What IS a chemical?


You at the back there! Get your nose out of that dictionary and pay attention!

What do we mean when we use the word “chemical”? It seems like a simple enough question, but is it, really? I write about chemicals all the time – in fact my last WhatCulture article was about just that – and I’ve mentioned lots of different definitions before. But I’ll be honest, some of them have bothered me.

I don’t often like the definitions you find in dictionaries. Lexicography and chemistry don’t seem to be common bedfellows, and dictionary compilers haven’t, generally speaking, spent their formative years being incessantly nagged by weary chemistry teachers about their choice of vocabulary.

For example, in the Cambridge Dictionary we find:
any basic substance that is used in or produced by a reaction involving changes to atoms or molecules.”

Hm. Firstly, “basic” has a specific meaning in chemistry. Obviously the definition doesn’t mean to imply that acids aren’t chemicals, but it sort of accidentally does. Then there’s the implication that a chemical reaction has to be involved. So inert substances aren’t chemicals? Admittedly, “used in” doesn’t necessarily imply reacts – it could be some sort of inert solvent, say – but, again, it’s bothersome. Finally, “atoms or molecules”. Ionic substances not chemicals either, then?

Yes, it’s picky, but chemists are picky. Be glad that we are. A misplaced word, or even letter, on a label could have serious consequences. Trust me, you do not want to mix up the methanol with the ethanol if you’re planning cocktails. Similarly, fluorine is a whole other kettle of piranhas compared to fluoride ions. This stuff, excuse the pun, matters.

Dictionary definitions have their problems.

Dictionary definitions have their problems.

Let’s look at some more definitions (of the word as a noun):

The Free Dictionary tells us that a chemical is:
“A substance with a distinct molecular composition that is produced by or used in a chemical process.”

Merriam Webster says:
“of, relating to, used in, or produced by chemistry or the phenomena of chemistry <chemical reactions>”

And Dictionary.com goes with the simple:
“a substance produced by or used in a chemical process.”

That idea that a chemical reaction must be involved somehow seems to be pervasive. It’s understandable, since that’s the way the word is mostly used, but it’s not really right. Helium, after all, is still very much a chemical, despite being stubbornly unreactive.

Possibly the best of the bunch is found in the Oxford Living Dictionary:
“A distinct compound or substance, especially one which has been artificially prepared or purified.”

Not bad. Well done Oxford. No mention of chemical reactions here – it’s just a substance. We do most often think of chemicals as things which have been “prepared” somehow. Which is fair enough, although it can lead to trouble. In particular, ridiculous references to “chemical-free” which actually mean “this alternative stuff is naturally-occurring.” (Except of course it often isn’t: see this article about baby wipes.) The implication, of course, is that thing in question is safe(r), but there are lots and lots of very nasty chemicals in nature: natural does not mean safe.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Sometimes people will go the other way and say “everything is chemicals.” We know what this means, but it has its problems, too. Light isn’t a chemical. Sound isn’t a chemical. All right, those are forms of energy. What about neutrinos, then? Or a single proton? Or a single atom? Or, going the other way, some complicated bit of living (or once living) material? In one debate about this someone suggested to me that a “chemical was anything you could put in a jar,” at which point I pedantically said, “I keep coffee in a jar. Is that a chemical?” Obviously there are chemicals in coffee, it works from the “everything is chemicals” perspective, but it’s a single substance that’s not a chemical.

Language is annoying. This is why chemists like symbols and numbers so much.

Anyway, what have we learned? Firstly, something doesn’t necessarily have to be part of a chemical reaction to be a chemical. Secondly, we need to include the idea that it’s something with a defined composition (rather than a complex, variable mixture, like coffee), thirdly that chemical implies matter – light, sound etc don’t count, and fourthly that it also implies a certain quantity of stuff (we probably wouldn’t think of a single atom as a chemical, but collect a bunch together into a sample of gas and we probably would).

So with all that in mind, I think I shall go with:

So what IS a chemical?

A chemical is…

(Drum roll please….)

Any substance made of atoms, molecules and/or ions which has a fixed composition.

I’m not entirely convinced this is perfect, but I think it more or less works.

If you have a better idea, please do comment and let me know!

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8 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About ‘Scary’ Chemicals

scaryChemicals. The word sounds a little bit scary, doesn’t it? For some it probably conjures up memories of school, and that time little Joey heated something up to “see what would happen” and you all had to evacuate the building. Which was actually good fun – what’s not to love about an unplanned fire drill during lesson time?

But for others the word has more worrying associations. What about all those lists of additives in foods, for starters? You know, the stuff that makes it all processed and bad for us. Don’t we need to get rid of all of that? And shouldn’t we be buying organic food, so we can avoid ….

….Read the rest of this article at WhatCulture Science.

This is my first article for WhatCulture Science – please do click the link and read the rest!

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Do you really need to worry about baby wipes?

Never mind ingredients, just give me a packet that's not empty!

Never mind ingredients, just give me a packet that’s not empty!

A little while back I wrote a post about shampoo ingredients, and in passing I mentioned baby wipes. Now, these are one of those products which you’ve probably never bought if you’re not a parent, but as soon as you are you find yourself increasingly interested in them. Yes, I know, reusable ‘wipes’ are a thing. But after dealing with a nappy explosion at 2am in the morning, I’m willing to bet that more than one parent’s environmental conscience has gone in the rubbish bin along with a bag of horror they never want to see again, at least for a little while.

