Montreal Gazette


A substance's safety isn't decided by whether it's made by Mother Nature or in a lab

- JOE SCHWARCZ The Right Chemistry Joe Schwarcz is director of Mcgill University's Office for Science & Society ( He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

Nature is amazing. Put a seed into the ground and a plant emerges. Two cells unite, and a baby emerges. Two hydrogen nuclei in the sun fuse and energy emerges. Take a cutting from an apple tree, graft it to the trunk of a different type of apple tree and a new variety of apple emerges. Is that apple natural? It would not have been produced if the hand of man, or woman, had not intervened. But isn't that hand also natural?

Why bring up this question? Because I have long been bothered by how the term “natural” is used. There are two issues here. First, the implicatio­n that natural substances are inherently safer than synthetic ones, and second, the rather imaginativ­e stretching of the meaning of “natural.”

Certainly, “natural” does not equate to “safe.” Amanita muscaria mushrooms, tobacco plants, “poison dart” frogs, jellyfish and snakes produce a large variety of natural toxins. We can add that bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites are also natural. And when a cell divides and accidental­ly produces a mutation in DNA that leads to cancer, well, that is also “natural.” Indeed, much scientific research focuses on using synthetic preservati­ves and medicines to outwit nature in a decidedly unnatural fashion. The uncritical worship of “natural” is unwarrante­d.

How about the questionab­le use of the term? I recently came upon a lipstick advertised as “natural.” Since I have never seen lipstick growing on a bush or tree, or secreted by some animal, I wondered about the justificat­ion for the term. Believe it or not, there actually is a “lipstick tree.” Of course, it doesn't grow lipstick, but it does produce a colourant that can be used to formulate cosmetics. Bixa Orellana is a shrub native to South America and Mexico that produces a stunning red fruit the seeds of which yield a dye known as “annatto,” with its major component being the carotenoid “bixin.”

Indeed, annatto may appear in lipsticks that then are advertised as “natural.” Although adverse reactions to annatto are rare, they certainly have been noted in the literature. Allergies and exacerbati­on of irritable bowel syndrome can occur, and there is even a case report of a man suffering severe anaphylaxi­s with loss of consciousn­ess within a few minutes of eating a sandwich with Gouda cheese. The use of annatto to give a yellow tint to Gouda is common.

It should also be mentioned that while the other components of such a “natural” lipstick, namely shea butter, castor seed oil, beeswax, coconut oil and sorbic acid, may also be found in nature, a great deal of processing is involved before they become part of a lipstick. Solvents are used for the extraction of the oils and waxes and castor seeds have to be carefully processed to make sure there are no residues of the toxin ricin. While sorbic acid does occur naturally, it is actually produced industrial­ly by reacting crotonalde­hyde with ketene. Of course, that is irrelevant. The properties of sorbic acid do not depend on whether it was produced in the lab or in the unripe berries of the Himalayan rowan tree.

A greater stretch is with the claim of “naturally sourced.” One of the most common ingredient­s in shampoos, toothpaste­s and various cleaning agents is sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), a compound that acts as a surfactant and detergent. Surfactant­s are substances that can insert themselves between water molecules and reduce the attraction between them. This allows water to spread more easily to “wet” a surface and also allows it to stretch around air bubbles to generate a foam. As for detergents, these are molecules with one end being attracted to oily substances and the other to water so that rinsing with a detergent solution can remove greasy soils. SLS is both an excellent surfactant and detergent, accounting for its widespread use.

Allegation­s that the compound is carcinogen­ic have no scientific basis, but the claim that it can act as a skin irritant has merit. The loud social media noise exaggerati­ng the real and mythical risks has resulted in consumers shying away from products that contain SLS. This presents a challenge for industry because the ingredient is cheap and effective. One tactic has been to cloak it in a mantle of safety by suggesting that it is “naturally sourced.” Yes, it is if you stretch the facts somewhat. Sodium lauryl sulphate is made by reacting lauryl alcohol with sulphuric acid. Lauryl alcohol is made by treating lauric acid with various reducing agents and lauric acid in turn comes from the hydrolysis of trilaurin, a fat that is isolated from coconut oil. So, SLS is sort of “naturally sourced,” but a lot of chemistry is involved in turning the coconut fat into the final product. Furthermor­e, “naturally sourced” has no relevance when it comes to safety or efficacy.

Another method to “hide” SLS was the subject of a Wall Street Journal article that accused actress Jessica Alba's Honest Company of being less than honest by declaring that their products were “Sls-free.” In response, the company retorted that their products are not formulated with SLS, but rather with “sodium cocoa-sulphate.” Coconut fat actually contains several fatty acids that include stearic, oleic, myristic, palmitic, linoleic, capric, caprylic and lauric acids, with the latter making up about 50 per cent of the mix. When SLS is synthesize­d, the lauric acid is separated and sulphated but it is also possible to sulphate the mixture and use that. Of course, this will then contain about 50 per cent of SLS. The Wall Street Journal was correct, and the article triggered a “false ad” lawsuit that the company settled for $1.5 million.

It is about time to rid advertisin­g of the “natural” babble and spread the message that the safety of a chemical is not determined by whether it is made by Mother Nature in a bush or by a chemist in a lab. It can only be revealed through proper scientific study. And remember that Mother Nature can be quite nasty. After all, viruses are natural. Vaccines are not.

 ?? SHIZUO KAMBAYASHI/AP PHOTO ?? Visitors eye the jellyfish at Enoshima aquarium in Fujisawa, west of Tokyo. Certainly, the danger they represent shows “natural” does not equate to “safe.”
SHIZUO KAMBAYASHI/AP PHOTO Visitors eye the jellyfish at Enoshima aquarium in Fujisawa, west of Tokyo. Certainly, the danger they represent shows “natural” does not equate to “safe.”
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