The Ultimate Guide to Vegan Beauty

The transition to veganism can seem overwhelming. You’ve just switched to a plant-based diet and now you have to tackle your makeup collection. Buying cruelty-free, vegan cosmetics doesn’t have to be daunting or expensive. In this guide, you’ll find some tips and tricks for shopping cruelty-free, common non-vegan ingredients to avoid and my favourite brand recommendations.

What is vegan beauty?

Just like food, vegan beauty describes a cosmetic product that contains zero animal by-products or derivatives. The ingredients must also be processed using plant-based elements.  

What is the difference between ‘vegan’ and ‘cruelty-free’?

These two terms are often used interchangeably but they mean entirely different things!

Unfortunately, just because something is cruelty-free doesn’t mean it is vegan – and visa versa. ‘Vegan’ (or suitable for vegan/SFV) refers to products that do not contain any animal by-products or derivatives. ‘Cruelty-free’ (CF) describes cosmetics that were not tested on animals during any of the extraction, manufacturing or completion stages. Vegans try to shop for products that are both.

With greenwashing on the rise, customers need to be more vigilant when checking product labelling. L’Oréal, for example, previously marketed its Botanical range as vegan despite testing its products on animals. They have since had to rebrand the range as simply having a vegan formula. L’Oréal is the perfect example of when a product can be vegan but not cruelty-free.

What does the law say on animal testing?

While it may vary from state to state, a number of products like pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and detergents are first tested on animals in the United States. Animal testing is largely regulated by the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 (AWA).

Animal testing for cosmetic ingredients has been illegal in the UK since 1998 and was later made illegal in the EU in 2009. Brands operating in the EU, however, can still test on animals if required by non-European law. 

Animal testing has been historically compulsory in China. Brands who sell their products in countries which require animal testing by law cannot be considered cruelty-free. For example, some customers chose to boycott previously cruelty-free brand, NARS, when the high-end brand chose to enter the Chinese market. 

At the end of 2019, China expressed intent to ban animal testing on beauty products entering China. While the legislation has been delayed by the pandemic, animal rights organizations are hopeful that the ban will be implemented soon.

What about parent companies?

A parent company is a large company which owns and oversees other smaller brands. This may result in a cruelty-free brand, such as Nyx and Urban Decay, being owned by a parent company that tests on animals, such as L'Oréal. Many customers were disappointed when Body Shop – the brand behind its trademark ‘Forever Against Animal Testing’ campaign – were bought out by L’Oréal in 2006. Body Shop have since been sold to Natura, a cruelty-free Brazilian brand. 

Whether you should avoid cruelty-free brands owned by non-cruelty-free parent companies is a grey area and largely a matter of personal choice. On the one hand, boycotting these brands prevents the profits of cruelty-free brands going to an animal-testing parent company which may indirectly fund animal suffering.

On the other hand, choosing to only buy from cruelty-free brands, even those owned by a parent company that tests on animals, creates a bigger demand for cruelty-free products. Industry giants are becoming increasingly aware that consumers value the ethics behind the products that they are purchasing. If deemed profitable, the success of a smaller cruelty-free brand may encourage the parent company to follow suit. 

As Suzi from Cruelty-free Kitty puts, ‘supporting cruelty-free brands owned by companies that test on animals is better than purchasing from brands that aren’t cruelty-free’.

How can I spot vegan beauty products?

The easiest way to shop cruelty-free is to look for accredited symbols on the product’s label or packaging, the most trusted being the Leaping Bunny. Administered by The Corporate Standard of Compassion for Animals, the Leaping Bunny Program is the only internationally recognised certification organisation for cruelty-free brands. Brands pledging to be cruelty-free must undergo thorough investigation and meet a comprehensive standard – no animal testing can be conducted in any phase of development and production, including by third-party suppliers – in order to be certified. While the Leaping Bunny logo highlights that a brand or product is cruelty-free, this does not guarantee that it is vegan-friendly. 

The Vegan Society, the world’s largest vegan organisation, has registered over 19,000 toiletries and cosmetic products with its signature vegan trademark. To be certified, brands must use no animal ingredients and must not test on animals. This must also be true for third party suppliers and for any parent company. Labour rights organisation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), also distributes its Beauty without Bunny logo on cosmetics and toiletries which are both vegan and cruelty-free.

Most cosmetic companies have an animal testing policy on their website, often in the FAQ section. Be careful not to confuse a brand as cruelty-free if they test on animals when required by law. Brands ultimately choose to operate in this market and willingly participate in animal testing so cannot be considered cruelty-free, even if their products are not tested on animals in the EU. Cruelty-free brands often have a vegan filter or list on their website or can advise which products are plant-based via email. 

