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I want my cosmetics chemical free.

August 11, 2019

It’s 2019 and despite the best efforts of both myself and the many other scientists out there who have continued to shout ‘but everything is chemical’ from the rooftops of labs right across this world, people still want to make cosmetics that are free from chemicals. Clearly something is being lost in translation, something or someone is failing.

While reading one of the many books that I plough through with my ever whirring mind (she says citing an AHA lyric from the 1980s) I came across a bit of Glaucon’s wisdom.  Glaucon was the older brother of Plato and, like Plato he lived in ancient Greece during 445BC.  What he said, that stopped me in my tracks was this:

“People care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality”

Now one could argue on the nature and meaning of reality but I want to just indulge myself by following the lightbulb moment that occurred in my brain on hearing that.

What if the word ‘reality’ was replaced by the term ‘best scientifically proven evidence-based guess or conclusion’.   Not quite as catchy but meaningful nevertheless.

What if ‘appearance and reputation’ were seen in the context of a group or market segment…

If that were true, people would sooner reject scientific evidence than leave the comfort and status they have achieved in their group.  As a somewhat more antisocial human than most I find that mind-blowing but I’m guessing that many of you are sitting there like ‘duh, yeh,  but of course’.

I always was a bit weird.

Anyway, this is where I’m going:


Have you ever read George Orwells 1984?  It has seen a bit of a resurgence of late thanks to some of the weird and wonderful ways that life has changed in this social media metropolis we now live in.  The term Groupthink was coined back then, tapping into something that Glaucon recognised just over 2400 years previously.  There is a good and relatively simple definition of it here on Wikipedia   and I think that our propensity for hanging out in specialist groups (or tribes) on social media is ripe ground for fostering and reinforcing this mentality however niche its focus.

For me to apply this to what I see happening in the cosmetics industry is very easy as every day I see and experience more evidence of the way groups shape the thoughts of the customers I interact with.  It started off as a relatively subtle thing, people would read something online in the privacy of their own home and then seek out an accessible professional to discuss it with, hopefully in a way that applied that reading to their situation.  In many cases the idea exchange was interesting and fruitful, I could add some context and value to the exchange on account of my professional experience being outside of the customers experience and the customer could give me some valuable insight in what worried them, what they cared about and what way they wanted to arrive at a conclusion.  This has since changed.  Things are much less enjoyable now that people rely less on solo ‘googling’ and more on group forum input.

These days we have a number of long-standing group spaces online where discussions take place.  In many of these cases the groups were set up by industry outsiders as a ‘self teaching’ resource, in other cases the groups were set up by industry insiders as a way of them forwarding their own businesses and professional opinions while ‘giving something back for free’ in the meantime.

These teaching resources are now intersecting with moral interest groups, groups that are focused on finding good vegan, palm free, organic,  simple and hand-made, artisan or trending skincare.   Teaching resource groups are informed and inform the moral interest groups and vice versa. Two, interconnecting circles that spin and turn around and through each other, setting their own orbit and reaching their own conclusions based on their own biases and world views. Because it is impossibly difficult to know what we don’t know or be able to judge the level of our grasp on a subject we tend to end up with groups being informed in limited and unchecked ways.

The online groups in which people belong have become their tribes. Tribalism is strong in the human psyche and we instinctively try to find everything we need within our own tribe rather than risk approaching others.  This gives our online group immense power, probably too much if you ask me, especially given the generalist and performative nature of many exchanges. However, people love them and feel vulnerable when they are exposed to information (and people) who challenge their group narrative.   Sometimes I’m one of these pesky, challenging outsiders, I’m the one saying ‘ummmmm, no, it might not work that way for you’.  

Social Psychology.

I am NOT a social psychologist and reading just one book that covers this topic does not make me suitably qualified to make conclusions about what I see with any validity other than that of my own experience.  So please, read the following with the naive fascination with which it is intended.

The book I read which included Glaucon’s quote was called ‘The Righteous Mind‘ by Jonathan Haidt and he is a qualified social psychologist.  He talks about how society sets moral standards and how the use of negative marketing and advertising that has been increasingly employed in the world, informs that. I have raised my concerns about this type of marketing  on many occasions but have never understood it like this before.  Now I know why my concerns never cut through…

Negative marketing such as that we see when we sell products as ‘free from’ helps to build two things in the eyes of the public – fear and disgust.

