A search for carmine, lanolin or beeswax in beauty products might have brought you here. Those ingredients, while commonly used in skincare and make-up for their various caring or colour properties, are just some of the animal-derived substances found in cosmetics’ formulations for decades. Yes, some lipsticks are made with a vivid pigment called carmine, which comes from bugs; while a number of moisturising balms contain lanolin, a wax secreted by the sebaceous glands of sheep, or beeswax, a naturally rich emollient produced by swarms of hardworking honey bees.
It is these exact ingredients and more that have been magnified in recent years—attention sparked by the rise of veganism and community consciousness on how lifestyle choices directly affect our health and the climate crisis. In turn, beauty brands have become much more attuned to these environmental concerns and the need for reformulations, with many brands either going completely vegan with plant-derived or synthetic alternatives, while others are making significant efforts to shift to vegan products where they can, or find more ethical ways to source these ingredients in a way that protects the ecosystems.
Whether you’re vegan, planning to be one, or simply curious with conscious beauty goals in mind, here’s a comprehensive guide to all you need to know about vegan beauty—from its definitions and ingredients, to comparisons and misconceptions, with insight from experts from L’Oréal, Lush, Everyday Humans and Sigi Skin.
What exactly is vegan beauty?
If the label says “vegan”, “vegan-friendly” or “100% vegan”, it all means that that particular product does not contain any animal-derived ingredients or animal by-products. Examples of animal-derived ingredients would be carmine (or cochineal extract, C.I. 75470, E120, natural red or crimson/carmine lake on ingredients lists), which is a red coloured extract obtained from insects called cochineal and is often found in lipsticks; while some of the most common animal by-products found in beauty are honey and beeswax (or cera alba) that are produced by honey bees, and used in all sorts of moisturising formulations. While the bees aren’t slaughtered for honey or beeswax, the harvesting of these by-products may affect their ecosystem.
As for “vegan friendly”, Nafees Khundker, director of Lush Singapore says “it means that it is not registered vegan by an organisation, for example, almost all of Lush’s Vegan products carry the Vegan Society trademark, whereas the ones that don’t, are either registered vegetarian by the Vegetarian Society or are undergoing registration. We have a Regulatory Affairs Team which registers our products with these societies.
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Does vegan also mean cruelty-free?
Not exactly. While they feel like they go hand-in-hand, sometimes even vegan products may be tested on animals, making them not cruelty-free, while some cruelty-free products may still contain animal by-products. So always look out for both “vegan” and “cruelty-free” labels in text, and the Leaping Bunny symbol, which is the global gold standard in cruelty-free certification.
Founder of “no B.S.” personal care brand Everyday Humans, Charlotte Chen says: “We wanted to be vegan from the get-go, but faced challenges with replacing specific ingredients (like beeswax), so we have vegan products in our range and call ourselves a cruelty-free brand—and that’s a fact. Our brand’s stance is a healthy hybrid between being completely cruelty-free with some vegan formulas, with zero animals harmed.”
Vegan and cruelty-free vs ethically sourced and environmentally friendly
Just like “vegan” and “cruelty-free”, being ethically sourced and environmentally friendly are two other codes that cannot be assumed to be linked to one another. At The Body Shop, some of their non-vegan products contain honey or beeswax which come from their Community Trade partners. Their honey is from Ethiopia and their beeswax is from Cameroon, both of which are organic, wild-harvested, and harvested from sustainably managed sources that preserve the integrity of the bee community—all while also providing support to the local communities.
What about vegan products vs vegan brands?
Fenty Beauty, for example, is a brand that has vegan products, including their entire Fenty Skin line. Multiple brands have plans and goals to be vegan but face challenges with finding plant-derived or synthetic alternatives to traditional animal-derived ingredients like beeswax, which many have yet to find an equally luscious, moisturising and sensorial alternative to.
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Hidden complications of vegan beauty
Xenia Wong, Sigi Skin’s director and founder says: “As there is no fixed legal regulations for vegan or clean beauty as a whole, it is up to the brand to define what are the standards they’re upholding. It is challenging maintaining a vegan brand as formulations and production can only be done in a vegan certified lab, and we have to source for vegan, plant-based ingredients. Since vegan beauty has only taken off a few years ago, it takes a long time and it is still costly to source for such ingredients. Furthermore, many of these ingredients are new, much more tests have to be conducted to see how well it works and stabilises in skincare formulas.”
Pascale Mora, L’Oréal‘s head of scientific communications explains: “From a formulation point of view, there is no specific complications since 2013, it has been banned for cosmetics groups to market and sell cosmetic products that have been safety tested on animals in Europe. From a brand point of view, the complication comes from the requirements for a brand claiming “vegan” to not placed on the Chinese market because Chinese authorities still test some products categories on animals.”
Vegan vs clean beauty
Xenia Wong, Sigi Skin‘s director and founder adds: “Sigi Skin is a vegan-friendly beauty brand that uses vegan and clean preservatives instead of parabens and sulfates. The products as a result are more stable as compared to a 100% natural product that would change in terms of colour and texture. Furthermore, when there aren’t preservatives the shelf life of a product is compromised. Using superfoods with clean, synthetic scientifically proven ingredients that have proven results, the formulations work even harder for your skin. As a vegan-friendly clean beauty brand, we make sure that our formulas are safe for pregnant and breastfeeding mums as well.”
