Why Is It Inappropriate to Label a Sunscreen as Chemical-Free?

The term chemical-free implies that the ingredients of a product are only from natural sources. People generally appreciate the term because they want to help the environment and live in a safe and healthy life. Countless consumer products are marketed as “chemical-free”, and manufacturers use the term in marketing broadly. However, the use of chemical free is inappropriate because everything is composed of chemicals, including the water we drink and the air we breathe. Burt’s Bees, a manufacturer of the product “SPF 15 Chemical-Free Sunscreen”, labels its product as chemical-free; however, this characterization is inappropriate.

The SPF 15 Chemical-Free Sunscreen has all common functions that a sunscreen should have. It has been formulated to save people’s skin from the sunlight; it helps to keep the skin cool and clean through a natural process, and it makes dust particles from air almost negligible to the skin. However, one special feature that other sunscreen products do not have is that this product does not contain any chemicals which generate harmful effects on the skin. The product is totally Oxybenzone- and Octinoxate- free, according to Burt’s Bees’ description.1 Through the “chemical-free” label, I think what the marketer trying to convey is the information that this product is completely healthy to its consumers. All ingredients are derived from natural sources and therefore free from synthetic components. However, the use of the “chemical free” label is inappropriate because all substances are made of chemicals.

The first reason that the chemical-free label is inappropriate is because some potentially dangerous ingredients used in sunscreen get approval from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and support from the AAD (American Academy of Dermatology), which means that the manufacturer has the right to use a chemical-free label on its product3. In the United States, the best available agent, avobenzone, is widely used in almost every sunscreen. Avobenzone is usually used in a combination with other chemicals such as octocrylene.2 However, according to laboratory studies done by Krause (2012), this combination may mimic hormones and therefore change the hormone system in a negative way. Some research also shows that chemicals used in sunscreen can harm reproductive systems and influence the normal development of children.

The second reason that the chemical-free product is not really as healthy as we think is because with the erasing of one chemical that has a proven safety profile, the manufacturer will replace it with another brand new ingredient that is less tested. It is dangerous to simply replace one ingredient to another because nobody knows whether there is something wrong with the new ingredient after several years of safety testing. Therefore, the replaced ingredient could be more unsafe compared to the previous one.

For a marketer like Burt’s Bees, I think it is better for them to come up with another label that attracts consumers’ attention. The term “chemicals” is misrepresented because there is nothing wrong with a product containing chemicals. Admittedly, some chemicals are bad for us when we are exposed to a large amount or in a wrong way. However, poison is in everything, and only the only way that can make a thing not a poison is by controlling the dose4.



  1. http://www.divinecaroline.com/beauty/skincare/sunscreen/chemical-free-sunscreen-natural-sun-protection
  2. http://www.ewg.org/2015sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/
  3. http://www.webmd.com/beauty/sun/sunscreen-safety-labels-ingredients?page=1
  4. http://www.compoundchem.com/2014/05/19/natural-vs-man-made-chemicals-dispelling-misconceptions/





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