Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

A chemical-free paper

Back in April of this year, a manuscript popped up in our submission system from two chemists we know well from Twitter/the chemistry blogosphere — Chemjobber and Alex Goldberg. The paper, entitled A comprehensive overview of chemical-free consumer products is perhaps best summarised by quoting (with permission from the authors) from the cover letter that came with it:

“We have completed an exhaustive study of common products that are marketed as ‘chemical-free’ and have prepared a detailed analysis of those products that are appropriately labeled as such. In brief, there aren’t many. In briefer, see the body text of our manuscript. We believe that the popular use of the term ‘chemical-free’ is of great interest (and of even greater malaise) among chemists of all backgrounds, that our findings are generally applicable and our analysis robust enough. In addition, though this topic is frequently discussed in many circles in the chemistry community, no peer-reviewed study to our knowledge has been reported on this topic at this length. For these reasons, we consider Nature Chemistry to be the appropriate journal for publication of our manuscript. We hope that this article serves as a practical resource for chemical education and science advocacy and that the examples described therein provide useful guidance for appropriate marketing and labeling practices.”

Chemjobber and Alex go on to suggest who would (and would not) be appropriate reviewers:

“As potential referees from a cross-section of the field of chemistry, we propose Dr Carmen Drahl (Chemical & Engineering News), Dr Derek Lowe (Vertex Pharmaceuticals), Prof. Paul Bracher (St. Louis University), and the Chemical-Free Bear (On Twitter somewhere), all of whom are experts in the field of chemical-free chemistry. We request that you exclude as possible referees the editors of the Chemical Free Kids Facebook page, and all of the 3000+ individuals who have ‘Liked’ it.”

Because we still have print copies of the journal, we figured that we couldn’t publish this paper in the journal itself as that would have meant using chemicals… and that just didn’t seem right for a chemical-free paper — so alas, it didn’t make the cut. That said, however, we don’t get submissions like this every day… ones that first make us laugh and then make us think, so we thought long and hard about what we could do. With many thanks to our production team for assembling the PDF file, we’ve decided to post the manuscript here on our blog, in what is essentially Nature Chemistry format (just click on the image below to download the full pdf). If you feel like reviewing the manuscript, please leave your chemical-free comments on this blog post.

chem-free paper


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    David Pryce said:

    The beneficial active ingredients of homeopathic ‘medicinal products’ could be on the list. Consumers should know what they are paying for!

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    CA Palma said:

    A comprehensive view of chemical-understanding-free consumer products: Content to include all contemporary economy-driven research?

    The original piece is hilarious. Yet, unfortunately, this is a serious topic. Society urges for a labeling method which helps identify consumer products as potentially dangerous. Not because they have been proven as endocrine disruptive, teratogenic, etc., but because they have not been proven to be. Presumption of bio(chemical) innocence is irresponsible. We own it to science and to humanity to re-invest profit towards R&D of both natural products and enhanced consumer products(*).

    In this regard, I hope our big egos in academia will not feel outraged when the layman ignorantly speaks about chemical-free products. Instead, maybe we will, us too, be able to forget that we are just experts in a tiny field, and ignorant to the laymen (our?) desire, to be informed and treated as an equal – otherwise we would be doubly culpable, as Voltaire would state.

    So in summary, there are just two types of chemicals: Those which we understand. And those which we do not. Chemical-understanding-free is scientific and policy adequate terminology. And we should use it everyday. And again, as with Voltaire and ignorance, the ones who have the potential to understand a consumer product and do not, are doubly culpable. Science policy articles are a serious matter, so serious that researchers tend just to laugh at them. For everything else, we seem to be too busy begging for money/resources and publishing.

    (*) On a more very personal note, and arguably a bigger picture, nature uses an intricate balance of 18k+ macromolecules ( and small organic molecules to compute and provide energy and the like. The accepted notion of using chemical cocktails to interfere with one particular biomolecular pathway might be understood as ignorance of the whole system, instead of being praised as state-of-the-art science, and might be one of the reasons behind the crisis in antibiotic development ( <10-step synthesis: 0. Millions of years of macromolecular thermodynamic design: 1.

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    Stephen Davey said:

    Re, not printing this, can posting here even be regarded as chemical-free? Lots of electrons whizzing around through semiconductors and LED materials involved…

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    huaqi huang said:

    Is this paper a plagiarism of that book <What Every Man Thinks About Apart From Sex>?