There are also a number of online resources to help you determine whether your favourite cosmetic brand is cruelty-free. Cruelty-free Kitty has compiled a comprehensive database containing hundreds of cruelty-free cosmetic brands. Here, you can filter your search to show brands which are 100% vegan and brands who aren’t owned by a parent company that tests on animals. For product reviews and recommendations, Nicole Whittle, the award-winning beauty blogger behind Vegan Beauty Girl, shares ethical, affordable and sustainable alternatives to your favourite beauty products.

If still in doubt, it is always best to contact the brand directly. You’re better off emailing a member of customer service – instead of messaging the brand on social media – because they’re more likely to have in-depth product knowledge. In your email, you should ask if any of their products are tested on animal, either as single ingredients or as a finished product. This should include all development and manufacturing phases throughout their supply chain and any third-party affiliations. It is also worth clarifying if the brand tests on animals when required by law and if the brand is owned by a parent company that tests on animals.

Which non-vegan ingredients should I avoid?

Checking the label of your favourite lipstick is very different to checking food packaging – there’s a lot of chemicals and ingredients you won’t recognise! Below are some common non-vegan ingredients to avoid:

Ambergris: A fragrance fixative in perfumes produced in the intestinal tract of whales.

Animal hair or fur: Non-vegan makeup brushes and false eyelashes often contain the hair or fur of weasels, squirrels, minks, badgers, ponies or goats who may be kept in poor and cruel conditions. There are now a range of synthetic alternatives available such as Taklon or Nylon. Both ingredients are naturally hypoallergenic and are better suited to sensitive skin.

Beeswax: A prevalent cosmetics-grade wax that is extracted from the honeycombs of honeybees. It is most often found in lip products, creams, lotions, mascaras, and sometimes eyeshadows. 

Carmine/Carminic Acid/Cochineal: A red pigment made from crushing the female cochineal beetle which is often found in red and pink-coloured cosmetics. PETA reports that 70,000 beetles must be killed to produce just one pound of this red dye.

Casein/Caseinate/Sodim Casienate: A protein generally extracted from cow’s milk which is widely used in hair products and beauty masks.

Cholesterol: A steroid alcohol that is derived from a number of animal sources including fat, nervous tissues, eggs and blood. It is sometimes used in eye creams and shampoo.

Collagen: A fibrous protein that is naturally produced in animals. In order to extract the protein, collagen is taken from dead animals by cooking cartilaginous animal materials, such as bones, connective tissues and skin. Collagen is typically used because of its temporary plumping or firming effect and can be found in lotions, creams or lipsticks.

Estrogen/Estradiol: A female hormone typically extracted from the urine of pregnant horses. It is often found in lotions, perfume and restorative creams.

Glycerin/Glycerol: A by-product of animal fat that is widely used in lip products, lotions, balms, toothpastes and soaps. Many companies have begun to ditch it in favour of vegetable glycerin.

Keratin: An animal protein made from ground hooves, horns, feathers and fur. It is a common ingredient in hair products including treatments, shampoo and perm products.

Lactic Acid: This is often derived from blood and muscle tissue and can be found in many exfoliators. A lot of companies are now moving toward a form of lactic acid sourced from beets.

Lanolin: An emollient commonly extracted from the oil glands of sheep. It is widely used in lipstick, lip gloss, lip balm and hair products.

Lecithin: A substance found in waxy cosmetics that is often derived from eggs or found in animal nervous tissue. The vegan-friendly alternative is nearly always labelled as ‘soy lecithin’.

Glycerides/Monoglycerides/Triglycerides: An animal fat derivative used in glycerin-based products.

Musk: An ingredient traditionally sourced from the genital secretions of musk deer, otters, beavers and wild cats. It is used in some fragrances although brands are increasingly replacing musk with synthetic alternatives.

Oleic acid: A fatty acid found in tallow (a form of animal fat) which is often used as an emollient in cosmetic products. The vegan-friendly version is derived from nuts and olives.

Placenta: An organ found in pregnant mammals which is used in skin and hair treatments and anti-aging products. Though the extraction of the placenta is natural during birth, many animal rights activists insist commercial placenta is being harvested from the uteri of slaughtered animals.

Polypeptides: An animal-based protein commonly used in anti-aging products.

Polysorbates:  An edible fatty acid derivative used as emulsifier in a range of cosmetics.

Progesterone: An animal-based steroid hormone commonly used in anti-wrinkle creams.

Retinol: An animal-derived vitamin used for its anti-aging properties.

Vegan beauty recommendations?

*the majority of NABLA’s products are vegan, except those that are listed as containing beeswax.

Please note that packaging and ingredients can change over time, so it is always worth double checking before you purchase.

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