Chemical free

Written by Jackie Wirz, Ph.D.

Recent appearances by a large glowing ball of yellow in the sky have prompted me to get a new bottle of sunscreen. An undisclosed number of years ago, I studied the structural mechanics of DNA repair enzymes. If there is one thing I learned from my research findings it is that sunscreen is a very, very good thing. (Note: here at OHSU, the Lloyd-McCullough lab researches many different aspects of DNA damage, replication and repair–check out their research here.) After much consideration I selected a product with several good attributes, including a high level of SPF, a low level of stink, and a waterproof formulation. OK, who am I kidding–I just selected a bottle that was on sale. It wasn’t until AFTER I got the bottle home that I found a unique attribute listed on the front of the bottle, an attribute that irritates me to no end. My sunscreen is “100% Chemical Free.

Insert eye roll and snort of derision here.

“Chemical Free.” What exactly is THAT supposed to mean? I hate to break it to manufacturers and marketers, but everything is made of chemicals. Everything. Chemistry, at its heart, is the study of matter; chemicals are pretty much anything that forms matter. Chemicals range in complexity from the simplest atom to complex solutions or systems that result in things like saline, human beings or even sunscreen. A chemical-free product would really be a waste of money since a box full of nothing isn’t terribly useful to most people (although, a chemical-free diet product does seem like it would be the ideal marriage of product marketing and truth in advertising).

Of course, products labeled as chemical free are not trying to boast that you are about to purchase a box full of nothing. These days, the phrase chemical free is generally used to imply that a product is safe, healthy, or environmental friendly. Inversely, this implies that chemicals are unsafe, harmful and will ruin the environment. The collective consciousness of the advertising juggernaut decided that chemicals are synonymous with man-made chemical compounds. Somewhere along the line, the whole field of chemistry got a very bad rap.

But nature may not be as wholesome as you think–although it is tempting to believe that disease is exclusively caused by industrially produced chemicals with unpronounceable names, nature herself can produce a stunning array of toxic substances. From belladonna to strychnine, poisonous snake venom to exotic mycotoxins, nature has always been capable of producing chemicals that can burn, sting, paralyze, and even kill. Conversely, synthetic chemicals are not always the prime culprit for mayhem and maladies. Synthetic production can oftentimes produce quantities of naturally occurring chemicals that keep cost low and allow cheap access to products like antibiotics. Chemists have created powerful drugs that help us fight of disease. And synthetic chemistry has helped create a myriad of everyday products from the tires on your car to the ultra-tech fabric in your athletic clothing.

Perhaps what bothers me most about the “Chemical Free” adage is less that it is nonsensical, but rather that it promotes a poor understanding of the nature of the chemical world around us. Chemicals, whether synthetic or natural, can be good or bad. We need to be a little more critical and understanding of the science that surrounds us, and allow our own intelligence to guide our decisions.


Jackie Wirz is an Assistant Professor and the Biomedical Sciences Information Specialist at the Oregon Health & Science University Library. She earned her Ph.D. from Oregon Health & Science University in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and has a B.S. from Oregon State University in Biochemistry & Biophysics. Her research career has spanned 15 years and has covered diverse topics such as transcriptional regulation, macromolecular structure determination, collagen biophysics and DNA repair. Her professional interests include information, data, and knowledge management, as well as the publishing paradigms of scientists.

Additionally, Jackie is a strong proponent of science outreach and volunteers with a variety of programs designed to promote scientific literacy. Jackie believes in evolution, salted caramel buttercream and Jane Eyre.