I just ate something. Let’s read its back label ingredients:
WATER (75%), SUGARS (12%) (GLUCOSE (48%), FRUCTOSE (40%), SUCROSE (2%), MALTOSE (<1%)), STARCH (5%), FIBRE E460 (3%), AMINO ACIDS (<1%) (GLUTAMIC ACID (19%), ASPARTIC ACID (16%), HISTIDINE (11%), LEUCINE (7%), LYSINE (5%), PHENYLALANINE (4%), ARGININE (4%), VALINE (4%), ALANINE (4%), SERINE (4%), GLYCINE (3%), THREONINE (3%), ISOLEUCINE (3%), PROLINE (3%), TRYPTOPHAN (1%), CYSTINE (1%), TYROSINE (1%), METHIONINE (1%)), FATTY ACIDS (1%) (PALMITIC ACID (30%), OMEGA-6 FATTY ACID: LINOLEIC ACID (14%), OMEGA-3 FATTY ACID: LINOLENIC ACID (8%), OLEIC ACID (7%), PALMITOLEIC ACID (3%), STEARIC ACID (2%), LAURIC ACID (1%), MYRISTIC ACID (1%), CAPRIC ACID (<1%) ), ASH (<1%), PHYTOSTEROLS, E515, OXALIC ACID, E300, E306 (TOCOPHEROL), PHYLLOQUINONE, THIAMIN, COLOURS (YELLOW-ORANGE E101 (RIBOFLAVIN), YELLOW-BROWN E160a), FLAVOURS (3-METHYLBUT-1-YL ETHANOATE, 2-METHYLBUTYL ETHANOATE, 2-METHYLPROPAN-1-OL, 3-METHYLBUTYL-1-OL, 2 HYDROXY-3-METHYLETHYL BUTANOATE, 3-METHYLBUTANAL, ETHYL HEXANOATE, ETHYL BUTANOATE, PENTYL ACETATE), 1510, NATURAL RIPENING AGENT (ETHENE GAS).
You might think – Woah! This Chirag fellow is pumping himself with chemicals. So unhealthy! God knows what toxins and carcinogens might be present in this crazy list.
Now let me tell you what I ate.
I ate a banana.
Yes, these are all the ingredients in a natural banana. In the above example, all major components in a banana are extracted and noted as per their chemical names. Similarly, check out the back label ingredients in strawberries, pineapples, lemons, coffee and peach. All of them look scary but are just some lovely fruits that we are eating for thousands of years.
What we just saw is called chemophobia. Irrational fear of chemicals.
Where there is fear, someone will try to monetize and abuse it. Let’s understand this in detail.
You’d remember the periodic table from school. (I hope you are 9th pass)
The periodic table has 118 blocks. Each block is a single element. We have 118 elements in total. The entire known universe is made up of these 118 elements. EVERYTHING! From the Saturn’s rings to your laptop, your houseplant, the invisible air and even you. It’s hard to believe that 118 things together can make up everything, but think of these elements like lego blocks. In enough quantities, you can make extremely complex lego structures with just a dozen or so lego blocks.
Water for instance is made up of two hydrogens (H) and one oxygen (O): H20. Two elements out of 118. H20’s chemical name is dihydrogen monoxide. The word dihydrogen monoxide might sound scary in itself, but it’s just plain regular water.
Similarly, everything in the world, from amrut (if it exists) to cyanide poison can be expressed as a chemical name since at the end of the day it’s made up of some combination of 118 elements. Cyanide is one carbon, and 3 nitrogen (CN3) and its chemical name are Nitridocarbonate(II).
As regular non-scientists, we may not be able to find the difference between dihydrogen monoxide and Nitridocarbonate(II). This is used by some bad actors to instil irrational fears in our minds.
There is somehow this belief that chemicals are our enemy. They are not! Because we all are chemicals. We all are made up of chemicals. Everything!
The bottom line is that just because something is expressed as its chemical name, it doesn’t make it healthy or unhealthy. The name doesn’t give away nature, no matter how alien it sounds.
