Combating Chemophobia: 4 Takeaways from the HCPA Mid-year Meeting

As a chemist and communications professional, I am often disheartened by how chemicals are characterized in the media and marketplace. Chemical has become a dirty word, seized by people pushing a narrative that may or may not be backed by sound science, and chemophobia, the irrational fear of chemicals, has taken root in our society.

I often ask myself, what I can be doing to help shift the narrative? That is not to say that all chemicals are inherently good – there are chemicals that are indeed deadly and toxic, and history is unfortunately full of examples of when chemicals have done real harm. However, modern life and medicine would not be possible if it weren’t for chemistry and chemicals – and it’s my job to properly demonstrate and explain the benefits of chemicals in our everyday lives.

One of the industries that is bearing the brunt of chemophobia is the consumer goods industry. Clever marketers have used fear-based tactics to convince consumers that ‘chemicals’ are bad, and anything ‘natural’ is good – despite that natural has no legal definition and natural ingredients are, in and of themselves, chemicals. Consumer goods companies are faced with eroding trust from a skeptical marketplace.

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on consumer trust, hosted by the Household & Commercial Products Association (HCPA) as part of their mid-year meeting. It was the first discussion of its kind at an HCPA meeting and it covered a range of perspectives on science, trust in today’s consumer marketplace and, in particular, strategies to combat chemophobia. Below are a few insights:

Saying your products are safe isn’t enough for today’s consumers. Communicating the complex process of ingredient selection and product formulation isn’t easy, but consumers are hungry for more information. Furthermore, that information has to be right-sized for different audiences. Content has to be appropriate and understandable – simply releasing scientific data won’t resonate.

Not all sources of information are created equal. Consumers are exposed to a variety of supposed scientific data, some from reliable sources and some from less-than-credible sources. However, consumers often don’t know the difference between the two. Additionally, consumers are wary of information that comes directly from companies. To combat this sentiment, companies need to collaborate with key opinion leaders in relevant fields to bring in third party voices.

Be proactive rather than reactive. In the age of social media, pseudo-science spreads as fast as wildfire. Responding to individual fires won’t work as a strategy, so companies need a steady stream of focused content so that messages remain consistent.

Meet your consumer where they live. Scientific publishing is crucial to address safety concerns, but most consumers aren’t reading up on the latest toxicology journals. Bring your data to where your consumer spends their time, whether online or in print. Make the content accessible and enjoyable.

As a scientific communicator, I take great pride in communicating complex scientific information in clear and understandable ways. Working with consumer goods companies represents one of the best ways that I can help tackle chemophobia and I work to deliver accurate, scientifically robust content so consumers are better equipped to make choices in their everyday lives.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn by Eric Moorhead, Senior Scientific Executive. Eric leverages his advanced knowledge of chemistry and the life sciences to help biotech, pharmaceutical and consumer goods companies tell the science stories behind their products.

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