing.
As far as language goes, my personal preference is to talk about ingredients that are synthetically derived versus naturally derived. Even if an ingredient is naturally derived, it can be extracted and processed in a way that strips it of its original characteristics. That is an important point for a consumer to know. I believe that in order to really see a societal change, the industry needs to change because that is where the problem started. And conversely, consumers need to better understand the ingredients they are using so that they can really understand what it is that they are putting on their skin.