Although I have been conscious of cruelty free products since my teens, it wasn’t until recent years that I became more interested in the actual ingredients found in the products I used. The focus for me was always on what worked best, which smelt the best, which fell into the price bracket I deemed it worth, and lets face it – which had the most appealing packaging! That list of ingredients in tiny font on the back, they never got a look in. My sister makes and sells her own range of aromatherapy products (Beau & Ginger, go check them out and give them a like on Facebook, they are excellent) and it wasn’t until she told me what was in the majority of products we buy that I pricked up my ears, it had never even crossed my mind that animal ingredients would be in the cosmetics and toiletries I used on a daily basis. After I had got over the shock of that and given it some more thought it started to make sense on another level too, the skin is the biggest organ of our body, products are all absorbed into the blood stream and therefore what we put on it matters… Not convinced? (Neither was I) Try the garlic test. Rub a garlic clove on the bottom of your foot and within twenty minutes you will taste garlic and have garlic on your breath just as if you’d eaten it.
During my research I found that some of the ingredients in cosmetics and toiletries are so bizarre that it seems almost unbelievable. Products including animal parts and chemicals – many of which are also known to be hormone disruptors which can lead to weight gain, mood swings, fatigue, allergies and more, plus, are proven to be carcinogenic.
To shed some light on whats really in your makeup bag I have compiled a list of some of the most common ingredients, and the truth about where they really come from. I haven’t written this to intentionally gross you out, its just the truth, but be prepared to chuck out your mainstream brands and get legging it to your nearest health food store for some new toiletries, even if you are a strong-stomached carnivore – its pretty gruesome stuff!
Probably one of the most recognised skincare ingredients, you see the word ‘collagen’ everywhere in skincare advertising. The loss of collagen is one of the main reasons for facial ageing, so adding it to skincare makes sense, in theory. However, it is widely understood that collagen won’t be absorbed deeply enough into the skin (if at all) to help strengthen fibrous tissue that lays beneath the surface. Even more of a reason than that not to be drawn in by the ads though – collagen comes from animal connective tissue, most often from chicken feet and ground-up animal horns.
Hyaluronic acid is used in anti-ageing skincare products as it is an antioxidant, a humectant (drawing moisture up in the skin) and it boosts collagen synthesis. It is found in human umbilical cords and rooster combs. Since the early 1980s, it has been produced from rooster combs on an industrial scale. If you buy a product that contains this anti-ageing ingredient, check that it was made by producing enzymes from a bacteria-based biofermentation process, however it is likely that most products most readily available will contain the rooster comb variety as it is the cheapest.
Casein (also known as Caseinate or Sodium Caseinate)
This is a protein that is extracted from cows milk and is widely used in hair products and beauty masks for its emulsifying properties.
Estrogen (also known as Estradiol)
This female hormone can be found in restorative creams, lotions, and perfume. It is typically extracted from the urine of pregnant horses and is also thought to be carcenagenic.
This steroid alcohol is derived from numerous animal sources including fat, nervous tissue, eggs, and blood. It’s used in many cosmetics including eye creams and shampoo.
Carmine is a dye that is used all the time in red or pink cosmetics – lipsticks, blusher, eye shadow, you name it and if its got a warm coloured tone to it, then its probably got Carmine in. It is also used a lot in food and drinks, particularly items that are bright red (think red velvet cakes, sweets, red fizzy pops, processed ready meals…) It is made of red pigment from the crushed female cochineal insect. PETA reports that 70,000 beetles must be killed to produce one pound of this dye. Grotesque and completely unnecessary when there are plenty of other alternatives.
This skincare ingredient is used to moisturise and help even out skin tone. It’s found in many animals’ exoskeletons but chicken bone marrow is the most common source of glucosamine for the cosmetics industry. Cheap and readily available since 50 billion (yes you read that right, 50 BILLION!) chickens are now slaughtered, every year, worldwide.
I had no idea whatsoever about this one. Ambergris – also known as whale vomit. This grey faecal-smelling lump is a sperm whale bile duct secretion. It’s used by some perfume manufacturers to ‘fix’ the smell of a perfume. Most perfume manufacturers use synthetic alternatives nowadays, although Cosmetics Design Europe reports that it is still used by Dior and Kenneth Cole.
