What are Petrochemicals?

What are Petrochemicals?

This is part of our ongoing series helping consumers better understand chemicals, chemistry, and product formulations. We translate the science, bust the myths, and give you an honest assessment, so you can make informed choices for your family!

Ingredient: Petrochemicals

What they are: Petrochemicals are chemicals made from petroleum [aka “oil”] or natural gas.

What they do: Even though it’s only been about a century since their discovery, petrochemicals are everywhere in modern life. As the foundation for all of the most common plastics, it’s used in almost everything imaginable: ink, upholstery, bicycle tires, motor oil, pesticides, nail polish, soap, pharmaceuticals, vitamin capsules, purses, rubbing alcohol, life jackets, CDs, televisions, computers, IV bags, basketballs, cars, guitar strings, paint brushes, dishes, artificial limbs, and much (too much) more.

Why we’re featuring them today: Petrochemicals often appear in our Honestly Free Guarantee for a few serious reasons:

  • Petroleum and natural gas are “fossil fuels” formed from the remains of plants and animals that lived 300 million years ago. Decomposing under tons of rock and ancient seas, organic matter converted into the fossil fuels we have today through a combination of heat, pressure, and bacterial interactions. They’re also called “non-renewable” resources because it takes an extraordinary amount of time for the planet to create these materials and, without a faster way to create them, they will eventually run out. Petrochemicals are inherently unsustainable, but we have a long way to go before we can function without fossil fuels to create a truly sustainable marketplace. Honest would like to be a part of the solution, so we try to find and use renewable resources when we can!
  • From extraction to disposal, the lifecycle of petrochemicals comes with many negative environmental impacts. Commercial oil spills result in ecosystem damage that can last for decades. Pollution from the refining process puts workers and neighboring communities in harm’s way. Use of fossil fuel petrochemicals result in the release of “fossilized carbon” that has been trapped underground for millions of years – ultimately ending up as atmospheric CO2 (aka greenhouse gases) and contributing to climate change. Petrochemicals don’t just take a long time to create; the long break down in the natural environment leaves a toxic legacy our children (and their children) don’t deserve.
  • The concern is not only the negative environmental impact, but also the impact on human health. Many petrochemicals are some of the most toxic substances known to man, but they’re in nearly everything in one form or another, from plastics to synthetic fragrances and dyes to fertilizer. Whether we know it or not, we’re constantly exposed to them.

The products made from petrochemicals have, in many respects, improved our lives immensely. Now that we’re more aware of the price we’re paying, however, we’re starting to see that the risks increasingly outweigh the benefits.

The Honest Company is committed to doing what we can to find safer solutions, design products with the environment and health in mind, and help drive progress towards sustainability and more plant-based materials. It will take a revolution in innovation, but we believe that together we can make it better. As William McDonough (a friend and one of our greatest inspirations) says in his book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, “Here's where redesign begins in earnest, where we stop trying to be less bad and we start figuring out how to be good.”

Want your home to be Honestly Free of petrochemicals?

As you can probably guess, it’s virtually impossible to live a petrochemical-free life, but there are some simple steps everyone can take to reduce our use and help turn things around:

  • Reduce, reuse, recycle. Even if this is a mantra you’ve heard before, it’s just as applicable as ever.
  • Get to know what products are made from. Petrochemicals encompass an entire class of thousands of unique chemicals, so you won’t see the generic term “petrochemical” listed on an ingredients label. You’ll see the final results of petrochemistry – things like toluene, benzene, polyvinyl chloride, and many, many more. Do your best to do some due diligence before buying products and support companies who are trying to do better. Every purchase you make is a vote for the kind of world you’d like to live in.
  • With fossil fuels in general, the most important things we can do are to drive less, conserve energy, and turn the heat down a couple of degrees. The bulk of our use of fossil fuels goes towards these things and they’re the actions that can have the biggest impact on reducing our eco-footprint.

Learn more about how to live a little more sustainably by checking out all of our blog posts featuring easy, practical steps anyone can take!

Still have questions about petrochemicals? Let us know in the comments and we’ll do our best to find you the answer you’re looking for.


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  • Diaz, J. H. (2010). The legacy of the Gulf oil spill: analyzing acute public health effects and predicting chronic ones in Louisiana. American journal of disaster medicine, 6(1), 5-22.
  • Kataria, H. C., & Iqbal, S. A. (1997). Petrochemicals into environment and health effects. ASIAN JOURNAL OF CHEMISTRY, 9, 552-554.
  • Leonard, A. (2010). The story of stuff: How our obsession with stuff is trashing the planet, our communities, and our health-and a vision for change. Simon and Schuster.
  • Rodricks, J. V. (1994). Calculated Risks: Understanding the toxicity and human health risks of chemicals in our environment. Cambridge University Press.
  • Yu, C. L., Wang, S. F., Pan, P. C., Wu, M. T., Ho, C. K., Smith, T. J., ... & Christiani, D. C. (2006). Residential exposure to petrochemicals and the risk of leukemia: using geographic information system tools to estimate individual-level residential exposure. American journal of epidemiology, 164(3), 200-207.
  • Ziska, L. H., Schlesinger, W. H., & Epstein, P. R. (2009). Rising CO2, climate change, and public health: exploring the links to plant biology.

We aim to provide you with the most honest and credible information possible. This article was reviewed for accuracy by The Honest Team and was written based on trusted sources that are linked at the bottom of the article.