Chemophobia, on the other side
Let’s do a little experiment. Take two packets of the same biscuit and label one as organic and environmentally friendly and keep the other packet of the same biscuit as it is with no labels. Now let’s ask people to eat both the biscuits and tell us which one is tastier.
If you suspect that people will find organic and environmentally friendly biscuits tastier despite both the biscuits being the same, then you are right.
Because researchers conduct the above experiment and found the results you suspected! Read the paper here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0195666315001452
The idea behind this experiment is used by companies to sell ‘organic’, ‘natural’, ‘chemical free’, ‘green’ products even when they’d essentially be the same without the fake labels.
These companies once again use chemophobia, our fear of chemicals to sell us their products. You read more about chemophobia here and here.
It’s a more serious issue than you’d think. Anti-vaxxers regularly use such chemical names to make vaccines look scary and put people’s lives in danger.
Sunscreen and other chemicals
Chemicals and preservatives added in modern food products are typically many decades old and have been extensively tested in animals before they are used in human products. Just take one ingredient from your shampoo bottle and look up its name on Google Scholar. You’d find many research papers on experiments documenting their safety.
Every country has regulators that test and audit these ingredients to make sure that they are safe for human use.
Coming back to sunscreens. Check this recent 2020 randomised controlled trial in human participants has shown that the ingredients in sunscreen are safe. Read the paper for yourself.
“These findings do not indicate that individuals should refrain from the use of sunscreen”
Link to the research paper: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2759002
“Melanoma may be preventable by regular sunscreen use in adults”
Link to research paper: https://ascopubs.org/doi/full/10.1200/JCO.2010.28.7078
“use of SPF ≥ 15 sunscreens by all women age 40 to 75 years could potentially reduce their melanoma incidence by 18%.”
Link to research paper: https://ascopubs.org/doi/10.1200/JCO.2016.67.5934
“No present evidence suggests any marketed sunscreens should be avoided.”
Link to research paper: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13671-020-00284-4
Another concern about sunscreens is that they may decrease vitamin D synthesis by blocking sun rays. This is not true. Several randomised control trials have shown this. Read them here:
“Normal usage of sunscreen by adults has not shown to decrease the cutaneous synthesis of vitamin D”
Link to research paper: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/phpp.12096
“Mean levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D3 rose significantly by the same amount in both groups over the period of the study (placebo, +12.8 mmol/L; sunscreen, + 11.8 mmol/L).”
Link to research paper: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamadermatology/article-abstract/556563
Sunscreens are a safe and effective way to protect your skin from UV rays. They also decrease the risk of skin cancer. While there are some debates about its efficacy, especially in non-white populations, all major dermatology societies and professional organisations recommend the regular application of sunscreen.
To know what your screen needs, consult your dermatologist who relies on science instead of Instagram influencers who rely on chemophobia.
Some geniuses argue that Indians our ancestors did not use sunscreen and did just fine. This is a logical fallacy called survivorship bias. Let me explain:
First, our ancestors did not just fine. They did terribly actually. The average life span for Indians in the 1960s was around 40 years! Before that, it was even worse.
Second, the ancestors that we see today (our grandparents) are lucky few who managed to live for so long. You can’t use their example to estimate the situation of all our ancestors, because most of them died, as per data, long before we were born.
Our ancestors’ lives had different challenges and different availability of evidence. Instead of dragging them and using them as shields, we need to look at the current scientific evidence and use it to make up our minds. Some of those pieces of evidence are mentioned above.
As a parting thought, I’d like to share a chart that many people in the scientific and fitness world may have seen. The metabolic pathways.
Source: Metabolic pathway – Wikipedia
Just go through some of the chemicals listed in the chart above. Does it make you feel scared and spooky? It should not. These chemicals keep you alive. They are a part of you.
You can’t escape chemicals because you are made up of chemicals!
So next time someone tries to use ‘chemicals’ to put forth their point, remember the science.