The advance of the chemical-free sciences

Chemist have long complained about the use of the term ‘chemical-free’ in marketing, particularly when used to promote organic produce. To bolster our standing, and to sure up the chemical industry, we go one about everything containing chemicals and hence  how ‘chemical-free’ is a meaningless term.

The veracity of the anti-chemical-free movement is highlighted by continuing complaints to the advertising standard agency on the grounds that ‘chemical-free’ is a misleading term. None of these have not been upheld. Meanwhile campaigners have continued the fight by produced numerous posters detailing the chemical composition of natural products, apparently to highlight the absurdity of the term.

However, there is a growing group of dissenters on the other side of the fence. They believe it is perfectly possible to manufacture a ‘chemical-free’ product. Not only have they long been developing such materials, but they have been slowly drip feeding their findings into the scientific literature. The result is that  there is now a significant amount of material that can no longer be ignored by the mainstream. Almost 4,000 peer-review papers exist reporting the existence of chemical free products and these include publications from the American Chemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry.  Furthermore technical advances have lead to many patents describing chemical-free methods, thus demonstrating practical applications of the science and how it can be turned into workable technologies, all without the need of chemicals.

These findings must now surely lead the  Royal Society of Chemistry to deliberate on now it is going to distribute the  £1 million it offered  for a verifiable chemical free product. Used wisely the money could fund research into further chemical-free technologies.

Clearly the chemical-free sciences are growing, and there are claims that it may well be the scene of future groundbreaking technologies. Its bound to represent the next big idea or buzz word, to sit alongside nanotechnology, synthetic biology and homeopathy in newspaper columns and grant applications alike. So maybe the RSC should consider using its £1 million to fund a new Journal of Chemical-Free Chemistry, plus related conferences so that this up-and-coming field can blossom out in the open.



  1. Or maybe Wiley can get in on the game too with ChemFreeChem

  2. I see what you did there 🙂

  3. There’s plenty of chemical-free products out there, the ones which basically consist of advice, for a start. I claim the money.

    I think this needs to be handled carefully. There are clearly multiple meanings for the word “chemical” and we should be able to accommodate that. On the lifts and office doors in my current lab it says “no chemicals.” The cafe at my old lab had a sign in the kitchen warning against mixing chemicals. We’re all chemists, but we know full well what it means. Yes, it’s imprecise, and in marketing it’s about as meaningful as “delicious” but it’s not the only word with multiple meanings. How about “organic”?

    The trouble with complaints against this usage is that they mainly make the scientists look like arrogant know-it-alls looking down on the plebs. And since this is about making chemistry more acceptable to the general public, it can be an own goal.

    • Multiple meanings is fine, but in the case of ‘organic’ the meanings are obviously distinct. However with ‘chemicals’ it really isn’t so clear. You say that as a chemist we know full well what a sign like “no chemicals’ means. But I really don’t.

      When do the washing detergents (which some of my colleagues formulate here) become ‘chemicals’ that aren’t permitted in your lifts? And when do the cooking oils (that we also develop) stop being ‘chemicals’ and are then allowed to be mixed in the kitchen?

      • Easy answer: when you don’t have to order them from Sigma Aldrich but can buy them in the supermarket!!!


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  5. Good point, Mark. With the influx in “organic” living ideals, we are seeing advertisements for “chemical-free” products all over the place, from cleaning products, to laundry detergents, and even food. But, can something truly be “chemical-free”? And is having chemicals always a bad thing? The definition of a chemical substance is a form of matter that has constant composition and cannot be physically separated without breaking chemical bonds. One of the most basic (and common) “chemicals” is water. It’s in so many products that are still being labeled “chemical-free”. Now obviously I know that’s not exactly what they’re getting at when labeling things, but it’s still incorrect, in my opinion, to be doing so. People just need to do their research and look at labels closely if they really want to be purchasing “truly organic” products.

  6. Could this relate to products such performance enhancing supplements??? Where companies constantly lie about their contents and the illegal chemicals used to make these products.

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  8. Aubergine Bellen says:

    Thank you! It drives me crazy when companies claim their products are “chemical free.” So they’re pure energy? Because all matter is made of chemicals. Or their food products are “organic.” ALL FOOD IS ORGANIC OR YOU COULDN’T EAT IT! #CarbonAtom

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