Like collagen, the loss of elastin is one of the main reasons for facial ageing and a word thrown around vastly in skincare campaigns. Again, skincare companies are clamouring in order to be able to claim that their product boosts elastin so some of them add it into their creams and lotions. Will it penetrate your skin far enough to do much? The consensus is probably not. According to PETA, this protein is extracted from the neck ligaments and aortas of cows.
Pretty self explanatory this one. Animal placenta is extracted from the uterus of animals in abattoirs and is widely in skincare products. It is used as a humectant, which means that it is used to draw moisture up into the top layers of the skin.
Many natural skincare products will tell you if this fatty acid is plant-derived. However, those that don’t tell you are probably using animal-derived stearic acid. Factories separate the fat from waste animal tissue in order to create stearic acid. Animals used for this process will include cows, pigs and sheep. Sources of meat include abattoirs, restaurant and butcher shop trimmings, expired meat from supermarkets, and the carcasses of euthanised and dead animals from animal shelters, zoos and vets.
That iridescent pearly sheen in your shampoo, eye shadow and nail polish… Its pretty, but its not magic, this shiny effect is caused by crystalline guanine, extracted from fish scales.
You may recognise this as it is widely used in shampoos and conditioners to moisturise, as well as some body / face lotions and mascaras. Panthenol is often made from one of the components of honey but is also found in certain vegetables and meat. Given the price of honey and the worldwide decline in numbers of bees, and the amount of cheap meat readily available – this is the number one source of panthenol.
Found in creams, lotions, soaps, shampoos, lipsticks, and other waxy cosmetics, this wax-like substance is found in nervous tissue like milk and blood, but often derived from eggs. The vegan-friendly version is nearly always labeled as “soy lecithin” and comes from a favourite in our house – the soybean!
This is an emollient mostly extracted from the oil glands of sheep and found most commonly in lip products including lipstick, chapstick, balms, and glosses. It is also used widely in hair products.
I bet you’ve seen this one advertised in haircare products! Many shampoos and hair rinses like to tell you all about their added keratin which will strengthen your hair. What they don’t tell you is that it’s extracted from the ground-up horns, hooves, feathers, quills, and hair of various animals.
Used in facial creams and other cosmetics. It is the female sex hormone and usually comes from horse urine or cow ovaries.
This fatty acid is found in tallow (a form of animal fat) and often used as an emollient. You may spot it in both liquid and bar soap, nail polish, and skin products. Good news for vegans: the ingredient can also be derived from nuts and olives, so check your labels.
Typically an animal-based protein found in various cosmetics, most commonly anti-aging products. Some polypeptides are synthetic, best to check the label or research the brand and product first.
Another word skincare companies like to use widely in their ads. I had heard of Retinol but had no idea what is was, I assumed is was some sort of synthetic chemical wizardry. Nope, this source of vitamin A is often animal-derived (The livers of beef, pork, chicken, turkey, fish) and used in many popular skin products for its powerful anti-aging properties. There is a plant based version, less widely used – check your label and brand credentials!
Urea, a chief waste product of our body as well as from animals, is used in antiperspirants, moisturisers, mouthwashes, deodorants, and shampoos. That’s right; you’re getting all beautified with the help of an organic compound in urine! Urea is used because it is known to absorb, attract and retain water, and contains vitamins A, D, E, and K. Not only does it work wonders on sweat and moisturising, it is also a great anti-inflammatory as well as a sun protection. Thankfully, most companies now use synthetic urea instead of extracting it from a horse – but if its listed in the ingredients I would always check!
So there you go, not an exhaustive list but some food for thought. Lots of these ingredients are available in ‘vegan friendly’ options, derived from nuts, fruit or vegetables instead, but as a general rule, these products will be labelled as vegan as it is a USP, a quick internet search of your brand and product will usually confirm. There are now so many vegan products available, I plan to draft up some go-to reference lists soon, but an easy option is Holland and Barrett who stock a wide variety of vegan toiletries and some makeup, plus brands like Charlotte Tilbury, Autograph @ M&S, Pur, Barry M, all stock vegan makeup products (although not the entire range, some products still contain lanolin, carmine and beeswax, but they tend to specify on the label or website). With a rise in awareness of what is in our products, there are lots of brands out there that are developing cosmetics and toiletries with a more holistic, plant based approach. With just a little bit of thought and conscious purchasing, its easy to be free of animal ingredients in our makeup bags and bathrooms.