But which wipes to buy? The cheapest ones? The nicest-smelling ones? The fragrance-free ones? The ones with the plastic dispenser on the top that allow you to easily grab one wipe at a time? Or not, because those bulky dispensers produce yet more plastic waste? Or just whichever brand you grabbed first at the all-night supermarket at some unpleasant hour that’s too late to be night yet too early to be morning?

All of the above at one time or another, probably. However, I’m going to suggest that one thing you can stop worrying about right now is whether or not your wipes are labelled ‘chemical-free’.

As I’ve explained before, everything is made up of chemicals. By any sensible definition, water is a chemical, and thus the claim that Water Wipes® (“the world’s purest baby wipe”) are “chemical free” is simply incorrect.

These wipes are not, actually, chemical-free.

These wipes are not, actually, chemical-free.

In fact, Water Wipes® aren’t even, as you might imagine, made of some sort of non-woven fabric impregnated with plain water. No, they contain something else: grapefruit seed extract.

Well, that sounds natural, I hear you say. It does, doesn’t it? Grapefruit, that sounds fresh. Seed, well seeds are healthy, aren’t they? And the word ‘extract’ is very natural-sounding. What’s the problem?

Let’s start with what grapefruit seed extract, also called GSE, actually is. It’s made from the seeds, pulp and white membranes of grapefruit. These ingredients are ground up and a drop of glycerin is added. Glycerin, by the way, is otherwise known as glycerol, or propane-1,2,3-triol. It’s naturally-occurring – it’s one of the molecules you get when you break up fats – and it’s usually made from plants such as soybeans or palm (uh oh…), or sometimes from tallow (oh dear…) or as a byproduct of the petroleum industry (yikes! – I wonder if the manufacturers of Water Wipes® enquired about the nature of the glycerin being added to their product…?)

But anyway, back to GSE. Like all plant extracts, grapefruit seed extract is stuffed full of other chemicals that occur naturally. In particular, flavonoids, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), tocopherols, citric acid, limonoids and sterols.

citric acid synthetic vs natural

Can you tell the difference?

So… in short, not chemical-free at all. Not even a bit. The problem here is that, in marketing, the term ‘chemical-free’ is used to mean something that only contains ingredients from ‘natural’ sources. But this is meaningless. Take citric acid, for example. (E330 by the way – E numbers don’t mean something’s deadly, either. In fact, quite the opposite.) There’s no difference between citric acid extracted from a grapefruit and citric acid prepared in a laboratory. They both have exactly the same atoms and the same molecular formula and structure. They both react in the same way.

They’d both be classified as corrosive in high concentrations, and irritant in low concentrations. This isn’t even “might” cause irritation. This is absolutely, definitely, positively WILL cause irritation.

Wait, hang on a minute! There’s a potentially corrosive chemical in the ‘chemical-free’ baby wipes, and unsuspecting parents are putting it on their baby’s skin?!


But before anyone runs off to write the next Daily Mail headline, let’s be clear. It’s really not going to burn, alien acid-style, through a new baby’s skin. It’s not even going to slightly redden a baby’s skin, because the quantity is so miniscule that it quite literally has no corrosive properties at all. It’s the same logic as in the old adage that “the dose makes the poison“.

This is where we, as consumers, ought to stop and think. If a fraction of a drop of citric acid is harmless then…. perhaps that small quantity of PEG 40 hydrogenated castor oil or sodium benzoate in most (considerably less expensive, I’m just saying) other brands of baby wipes isn’t as awful as we thought, either…

Indeed, it’s not. But what sodium benzoate in particular IS, is a very effective preservative.

Grapefruit seed extract is marketed as a natural preservative, but studies haven't backed up this claim.

Grapefruit seed extract is allegedly a natural preservative, but studies haven’t backed up this claim.

Why does this matter? Well, without some sort of preservative baby wipes, which sit in a moist environment for weeks or months or even years, might start to grow mould and other nasties. You simply can’t risk selling packets of water-soaked fabric, at a premium price, without any preservative at all, because one day someone might open one of those packets and find it full of mould. At which point they would, naturally, take a photo and post it all over social media. Dis-as-ter.

This is why Water Wipes® include grapefruit seed extract, because it’s a natural preservative. Except…

When researchers studied GSE and its antimicrobial properties they found that most of their samples were contaminated with benzethonium chloride, a synthetic preservative, and some were contaminated with other preservatives, some of which really weren’t very safe at all. And here’s the kicker, the samples that weren’t contaminated had no antimicrobial properties.

In other words, either your ‘natural’ grapefruit seed extract is a preservative because it’s contaminated with synthetic preservatives, or it’s not a preservative at all.

If you're worried, just use cotton wool pads and water.

You can always use cotton wool pads and water.

If you’re worried that baby wipes may be irritating your baby’s skin – I’m not claiming this never happens – then the best, and cheapest, thing to do would be to simply follow the NHS guidelines and use cotton wool and water. It’s actually easier and less messy than you might imagine – packets of flat, cosmetic cotton wool pads are readily available (and pretty cheap). Simply dip one in some clean water, wipe and throw it away. It’s really no more difficult or messy than wipes.

But if you’re choosing a particular brand of wipes on the basis that they’re “chemical-free”, despite the fact that other types have never actually caused irritation, you can stop. Really. Buy the cheap ones. Or the nicest-smelling ones, or the ones that come out of the packet most easily. Because NONE of them are chemical-free, and it’s really not a problem.

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