Disgust is a very powerful emotion, a gut feeling and something that is incredibly difficult to overcome.  If I can make you feel that something or someone is disgusting you will hear nothing they say and want nothing to do with their goods or services.  Being aware that some products may be disgusting to you means that we want to spend as little time as possible interacting with them,  this is what leads to the ‘free from’ list being the ONLY thing that matters.  The inner dialogue goes something like ‘I must first check if it is free from everything that disgusts me and only when I see that can I move onto what the product actually is’.  Emotive issues such as those concerning palm oil and veganism tend to trigger our disgust button. Disgust as an emotion tends to then trigger our justice instinct. We want to fight to stop this disgusting thing, we want to do something.

Fear is another powerful emotion that is somewhat sated by ‘free from’.  Fear of dangerous things with nasty consequences, of poisons and cancer and pollution and such.  While disgust mobilises many of us, fear tends to freezes us.  We don’t want to be investing brain cells in working out if a product is safe or not, we want to be told it IS safe.  Free from marketing helps to achieve that, in our eyes at least.  The overwhelm is so strong when fear is on the table and it’s easy to be scared of chemicals. Even as a person who is fascinated in chemistry I have lived on the same planet as you and have lived through very many bad chemical incidents. Nuclear disasters, environmental spills, cancer clusters,  factory malpractice,  environmental destruction, Frankenstein foods,  gross animal experiments, medicines that we thought would do good, that instead do harm. The list goes on.  It is easy to see how people with non interest in science as a whole and chemistry in particular can draw the conclusion that the world would be a better place without chemistry and opting for ‘free from’ products helps us feel like we are gaining some power back, even if we don’t really understand the details.

So how do we move beyond these gut feelings and have proper conversations?

Haidt’s book talks about how disgust can’t be diffused by reason and I’m sure that fear can’t either.  I feel that this is a key reason why we, as scientists failed in our attempt to reason the hate away.  Humans just don’t work like that as intuition (gut feeling) comes way before reasoned analysis (which may not come at all):

“Most people would die sooner than think- in fact they do so.” Bertrand Russell.

I have a great deal of sympathy for that as I too am human and I too have had fears and felt disgust towards people, things and situations, often without good logical reasons:

I suspect that Haidt is right when he suggests that the only way to work towards truth is to show love and compassion, to build bridges and strengthen human relationships between both sides of the debate in these cases.   Now this all sounds very nice and loved-up but it’s extremely hard to do.

I have witnessed several situations in the recent past where I’ve been asked a question, in person, and have attempted to answer it with scientific logic and some human kindness and warmth only to be met by a stone wall or even visible head shaking. I kid you not, I had a client the other day who brought in a product to show me that had ‘gone wrong’ in their opinion. When I said  ‘aha, well from my experience what you are experiencing with that mixture is completely predictable and not unusual at all’ the lady shook her head at me.  In that moment I had not only given her an answer that she was completely unprepared for, she simply couldn’t accept it and rather than engage with me further started searching her brain for ways to bolster her pre-conceived idea that she was right, that her product had gone wrong and it was the fault of the thing she’d purchased from me.   Arguing in these situations doesn’t help, in fact it’s pretty challenging to know what to do.  Sometimes seeing is believing and if I’d have had time I would have got out some ingredients and showed the client what I was saying but I didn’t have time and my previous article on this very topic was already unlikely to attract her as in that moment I was disgusting to her. I was one of THEM and she was one of US – disempowered crafter who the industry doesn’t value.  Even in giving the right advice and feedback I had failed. 

Building connections.

Haidt frequently mentions the book ‘How to win friends and influence people‘ by Daniel Carnegie, a book that I have an inner aversion towards reading to be honest.  I don’t want to read it as I don’t want to feel that my interactions with people are anything other than natural, for me.  I am yet to find any other facet of life in which my approach is classified as ‘normal’ so I’m fairly happy to leave the ‘winning friends and influencing people’ to chance too. But maybe I’m being unfair or maybe I’m scared of getting too many friends 🙂

A quick overview of the top tips in the book leaves me feeling that the book may not be as bad and formulaic as I was thinking: Be genuinely interested in people, smile, remember their name, make the other person feel important (sincerely) etc.  All good stuff.  So should all chemists be given this book when they graduate, so that they can spread their love to everyone, even while some of their products are poisoning rivers and causing trees to be burned down?

