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Vegan Beauty & Cosmetics Explained

LAST UPDATED: FEB 21, 2017

As more people adopt a plant-based and vegan diet, they’re starting to look behind the label of their personal care and cosmetic products and surprised to learn that crushed bugs, fish liver oil, fat from slaughtered animals, and ground-up horns and claws are commonly found in our beauty products.

As a result, many companies have started to label their products as being Vegan.

But what exactly are Vegan Beauty products? how do we know they’re Vegan? and what does that say about the price or performance of Vegan products compared to their conventional counterparts?

I’ve created this guide to help you better understand what Vegan Beauty and Cosmetics truly mean.

Vegan Beauty Explained:

  1. Vegan Beauty/Cosmetics defined
  2. Animal ingredients
  3. Vegan vs. Vegetarian
  4. Vegan Brand vs. Vegan Product
  5. Vegan Logos & Seals
  6. Reading Ingredients to Know if it’s Vegan
  7. May Contain +/-
  8. What Vegan Beauty Is and Isn’t

What does Vegan Beauty/Cosmetics mean?

Vegan beauty and cosmetic products do not contain any animal products, animal by-products, or animal derivatives.

Animal Ingredients

What sort of animal ingredients are commonly found in our makeup, bath & body, and haircare products you ask?

It can be anything that was derived from animals or something rendered from the “leftovers” of slaughtered animals.

Some animal derived ingredients can also be obtained from living animals like beeswax, honey, shellac, and lanolin. Suppliers claim this as a “natural” process and “doesn’t hurt the animals”– but that’s totally up for debate.animal-ingredients-in-vegan-beauty

Vegan vs. Vegetarian 

There is a difference between vegan and vegetarian beauty products. Vegetarian cosmetics do not contain ingredients that were part of an animal but they may contain ingredients that were made by an animal such as honey, beeswax, egg whites (albumen), milk substance, etc.

Whereas vegan cosmetics do not contain anything and everything that was obtained or produced from living or killed animals.

Vegan Brand vs. Vegan Product

When we say cosmetics are Vegan, the term can be applied to mean the overall brand is vegan or a particular product is vegan.

VEGAN BRANDS

  • Pacifica
  • derma e
  • Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics (OCC)

are all vegan brands where they only carry vegan products and you’ll never see any beeswax, honey, keratin, or any other animal ingredients in any of their products.

 

VEGAN PRODUCTS

  • Juice Beauty
  • theBalm
  • Mineral Fusion

whereas these brands offer vegan products, as well as non-vegan products. Most brands will usually label or tell customers which of their products are considered to be vegan.

Vegan Certifications and Logos

Learn which of these popular logos and seals commonly found on vegan cosmetics and personal care products are used to indicate whether the brand as a whole is vegan or if only a particular product is vegan.

peta-cf-and-vegan-bunny

PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies “Cruelty-Free and Vegan” logo is used to certify a vegan brand.

trademark-logo

The Vegan Society‘s trademark is used to certify vegan products, not companies.

certified-vegan-logo

This Certified Vegan trademark by Vegan Action certifies individual vegan products, not companies.

Reading an Ingredient list

Here is the bad news about trying to find vegan beauty products. Companies and manufacturers are not legally required to label which of their ingredients were derived from an animal, plant source, or synthetically. This makes it incredibly difficult to tell if cosmetics are vegan just by reading the ingredient list.

For example, squalene can be obtained from shark liver oil or olive oil. But if you find squalene on an ingredient list, most companies won’t disclose if the squalene was obtained from an animal or vegetable source. Here’s a perfect example I took from Marcelle’s website, their Moisturizing Cream just list squalene as an ingredient. It’s best to contact the company and ask where they source squalene from.

 

Squalene_Example

In some cases, it is more straight-forward and obvious. Natural beauty products, in particular, that avoid chemicals and synthetic ingredients are a lot easier to navigate through.

For example, 100% Pure‘s Lip Cream Sticks are made of all natural ingredients and you can easily read through the list and spot Beeswax as an animal ingredient. They also note that their stearic acid is obtained from coconut (and not from killed animals) and the colorants they use are fruit pigmented.animal-ingredients-example

If you take a look at the ingredient list of a similar lip stick from Wet N Wild… Beeswax and Mineral Oil are the only ingredients I recognize.

What exactly is Hydroxyhydrocinnamate? or Pentaerythrityl Tetraisostearate? No idea. Some of these unknown ingredients can theoretically be derived from animals.

So you can see how some lists are harder to read and therefore more challenging (and almost impossible) to distinguish if they’re vegan without a major in Chemistry.

To make things even more challenging.. you may find yourself reading an ingredient list and notice an ingredient to avoid but it’s at the very end of the list and under “May Contain.” Just like how Carmine is listed in the same example above in the Wet N Wild Balm Stain.

