Vegan is such a loaded term when it comes to cosmetics. There are so many beauty companies who claim to be vegan, but if you have been either interested in vegan beauty products for a few years or have it used it professionally and are vigilant about reading the ingredients list, they are not always accurate to what they claim.
There’s a lot of confusion about where the line is drawn between what is vegan or not and what qualifies a company to be vegan. In this article, we will explore what vegan means, what the implications are, and based on the currently available information, what indeed makes a beauty product vegan. And also the different levels of how vegan a product can be.
What is the definition of vegan?
In the beauty world, if a product is vegan, it automatically should be cruelty-free, too, since the point of going vegan and supporting vegan businesses is to protect and save animals from being used for the ingredients or testing. If you’re new to the term cruelty-free, you can check out our recent article, “Why aren’t all cosmetics brands cruelty-free?” to get up to speed on what that means. Though some companies may claim to be vegan regarding their ingredients list, they might still sell to countries like China, which requires animal testing before hitting the shelves, which would not make them cruelty-free. One recent example of this was when Urban Decay let down a lot of their vegan fans when they chose to sell to China in 2012. Though, a month later, repealed that decision.
Other than no animal testing, vegan products are not made with animal ingredients or animal-derived ingredients such as lanolin, which is derived from sheep’s wool. Carmine, which is also known as cochineal or Red Lake 40, and other such names is made from the blood of crushed beetles which is proven to be a skin irritant and potential cause of dermatitis and eczema. It is sometimes combined with blue colorants to create violet cosmetic colors which will still be irritating to people sensitive to this colorant.
Sometimes gelatin is used to thicken formulas for creams and lotions for the face and body, and that is created from the crushed hooves and bones of animals, just like it is for Jello.
To see even more animal-derived ingredients common in cosmetics, you can check out this thorough list from PETA.
If a product contains beeswax or honey, is still considered vegan?
Another questionable ingredient for vegan products is the use of beeswax which is an emulsifying product produced by bees. But, some vegans say it is okay to claim a beauty product is vegan with beeswax or even honey because those are products that are outside of the bee’s bodies and do not require the death or physical compromising of the bees to obtain, more or less. Such ingredients also have many beneficial medicinal and skin healing properties.
There are issues around the use of beeswax also because of potential animal cruelty and how the wax or honey is harvested from the bees which can sometimes kill a good number of them depending on how aware and gentle the beekeeper is around them and their process of obtaining the beeswax. But, things are changing in the world with that with people who are trying to do ethical beekeeping and harvesting of honey and wax such as Patagonia Bee Products.
What regulations or criteria are required to be able to claim that a beauty product is vegan?
Currently, in the United States, the FDA which is supposed to be the governing body for food, drug, and cosmetic ingredients, testing and regulation do not have any information on what qualifies a cosmetic product to be vegan. There is information on cruelty-free and organic labeling, but for some reason, they have not developed criteria for the vegan genre.
According to the FDA website article, “FDA Authority Over Cosmetics: How Cosmetics Are Not FDA-Approved but Are FDA-Regulated”:
“Under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA premarket approval, with the exception of color additives…does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information with FDA. FDA may take regulatory action if we have reliable information indicating that a cosmetic is adulterated or misbranded…[and] manufacturers are not required to register their cosmetic establishments or file their product formulations with FDA…It is the manufacturer’s and/or distributor’s responsibility to ensure that products are labeled properly. Failure to comply with labeling requirements may result in a misbranded product.”
So, it looks like the FDA is somewhat neglectful about monitoring the labeling of beauty products that claim to be vegan before they hit shelves. It seems that so long as the ingredients list is accurate and that there are no inaccurate or misleading claims about the performance of the product, that there is not much that they will do to enforce accurate vegan labeling before consumers complain about incorrect claims of a company to being “vegan.” And that seems to explain why there are many vegan cosmetic companies that can go to market that still contain animal-derived ingredients like carmine which is very common.
Are all vegan beauty products made equally? If a product is labeled vegan, is it automatically a safe and healthy product?
Just like in a vegan diet, there is vegan food that is basically junk food without animal products, and then there is healthy vegan food that is made from whole plants and grains that contains a nutritional value. In the cosmetic industry, vegan products also fall under these two categories because while a product can be entirely devoid of animal products, it does not necessarily mean that it is not made with other synthetic fillers and preservatives that are unsafe to consume topically as makeup or skincare.
Some examples of this are popular vegan drugstore brands like E.l.f.., Pixi, and even more expensive brands like Urban Decay and Tarte. For instance, Tarte markets itself with catchy hybrid words to create an image of health and environmentalism, but some of their brow colors still contain talc which can be contaminated with asbestos and contribute to ovarian cancer and phenoxyethanol, a paraben (a carcinogen known to contribute to breast cancer).
Because vegan has become such a selling point to signify healthy living and strong ethical standards, many new labeling and regulation companies statewide and even regionally within states in the US have started to help provide some kind of reassurance that the companies that carry their logos are healthier and ethical and in their manufacturing and testing procedures. Though, sometimes some of these certification organizations will be lenient with labeling if paid the right price. Also, since there is no federal regulation or standard on what it truly means, deciding what standards to use to define a high-quality vegan product fall on the business to choose and stick to. To see a list of current logo variations there are you can go to this list of cruelty-free and vegan logos by Skin Dressing.
So what does this mean for the current beauty industry in terms of what’s truly vegan?
Although there is no universal standard, regulation, or governing board truly dedicated to proper labeling of this genre of beauty and cosmetics (yet), the good thing is that we all still have the flexibility and freedom to define what our standards are with vegan beauty products and have many educated and trustworthy sources of organizations and small businesses that are dedicated to this lifestyle and promoting a healthier future.
Where can I find truly healthy, vegan beauty products?
Etsy is a wonderful source for independent beauty product creators who often create products for people with sensitive skin. Since many indie beauty businesses begin because of a health condition like eczema or acne and the lack of cosmetics made safe for them, you are sure to find dozens of options with ingredient transparency. Some are more informative than others about their ingredients and why they choose them in their formulas. A good rule of thumb is the more information there is, the better.
Health Food Stores like New Leaf Market, Sprouts, and co-ops like Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco or the Mother’s Market chain in Southern California are also staffed with very educated and aware employees who are often great skincare and green beauty advisors.
Farmers’ markets and local craft fairs and festivals will also be great places to find safer cosmetics–kind of like Etsy in person. And it’s always great to support the local economy and promote diversity in business and cosmetics options.
Terry Alabata is a 7-year experienced makeup artist and hairstylist and the Bay Area’s premiere beauty artist specializing in eco-friendly and cruelty-free makeovers. Her passion for makeup and hair grew from a desire to find safe, hypoallergenic options for people with sensitive skin and eczema, like her.