I think not.

Through writing this blog and doing the work I’ve done I have found many times when the ‘other’ side is, at least partly right and I am at least partly wrong.  The last thing that Haidt talks about is the Yin and Yan nature of both sides of an argument and I truly believe he’s hit the nail on the head there, mainly because it agrees with my bias and my experiences.  What Haidt is saying is that both sides rest on the same coin, both are valid, both are worthy, one isn’t better than another.

For me, I believe that scientists HAVE to engage more in slow, constructivist narrative-based dialogue with their audience about topics both big and small.  It’s important that we don’t just brush off a request for a chemical free product with an eye roll and a ‘but everything is chemical, what chemicals don’t you like today Sir?’ comment.   Maybe we should take a leaf out of Plato and Glaucon’s book and start more philosophical conversations with our customers and students.  Maybe we could all learn something, maybe we could all work together to construct a new and happier reality.

I think the main thing I’ve learned through this batch of reading is that, in humans, Intuition comes first, reason second.  Tapping into the intuitive ideas and feelings of another takes time, patience and love and I think that really is where we have to start.

So next time someone asks me for a chemical or anything free product I’m going to start a conversation along the lines of ‘Ok, that sounds interesting, let’s unpack what that means for you and I’ll help by adding some industry context’.  It may or may not change the world but it would certainly be a whole lot more interesting than arguing don’t you think?

Amanda x



8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2019 4:38 pm

    Honestly, it’s hard work being a scientist. At my age, approaching 70, I’m finding it harder. I use the words “all natural” as I figure a plant oil saponified is more natural than a synthetic surfactant. Oh well. It’s a big discussion.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      August 12, 2019 9:25 am

      Hi Mike,
      What I’m realising as I go, especially in a high-touch business like this, is that while I need to ‘do’ science like a scientist, I need to talk science with the skill and attention of a teacher and the background knowledge of a social psychologist. I’m formally studying teaching and am doing all I can to investigate the psychology part as I go around doing what I naturally do anyway and that’s observe and try to work out what it is that people want. It’s all very interesting but boy, I’m tired 🙂

      • August 12, 2019 9:48 am

        I have studied teaching (science). Plus, an interesting thing I did was study and get a certificate in TEFL. It was to counter my science lecturing. In teaching TEFL, almost everything you do is redeemable immediately by students. In science lecturing, no. Also, studied constructivism. A useful concept I thought.

      • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
        August 12, 2019 12:41 pm

        I am enjoying reading about constructivist teaching. There’s just so much to learn and while the interest is still there, I’ll keep on reading 🙂 Hope you are well.

  2. August 12, 2019 5:43 pm

    I loved this post , It really drives me crazy when i heard/read the phrase I only use Chemical free products as if that Kind of products even exists. I mentally insert an eye roll.
    My response always is and how about water? would you stop drinking it? and people always look at me with a puzzled face and reply: no, water is natural why and my answer er well you know that water is a chemical 🙂 .

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      August 12, 2019 5:50 pm

      Thanks for the feedback Maite,
      As I’m sure you will now know after reading this, eye rolling is not going to get us anywhere so we best just get on our compassionate hats and find out what the real problem is. I think that eventually people will start to understand the chemical world a bit better but it may take some more time yet. I also find it interesting how people making their own cosmetics are happy to buy and use chemicals that they would otherwise call ‘nasties’ but because they made the product, they feel it is OK. That says a lot about the lack of trust that they have in the scientific community. It’s sad but I think we can make it better 🙂

  3. August 18, 2019 4:06 pm

    Very interesting. Loved reading this. Great way of educating people

  4. Pocket Alchemist permalink
    October 22, 2019 6:12 am

    Thank for this! It’s a very needed wake-up call for me as I find myself on my high-horse a bit too often (although sometimes necessary when a brand is purposefully misleading consumers). I think taking a step back and rethinking your response to the “chemical free” requests may be all that is necessary. I do find that some are just not willing to have the conversation at all. The fear mongering is just out of control.

    Thank you again for this great article!

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