A Nonjudgmental Guide To Vegan Beauty Products

How to go cruelty-free in a way you can handle.

I've been vegan three times in my life, the longest stretch lasting a full year. I just started up again, and I hope this time the lifestyle change will stick (as in, I will find a way to create a vegan version of Ben & Jerry’s Half-Baked ice cream).

I've been a vegetarian my entire life, so the switch isn't as hard for me as it is for carnivores, but it's still an adjustment that requires a whole lot of creativity and label reading. It's a commitment, and it takes some work.

That being said, it can also be super-rewarding. Not only do you get to help animals, but you might just find you feel better than you did before your animal-free diet (IF you eat right--eating only crackers will make you anemic).

My take on veganism/animal-rights issues is to just always do my best, so I try not to limit myself too much or throw a hissy fit if a restaurant accidentally sprinkles my salad with parmesan. I still enjoy honey and honey products, because it's one of my favourite things, and as long as it's produced ethically, no harm comes to bees. I do not eat things with milk protein, but I will eat things that "may have come into contact with milk," because eating something that could contain traces doesn't mean I'm supporting the dairy industry.

I have my eating restrictions pretty nailed-down, and I've become a self-proclaimed expert at vegan cooking and baking, but there's a whole other realm of veganism that I have yet to tap into: vegan beauty products.

Working veganism into your beauty routine (or simply working toward cutting animal products out because it grosses you out) can be a seemingly impossible feat, especially if you have products that you know and love and don't wait to give up. Personally, I think you just need to decide what ingredients are an issue for you and which are not, then set up some guidelines and aim to stick to them. Whereas a healthy, tasty vegan diet can be relatively attainable for many people, vegan beauty is a lot more work, and has a lot of roadblocks.

Here are the three steps I take to find out if a product is vegan:

  1. Check the ingredients. Most of the words will be long and scientific, but that's OK, because step two is...
  2. Cross-check by Googling ingredients to see which are animal-based and which aren't. You’ll find some ingredients could be from either source, so on to step three...
  3. The super-annoying part: if any of the ingredients are a match, contact to the company and ask if the ingredient is, in fact, animal based, or if it is a synthetic or plant-based substitute.

This may seem tedious and intense, because it really is tedious and intense. Sometimes it's hard to even find an ingredient list for a product in the first place, so you have to email right off the bat and just ask if the product contains animal byproducts. It's a long and treacherous road, my friends, and it's pretty hard to keep a 100% clean track record unless you shop only from completely vegan lines at the health food store.

I've decided to try to avoid ingredients that involve killing animals at all costs (e.g. gelatin, guanine, musk, etc.), but I'm staying flexible with by products.

My one absolute deal-breaker is animal testing. There's just no excuse for that horrid nastiness anymore. NO EXCUSE! Politics aside, PETA has a really amazing, extensive database of cruelty-free companies and companies that still test on animals. For a more simple, short list of companies that still test on animals, check out this list from TheVegetarianSite.

Some companies make this vegan thing easier than others:

  • Urban Decay has a special paw print logo that they put on vegan products, and they have a written promise on their site to try and make all ingredients vegan as suitable replacements come available.
  • Skincare-wise, you can’t go wrong with S.W. Basics (formerly Sprout Skincare), whose products are completely vegan, save for a few products containing beeswax; they uses cute glass packaging, and they list their simple, ethically sourced ingredients right on the front of the bottle in big, obvious fonts.
  • Davines (my new addiction thanks to Annie) has a specific “vegetarian” conditioner, a rather extensive list of all of their ingredients, and they’re super-quick to reply to emails (probably because they’re the haircare brand from HEAVEN.)
  • The Too Faced cosmetics line has a lot of vegan options (listed in their FAQ page), does not test on animals, and they even use soft "teddy bear" fluff in their brushes instead of animal hair!
  • Olo Fragrance is a great vegan line of fragrances that the founder tests on herself, not animals; and bonus, she uses almost all natural, plant-based ingredients.

Not quite sick of reading yet? Here’s my simple guide to animal products commonly found in cosmetics. I left out obvious ones like animal fat, egg protein and lard because, come on, you know that. (Remember, your specific product may be made with a synthetic or plant-based version of these ingredients, so check with the company before you panic.)

Allantoin: Uric acid from cows and other mammals, commonly in creams and lotions.

Alpha-hydroxy acid (specifically lactic acid): Can be animal-derived, used in exfoliant and anti-wrinkle products.

Ambergris: From whale intestines (it’s sort of a hard mucus), used as a fixative in making perfumes.

Arachidonic acid: A liquid unsaturated fatty acid found in the liver, brain, glands, and fat of animals, used in creams and lotions to soothe eczema and rashes.

Biotin/vitamin H/vitamin B-Factor: In living cells and milk and yeast, used as a texturizer in cosmetics, shampoos and creams.

Caprylic acid: A liquid fatty acid from cow's or goat's milk, often found in perfumes and soaps.

Carmine/cochineal/carminic acid: Red pigment from the crushed female cochineal insect, used in cosmetics, shampoos (as well as candy and red foods… ew).

Casein/caseinate/sodium caseinate: Milk protein, found in many cosmetics, hair products and masks.

Chitosan: From crustacean shells, used in hair products, deodorants, oral products, and skincare products.

Cholesterol: A steroid alcohol in all animal fats and oils, nervous tissue, egg yolk, and blood, found in cosmetics, eye creams, shampoos. (I know, I know, but Marci says it good for your hair!)

Collagen: A protein in vertebrates, found in anti-aging products.

Elastin: Protein from the neck ligaments and aortas of cows, used in anti-aging creams and lotions.

Guanine/pearl essence: Ground-up fish scales, found in shampoo, nail polish, and other pearly cosmetics.

Keratin: Protein from the ground-up horns, hooves, feathers, quills, and hair of various animals. In hair rinses, shampoos, perm solutions.

Lecithin/choline bitartrate: Waxy substance in nervous tissue; can be in eye creams, lipsticks, hand creams, lotions, soaps, shampoos, etc.

Musk (oil) and civet: Secretion from the genitals of musk deer, beavers, muskrats, civet cats, and otters, used in perfumes.

Tallow/tallow fatty alcohol/stearic acid: Rendered fat, used in lubricants, candles, soaps, lipsticks, shaving creams and other cosmetics. Apparently tallow is also harvested from euthanized zoo and shelter animals, and road kill.

Urea/carbamide/uric Acid: When extracted from animals (it’s mostly synthetic now), it’s taken from urine and other bodily fluids. Found in deodorants, mouthwashes, hair color, hand creams, lotions, shampoos (and pretzels!).

For a supe- intense full list, check out PETA’s Animal Ingredients List.

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