This post was originally published on the now sadly defunct awesome website The Toast in 2014. A reader suggested that I repost it on Lab Muffin… which I thought I did, but apparently that was all a fever dream. Here it is!
There’s soap in your mayonnaise!
As a scientist with a degree in chemistry, the surge in chemophobia over the last five years has been both baffling and frustrating.
While there are plenty of toxic substances that we should be well frightened of, there are also many safeguards against their use – by and large, the chemicals you encounter in your day-to-day life are benign, even the ones with the scary unpronounceable names and the ones made from substances that can literally chew your face off (sodium chloride, I’m looking at you). But it’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap of common-sense-based marketing. Scientific literature is not exactly reader-friendly, and scientists have a long history of alienating themselves from Normal People.
There’s one particularly painful tactic which anti-chemical lobbyists love to use, and that is the faulty generalization. You’ve no doubt seen it enough times already…
- “I had the flu vaccine and still got the flu, therefore vaccines don’t work.”
- “This chemical gave rats cancer in a study, we need to take it out of our shampoo/food/clothing!” (Despite the fact that the rats used in these sorts of studies are specifically bred to grow tumors like they’re going out of style, and to receive the amount the rats did, you’d have to mainline a swimming pool’s worth of shampoo/food/clothing every week.)
- “Mineral oil comes from crude oil, therefore you’re rubbing petrol on your face! Use our natural, organic face cream instead, because you know exactly what’s in it.” (Which is ironic, since natural products are notoriously variable in composition.)
- “It contains chemicals! Chemicals are bad.” (Except for the million or so chemicals that you unwittingly use every day to stay alive, like oxygen and water and neurotransmitters, one of which is pretty much MSG dissolved in water.)
To demonstrate how easy it is to make these grand leaps from benign facts to chemophobic, scaremongering argumentum ad Natural News, let me introduce you to my lovely assistant, surfactants, one of my favourite categories of chemicals (yes, chemists all have their favourite chemicals, it’s a disease.)
Chemicals can be roughly divided into two broad categories. On one side are the hydrophiles, which dissolve readily in water, and are highly charged, which lets them interact favourably with other highly charged things – common examples are water, salt, and ethanol (drinking alcohol.) On the other side there are lipophiles, which are oily, and tend to be weakly charged or neutral. The two don’t interact favourably enough to hang out together in a happy stable mix, and despite any amount of violent shaking, they invariably separate and go to their respective sides.