Chen adds: “The definition of “clean” is not regulated, so it’s hard for people to understand what it is, and even harder for any brand to make such a blanket statement without really knowing what exactly “clean” is. For us, our definition of “clean” is ‘clean at Sephora’, ‘clean at Ultra’, and ‘clean at Target’, so what we do it use individual wholesale vendor standards on their perimeters and no-no zones and then formulate accordingly. There are brands that go beyond those standards, but then should they be considered ‘ultra clean’?”
What about organic beauty?
Pascale Mora, L’Oréal’s head of scientific communication, says: “Organic certification is a quality label provided by an authorized public or private organization, based on standards which specify the required criteria for a product’s certification. This guarantees that the product meets the specifications of the chosen organic quality label. There are several “organic” quality labels at national and international levels. These quality labels primarily guarantee the absence of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in products and the absence of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).”
Vegetarian vs vegan beauty
Vegetarian beauty isn’t a common category in beauty compared to vegan beauty, but you can compare it to the diets—vegetarians don’t take any meat or any ingredients that were part of an animal but can take milk and eggs, while vegans don’t consume anything that came from or was produced by a living organism.
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Examples of non-vegan ingredients in past and present beauty products
Beeswax (also known as cera alba on ingredients lists)
This honey bee-produced wax acts as an occlusive in skincare products, to seal in moisture in skin, prevent transepidermal water loss and relieve dry skin. It’s also well-loved for its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties that calm and condition the skin without clogging pores.
Lanolin (also known as stearyl palmitate on ingredients lists)
Used as a rich, moisturising emollient in skincare formulas, lanolin is a wax secreted by the sebaceous glands of wool-bearing animals like sheep, in particular.
Carmine (also known as cochineal extract, carmine/crimson lake, natural red 4, C.I.75479 or E120 on ingredients lists)
This bright red colour pigment is obtained from carminic acid—an extract from dried female cochineal beetles. This red colourant is used in many lip products, nail polishes and other cosmetics, as well as as food colouring, approved for use by the FDA.
Xenia Wong, Sigi Skin’s director and founder says:“One of the prominent ingredients I can think of is Squalene. This is naturally found in our skin, but the production of Squalene slows down significantly after the age of 30.” Originally harvested from shark livers, squalene has since been replaced with squalane (just a tiny difference of e and a), which is derived from olives, rice brand and sugarcane. “Sigi Skin uses Squalane which is derived from sugar cane in Sigi Skin’s Dream Capsule. This overnight mask helps to lock in moisture. It is suitable for all skin types and excellent for people who have skin-care problems whereby the skin barrier is disrupted and trans epidermal water loss is an issue (those who have eczema and rosacea)”, Wong adds.
“A common ingredient would be Glycerin, which can be either synthetic or derived from animal fat or plants. The glycerine that Lush uses is completely palm-free and vegan friendly. This is derived from non-GMO rapeseed oil grown in the UK,” says Nafees Khundker, director of Lush Singapore.
After experimenting with many ingredients, Lush has officially become egg-free since March 2019. After experimenting with many ingredients to ensure product quality remains and they are still as effective as ever, some of the replacement ingredients for eggs, are chickpea aquafaba, tofu, soya yoghurt and wheat gluten,” adds Khundker.
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Roadblocks for beauty product formulators
Founder of “no B.S.” personal care brand Everyday Humans, Charlotte Chen says: “Our original goal was to be a vegan brand. But we tried, tested and failed during the product formulation stages—and finally decided to put beeswax back in. Beeswax is probably one of the main ingredients founders and formulators have a challenge replacing, because it is such an efficacious ingredient with incredible texture and moisturising power. There are alternatives for is hard to find one that replicates the efficacy and experience of actual beeswax.” The brand’s Resting Beach Face SPF30 Sunscreen Serum and Rosé S’ll Vous Plait SPF30 Gentle Mineral Sunscreen are both vegan, while the Bomb Diggity Wonder Salve contains beeswax.
Pascale Mora, L’Oréal’s head of scientific communication, adds: “Vegan beauty implies that no cosmetic product can be tested on animals. One of the requirements for a brand claiming “vegan” is that the brand is not placed on the Chinese market because Chinese authorities still test some products categories on animals. L’Oréal is at the forefront when it comes to the collaboration with the Chinese authorities regarding alternative animal testing. We have obtained acceptance by the Chinese authorities of several alternative test methods aiming at eliminating animal testing in China. As a result, since 2014 certain products manufactured and sold in China like shampoo, body wash or make-up products are no longer tested on animals. And the development continues since January 1st 2020, China’s National Medical Products Administration (NMPA) accept 9 non-animal (alternative) test methods for the regulation of cosmetics.”
The rise in consumer demand for vegan beauty
Mora explains: “From a consumers’ point of view, vegan is a rising and global trend highly linked with the rise of sustainability concerns, a growing expectation and interest from consumers also regarding the products they use: All categories, but in particular a boom in haircare; in make-up and skincare, the vegan is the most growing claim of all the claims of sustainable and ethical beauty; and the vegan claim has emerged and is growing in Asia. For example, South China Morning Post published a research indicating that the vegan market in China will rise by 17 percent between 2015 and 2020, which would make China the fastest growing vegan market in the world.”