Why We Don’t Know About Chemicals in Products

Innovation made the United States an international scientific leader––but it also left us with a legacy of hidden, harmful chemicals.

We talk a lot here about synthetic chemicals and the harm many of them can cause to people and the planet; replacing the harmful ones with our natural Activated Silk chemistry is our raison d’être, after all. But it’s worth looking at how these substances became ubiquitous in the first place––and why we’re collectively so unaware of the chemicals that touch our lives every day.

The 1930s and ’40s saw an enormous amount of chemical innovation in the United States. It’s the era that saw the development of fast-drying paint, Scotch tape, and insecticides that allowed farmers to protect their crops and kept soldiers from contracting malaria abroad. Couple that with technological developments from World War II and the influx of scientific talent entering the country after the war, and suddenly, the United States was a chemicals powerhouse––and one with the ability to apply these newfound discoveries to the booming consumer goods industry.

We’re aren’t casting blame on the companies that took advantage of these advances. Those breakthroughs contributed to the rapid development of multiple industries and enabled manufacturers to transform American lives with better, more affordable goods at unprecedented scale. Synthetic chemicals made it possible for us to wash our clothes quickly and efficiently, to eat flash-frozen berries in the dead of winter, and to be vaccinated with a sterile disposable syringe instead of one that your doctor reused. They enabled the development of everything from Post-it notes to the space shuttle. They even gave us bubble gum. Most of the chemists who brought these things to life didn’t set out to do harm. They set out to innovate.

The Chemical Cost of Innovation

What the scientific community didn’t fully understand at the time was that chemicals in products came at a cost to human and environmental health. Even when chemists began to question whether the substances that were becoming integral to our lives might have some hidden effects, the thinking was that unless you actually swallowed a chemical directly, it wouldn’t harm you. (In fact, the first waves of chemical regulation centered around food and pesticides). Now of course we understand that chemicals can enter our waterways and our bodies through the food chain, and through direct contact with the skin. But the minds behind the great chemical and consumer boom didn’t know that yet. What they did know was that the country was in the midst of enormous economic growth.

That growth is part of the reason we still don’t know more about the chemicals in products we use every day. Companies spend years trying to synthesize the perfect molecule––and once they’ve hit the right formula, they need to protect the work that went into it. Patents are one way of doing that, but they’re temporary and can be expensive to procure and maintain. Enter trade secrets, which allow companies to keep their formulas to themselves so competitors can’t copy them. The benefit of a trade secret is that it can be kept secret forever at minimal cost. The downside is that it means the public has no way of knowing what’s in the products they’re buying. For that matter, even the companies selling the products often do not know. Once a teddy bear, nightgown, or mattress has left the factory to be transported into stores, businesses, and homes, its trade secrets stay with it.

Some industries are technically required to disclose their ingredients, including the chemicals in products they produce. Skincare is one of those industries––but take a look at your lotion: Chances are it lists “fragrance” as an ingredient, rather than the components that go into that fragrance. That’s because under the FDA’s Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, fragrance is classified as a trade secret. So “fragrance” can mean anything from natural oils to synthetic chemicals like phthalates––known endocrine disruptors that can harm reproductive system development.  

At Evolved By Nature, our purpose as a green chemistry company is to advance the health of people and the planet. We do this through our Activated Silk chemistry platform, based on the natural silk protein molecule. Our scientists configure this molecule in dozens of unique ways to create sustainable, non-toxic, high-performance chemicals for a range of industries, from apparel to personal care and household products. To us, innovation means creating greater well-being for all—and it starts with replacing the undisclosed toxic chemicals hiding in the products we love and rely on.