Tuesday, July 30, 2013

WWWTP? Palmolive Edition

I happened upon this bottle in the store yesterday, and found the marketing statement quite curious:

Now wait just a minute...what does that even mean? Does a human contain "no unnecessary cells," or a delicious meal "no unnecessary ingredients?" Perhaps this is the Strunkian ideal* of chemophobic marketing:
"A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."   - Strunk and White, The Elements of Style
So, what 'necessary' chemicals does Palmolive Free & Clear contain?
Source: Colgate-Palmolive 
So we have foaming agents, detergents, thickeners, stabilizers, fragrances, dyes, and water - a.k.a. every ingredient present in most dish soaps! 

This feels like Kraft Mac & Cheese redux. Please understand that I'm not against informed consumer choice, and I certainly support labeling transparency** and product safety. But this marketing slogan is at best meaningless, and at worst drags popular punching bag "chemicals" through the mud. Again.

At least it can wash off with Palmolive Pure + Clear - Contains Necessary Chemicals.

*Except, of course, that the authors of this dish soap piece seem to have omitted a verb.
**Next up: Chemplex (TM) brand butyllithium: Contains 95% random C-Li bonds (and fragrance!)


  1. Interesting implication that their competitors contain unnecessary chemicals. What are they referring to?

    I assume they mean things like colours and fragrances (this stuff looks clear), which are arguably unnecessary (though if you ever have to wash with uber-cheap industrial handsoap you'll crave some lavender or something). I wonder if they'd consider fragrances etc. which are derived from natural sources to be 'unnecessary chemicals'.

  2. CanadianChemistJuly 30, 2013 12:54 PM

    Wait, why is dye necessary in a clear and pure soap?
    Fun fact: they added dye (purple, I think) to balance out the mixture's extinction across the visible to make it look clear.
    Isn't that the definition of unnecessary?

  3. Puff the Mutant DragonJuly 30, 2013 2:21 PM

    I would think the dyes and fragrance aren't "necessary" in the strict sense of the word...but maybe there's something I'm missing here. Guess I'd be curious to know what "unnecessary chemicals" Palmolive believes are found in other soaps...

  4. I like it. Isn't "no unnecessary chemicals" better than "chemical free?" It reinforces what we chemists have been saying for centuries; many chemicals are good and necessary while others, in certain quantities and concentrations, are unnecessary and even harmful. Of course, when it comes to soap, what is and isn't necessary is relative to the consumer as well as the producer (e.g. clarifying agents and fragrances are unnecessary for washing dishes, but necessary to sell large volumes of detergent), so you're right in saying that the statement is meaningless, but it's not outright dishonest (or ignorant).

  5. The Iron ChemistJuly 31, 2013 3:52 PM

    The comment suggests that manufacturers generally add chemicals to their products purely for giggles.

    "Hey, let's buy a ton of cyclohexane and put it in our shampoo for no reason!"

  6. It just makes me wonder how they come to the conclusion that heavy fragrances (whatever this term entails...) should be unnecessary while fragrances are essential.

  7. I have a bottle of Palmolive Ultra proclaiming "strong grease dissolvers" which makes me laugh. Isn't dissolving grease what soap is supposed to do? I was tempted to check the list of ingredients to see if it was just a bottle of NaOH. Or perhaps acetone.

  8. I guess most people reading this blog have a reasonably in depth knowledge of chemistry, so does SD Alcohol 3-A immediately spring to mind? A quick google search would seem to suggest its denatured ethanol.

    So to your average consumer these names of chemicals are completely meaningless surely? Why can they not just put ethanol? Maybe incase people start drinking it when their regular tipple runs out, I have no idea!

    Does anyone have any educated insight into why they use ridiculous names/codes for regular chemicals in products?

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