What does May Contain +/- mean for Vegan Cosmetics?

If you see an animal ingredient listed under “May Contain +/-” it doesn’t always mean that the product contains the ingredient and should be avoided.

There are two reasons why companies list ingredients under “May Contain”

1. Shared Equipment

It’s common to see manufacturers making or packaging multiple products on shared equipment. As a result, contamination may occur during this process and trace amounts of a certain ingredient may come into contact with other products used on the same equipment. To cover their asses, manufacturers disclose this information under the “May Contain” disclaimer for people that have a sensitivity or allergies to certain ingredients.

2. Standard Packaging Labels

To cut down on costs, some companies print and re-use the same product labels across multiple products or shades of color cosmetics. In doing so, they’ll include one-off ingredients under the “may contain” ingredient list to make it flexible enough to be used across multiple products or colors.

If you see an animal ingredient under the “May Contain +/-” list, contact the company and ask whether a specific product or color contains the ingredient. It’s best not to leave this to chance.

What Vegan Cosmetics is and is Not

CRUELTY-FREE

Cruelty-Free and Vegan are often used synonymously but they don’t always mean the same thing.

Cruelty-free is used to describe a product as being free of animal testing versus Vegan means the product is free of animal ingredients and by-products. However there are times when vegan is used to describe a product as being free of animal ingredients and not tested on animals, check out my infographic and post that explains this further.

NATURAL/ORGANIC/NON-TOXIC

One of the biggest misconceptions about vegan beauty products is how some people automatically categorize “vegan” with “all natural & organic” cosmetics.

But not all vegan makeup and personal care products are natural, clean, and exclusively plant-based. In fact, companies sometimes use synthetic chemicals as an affordable alternative.

The best way to explain this is similar to vegan food; not all vegan foods are considered “healthy” or “natural.”

French fries, Oreos, and potato chips are all made without animal ingredients (and therefore vegan!) but they’re definitely not the healthiest food choices.

Check out these two vegan mascaras.. The one from e.l.f. contains a bunch of synthetic ingredients whereas the mascara from 100% Pure predominately contains plant-derived ingredients and natural fruit pigments. Both vegan, but only one is natural.

ingredients-comparison

PRICE

I often hear people complaining about how expensive vegan beauty products are but there are plenty of options in all different price range… see for yourself!

vegan-lipsticks-prices-02
PERFORMANCE

A side note here, just because something is labelled as Vegan doesn’t automatically warrant them to be inferior or superior to non-vegan products.

At the end of the day, Vegan is just a label used to describe a product to be free of animal ingredients. It doesn’t say anything about the quality or effectiveness of the replacement ingredients used.

Don’t get duped into buying Vegan products and expect them to work (or suck).. just like anything we buy, there are as many decent products as there are crappy products out there! I feel the need to mention this because I see many companies use the Vegan label as a selling point to get us to buy from them.

Final Words

Finding vegan beauty and cosmetic products can be challenging at first because ingredients are not labelled to say ‘pig fat’, ‘fish scales’, ‘ground up animal horn’, etc.

That’s why it’s important to understand all of the nuances of what Vegan beauty means, what animals ingredients are commonly used, the differences between vegan and vegetarian beauty, whether the brand or just a product is vegan, and understanding what is associated with vegan beauty and what shouldn’t be.

I want to know, what are some techniques you use to find and discover vegan beauty products? 

4 Responses
  • Caitlin
    May 11, 2016

    holy cow, vicky. this article is incredible. i trust companies that are leaping bunny certified or are verified cruelty-free from trusted sources, such as you, tashina, and petit vour. i read ingredient labels about 20 times before purchasing something and will always search online for verification of it being vegan.

    • Vicky Ly
      May 11, 2016

      Glad you enjoyed this article, Caitlin! =)

      It was hard to cram so much information all in one place because as you pointed out.. there’s all these different ways we can go about to verifying if a brand/product is vegan! And it may seem intimidating at first for people just making the switch, but reading ingredient lists 20 times just starts becoming the norm for us folks! =) haha

  • Jenny
    May 9, 2016

    This is such a useful and comprehensive post, thank you for your hard work!

    I find that the Skin Deep database can be useful for identifying mystery ingredients, but when it can be obtained from either an animal or plant source it does get tricky :/

    • Vicky Ly
      May 9, 2016

      I’m glad to know you enjoyed this post, Jenny! =)

      The Skin Deep database is definitely a great resource! There are also other apps and database that will tell you whether an ingredient is derived from animals or plants but like you said, the trickiest part is when an ingredient can possibly or theoretically be derived from either an animal or plant source!

      I’m hoping if more conscious consumers reach out to companies and ask about these specific ingredients, they will voluntarily start listing the source on their ingredients list! =)

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