Ingredient of the Month

Welcome to a new feature of; The Ingredient of the Month.

In this space we will explore the relationship between natural and artificial ingredients that are ubiquitous in our modern lifestyles and their relationship to the biological systems that are we are an integrated part of.

Organic Chemistry does not have to be a mysterious and arcane field. You shouldn’t need a PhD to read your toothpaste label. Large companies have a stake in our collective ignorance. The less we know, the more cheap crap they can sell us! Stay tuned to this column and you will begin to change to way you look at things.

The world around us is built from bits of matter/energy we call molecules. Once you start paying attention to the molecules, your perspective is forever altered….

Chemical ingredient names are the names of the smaller molecules and elements that make up the new, more complex molecule. For example H2O means 2 hydrogen molecules attached to one oxygen molecule – simple! INCI names are internationally recognized name forms that everyone in the world can recognize. Additionally, company trade names are used to describe these same ingredients, which confuses people trying to interpret what they are using.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate has nearly 200 trade names, obscuring its near universal use as the main foaming agent of Western Civilization. The name tells us what it is. Start with 12 carbon atoms holding hands in string (lauric acid). Add sodium to one end and sulfur to the other. Voila! Sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate.

SLS and all foaming molecules work the same way. Imagine a snake with two heads. One loves water (sulfur) and one hates water (sodium). This makes it a bi-polar snake. It violently loves and hates water at the same time. Love water/hate water, love water/hate water, love water/hate water – and it foams….. One could get a PhD in what makes foam. We’ll stick to the cartoon explanation for now.

Sodium, carbon and sulfur don’t sound all that bad, and you’re right. There are a lot worse molecules out there. SLS does a good job cleaning hair, but it is also used in everything from car wash to floor cleaner, shower gels, pet shampoo etc. Nearly everything that foams has some of this in it.

SLS does not exist in nature, and did not exist prior to 1932. Now, millions of tons of the stuff is produced annually, and all of it ends up inoculating floating around our little planet before it breaks down. And that is precisely the rub.

The Green Chemist dares to ask the question; “Do we want to proliferate the planet with molecules that did not exist seventy five years ago?”

Molecules that are not found in nature; that biological organisms did not evolve to deal with, may and do have unintended consequences.

Do we implement a precautionary principal; “ALL new molecules are considered questionable until proven otherwise?” Or stick with the current system; “Find out the cancer causing dose and allow a fraction of that dose to be used in formulations.”

In other words, the chemicals are safe as long as they are only a “little cancer causing”.

We, and by we I mean all of us people walking around on this little blue ball have to come to terms with some basic and somewhat unpleasant facts. Our current 1950’s lifestyle is obsolete and dangerous to our health and the health of the ecosystem that supports us. What will a safe and sustainable lifestyle look like? Will I have to quit bathing and eat worms for breakfast?

Hardly. But as we explore what a sustainable world will look like, we must start by PAYING ATTENTION TO THE MOLECULES.

That is your homework assignment. More next month.

Best Wishes,


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