Always read the label and ingredient list; if the ingredient list isn’t there, ask to see it; if a SA doesn’t have one, contact the manufacturers. If your skin is at all subject to irritation–and I’m assuming that, at least for basic survival reasons, you care about your skin–do all the brain-work you can for it. Your skin can’t think; it can only react; and you can save it some more unpleasant reactions, and unhappiness, by helping it out and doing things for it that it can’t do for itself.
Whatever marketing and sales nonsense may be spouted at you, remember that–whatever the original source and production method–a rose is a rose: it’s the same compound either way.
SAs will often mix up their terms in reference to sunscreen, and misuse them. This is one of the areas where “chemical” suffers the most, and “natural” too. My biggest beef has been people trying to sell me sunscreens that contain ingredients that I know irritate me: know factually, based on experimental data (namely: reaction on me). I have heard all too often “but you can’t be irritated by this, it’s completely natural and has no chemicals.” Of course it has chemicals: everything is made out of chemicals. That’s, well, that’s life. Building blocks of life and all that. Natural things, like anything else, are composed of chemicals too.
As said above, and I can’t repeat this enough (slap me now, rant alert…): check the ingredient list. If in doubt, ask. If not answered properly, do not buy but check first. In most countries, companies are under a legal obligation–under consumer protection & rights legislation–to declare a full ingredient list, and to do so according to the INCI.
Two things to check for: an identifiable recognised sunscreen, and no ambiguous ingredients. Inconsistent or incomplete labelling that does not properly, fully, and accurately describe and detail all ingredients is (or should be) illegal.
There is a legal grey area for “green extras”: the complicating non-fact that there’s no legal definition of “natural”: it’s more a sliding grey scale than black/white. Sliding according, usually, to individual subjective perception and judgement; and I’d emphasize the subjective. There are of course assorted definitions of organic and vegan; and the clearest though most extreme form of “natural” would be wild-crafted and directly applied substances: honey scooped straight out of a rainforest hive, sticking oneself under a waterfall, rolling around on fruit that has fallen off a tree..
“Extras” also in terms of additional elements alleged to be present in an ingredient, but not covered by listing systems. For example, the difference between refined olive oil and organic extra-virgin cold-pressed first-pressed (etc., etc.) olive oil. Both of which should be listed on a cosmetic ingredient list as “Olea europaea.” On the other hand, any “beautiful raw stuff” and “extra vitamins and minerals” should be chemically identifiable, and bear in mind that impurities can include nice natural organic rat droppings and suchlike. In which case, the labelling is inconsistent, inaccurate, or untrue; and, again, in most places, illegal.
Some other “green extras” are just as grey an area and a more complicated issue, though should be identifiable by scientific means: “natural nourishment removed by processing,” absence of pesticides and fertilizers. Postulated differences through different production methods–organic, biodynamic, etc.–still need further study; the ethical case for them is (to me, anyway) clear, regarding environmental benefits, but it would be good to see some evidence on impact on human skin too. Bearing in mind that people who don’t “buy” ethical arguments may “fall for” selfish ones…
Beware of any secret ingredients and magical extras: if they exist in physical reality, they should be in the INCI list. If they don’t exist, they shouldn’t be mentioned, or their postulated existence should be stated in terms that make it clear that this is a not a matter of observable scientific evidence, or one of proof through rational argument, but one of belief. Yes, these are all forms of knowledge, even in the most radical anti-religious epistemology; but they’re categorically different and not equivalent.
The source, origin, or derivation of a substance is immaterial to how it interacts with your skin: your skin doesn’t care whether a substance is made from organic plants or not, it simply interacts with it. It can’t care, it can’t think; only you and your brain can do that. That is not to say that there might or might not be a psychological aspect to how well or badly a product works on your skin; that is a complex matter, but an entirely different one from the simple facts, experimentally determinable by proper blind testing with controls and placebos, of how skin behaves when something is applied to it.
(There will be another post, shortly, on greenwashing…)
FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT INGREDIENTS
- Advertising Standard Canada
- Canada: Consumer Product Safety:
- Colin’s Beauty Pages
- Cosmetic ingredients
- EU cosmetic ingredient database
- INCI directory (c/o SpecialChem)
- INCI for dummies (c/o Hilda Blue)
- Live Science
- Phoebe’s Ingredients
- Point of Interest! (aka Swift Crafty Money)
- US: Cosmetic ingredient information (PCPC)
- US: Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act
- Wikipedia: Chemistry (introduction…)
- Wikipedia: Cosmetics (intro)
- Wikipedia: History of Cosmetics