Why Vegan Skincare Matters


Do you know if your skincare products and makeup are vegan? Animal byproducts or the animals themselves are commonly used in skincare. Even if you don’t eat a plant-based diet, there are plant and synthetic alternatives to the animal ingredients used in skincare products.  Here is a list of some common animal ingredients that can be found in non-vegan skincare products and cosmetics:

Squalene Oil is extracted from shark livers. It is thought that around 3 million sharks are caught each year to provide squalene for the cosmetics industry. Squalene is not to be confused with Squalane which can come from olives or sugarcane. Look for the “A”. Most companies will state if it is plant derived.

Ambergris is whale vomit. It is a sperm whale bile duct secretion. It’s still used by some perfume manufacturers to fix the smell of a perfume. Most perfume manufacturers use synthetic alternatives now, although Cosmetics Design Europe reports that it is still used by Dior and Kenneth Cole. Ambergris is highly valued in the perfume industry. In 2103, a man and his dog found 2.7 kilograms of ambergris on a beach in the UK. This was valued at close to $60k back then.

Shellac is secreted by the female lac bug. This ingredient is used to create a shiny finish in products such as hairsprays, shampoos, mascara, and lipstick. Shellac harvesting kills the lac insects. An Indian study revealed that 300,000 lac insects are killed for every kilogram of lac resin produced and up to 25% of unrefined shellac is comprised of insect bodies.

Panthenol can be made from honey, but it’s also found in certain vegetables and meat. Most panthenol used in the beauty industry comes from meat or honey. Companies have started to list whether the panthenol in their products is plant-based.

Crystalline guanine, extracted from fish scales, is the source of the shiny appearance of some cosmetics. Crystalline guanine is also used to give iridescence to nail polishes.

Carmine is a red dye often used in red or pink cosmetics. It is made of red pigment from the crushed female cochineal insect. Insects are picked from the wild or harvested from plantations. The pigment is extracted from the bodies of female insects, which contain up to 25% of their dry weight as the product from this harvest. The harvested insects are immersed in hot water to kill them and then dried either in the sun or in an oven until they are approximately 30% of their original weight. Cochineal extraction companies state that five million insects are required to make 32 lbs. of extract.

Fake vanilla fragrance is used because real vanilla is very expensive. Scientists at the International Medical Center of Japan can extract a fake vanilla fragrance from cow feces.

Elastin is a protein which is extracted from a cow’s neck ligaments and aortas. Elastin is believed to impart elasticity and tautness to human skin.


Hyaluronic Acid (or sodium hyaluronate) is an antioxidant, a humectant and boosts collagen synthesis. Hyaluronic acid is found in human umbilical cords and rooster combs. Vegan hyaluronic acid is made from a bacteria-based bio fermentation process.

Glucosamine is used to enhance the skin’s barrier and to brighten skin. It’s found in many animals’ exoskeleton. Glucosamine is usually obtained from chickens.

Placental protein is obtained from the uterus of animals in abattoirs and is used in shampoos and conditioners.

Snail mucein is believed to improve discoloration, soften skin, and aid in collagen production. Some companies put the snails on mesh screens and let them do their thing. Other companies are said to use salt in the production of mucein for skincare products.

Collagen really isn’t bioavailable when applied to the skin. Most collagen in skincare creams come from chicken feet and ground-up animal horns.

Stearic acid can be plant-derived or animal derived. Waste fat from animal tissue is used to create stearic acid. Animals used for this process include cows, pigs and sheep. Sources of fat include abattoirs, restaurant and butcher shop trimmings, expired meat from grocery stores, and the carcasses of euthanized and dead animals.

Beeswax is obtained from virgin bees. Beeswax is widely used in cosmetics and skincare. It's thought that no bees are harmed but the process can leave bees sickened or dead. Vegan alternatives are candelilla wax, carnauba wax, sunflower wax, and berry wax.

Keratin is extracted from the ground-up horns, hooves, feathers, quills, and the hair of various animals. Keratin is very common in hair products.

Lanolin is a product of the oil glands of sheep, extracted from their wool. Lanolin is used as a water proofer and emollient in cosmetics and skincare products.

Gelatin is made by boiling cow and pig skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones in water. Gelatin is used in various skincare products. Agar agar, made from seaweed, is a great alternative, as is fruit pectin. Agar agar can also be used to make vegan Jell-O.

Amino Acids include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine and are used in skincare. Amino acids are found in animal proteins but can also be found in plants or are available as synthetics.

Arachidonic Acid is used to treat skin conditions like eczema or dry skin. Generally, this ingredient is obtained from animal livers.

Boar Bristles come from the hair of wild or captive hogs. You can find boar bristles in makeup brushes and hairbrushes. Other alternatives to use are vegetable fibers, peelu plant fibers and nylon.

Imadazolidinyl Urea is a product of the oil glands of sheep. This ingredient is extracted from sheep’s wool and is used as an emollient in many skin-care products and cosmetics like brow pencils and powders. It’s also used as a preservative in some natural cosmetics. Also, Imadazolidinyl urea is a formaldehyde-releaser which means that this ingredient slowly releases formaldehyde over time to inhibit microbial growth. Inhaled formaldehyde can be a carcinogen.

This isn't a complete list of animal products that can be found in skincare and makeup. There are many more ingredients that are animal derived. Plant based and safe synthetic substitutes for animal ingredients exist, so why are we still seeing ingredients like carmine in cosmetics and skincare products?  Are there any of these ingredients in your holy grail skincare products or makeup? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.



Kendrick, A. (2012). Natural food and beverage colourings. 10.1533/9780857095725.1.25.

PETA’s Animal Ingredient list. http://www.peta.org/living/vegetarian-living/animal-ingredients-list.aspx. Retrieved December 12, 2020.

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