What Does Vegan Skin Care *Really* Mean?

If you saw the word “vegan” on a skin-care label recently and thought huh?, I’d understand your confusion. I mean, it’s not like there are masks made of ground beef and eye cream made of pork (um, thankfully). So, are animal-free labels really necessary, or is “vegan” just a marketing term attempting to tap into the plant-based movement?

It’s a bit of both. For starters, even though there isn’t straight-up meat in your products, some skin-care ingredients indeed come from animals-meaning, no, they aren’t vegan.

But that doesn’t mean non-vegan skin care is inherently bad. And to make matters more complicated, it doesn’t mean vegan skin care is inherently virtuous, either. After all, depending on your motives for being vegan, you’d also want to consider whether products are tested on animals and how plant-based ingredients affect the environment, right?

Yeah, it sounds like a lot to deal with-all just to buy some cleanser and moisturizer. So if shopping for skin care makes you feel like you need to recharge at a spa afterward-vegan or otherwise-read on. It’s not as stressful as it sounds.

Are there really animal products in my skin care?

There could be-but it’s probably not as big a problem as it seems. “Most cosmetics are vegan even if they aren’t advertised that way,” says Perry Romanowski, cosmetic chemist, and author of Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry. That’s because there was a mad cow disease outbreak back in the ’90s that prompted cosmetics companies to move away from animal materials, particularly anything involving cows. “Pretty much any chemical that can be produced using plants is used over anything that might begin with animal materials,” Romanowski says. “In fact, the FDA prohibits the use of certain animal parts in the production of all cosmetics.”

But the FDA only limits the use of “certain cattle material.” So if you draw a hard line at any animal products, there are still some ingredients to look out for if a vegan skin-care regimen is important to you.

Some popular ingredients on the list, according to Romanowski:

  • Lanolin, an emollient typically found in moisturizer, which comes from sheep’s wool. “Sheep aren’t harmed to get it, but it’s not considered vegan,” Romanowski says.
  • Gelatin, a thickener used in moisturizer, which is usually a by-product of the animals used for food.
  • Beeswax, a thickener used in skin creams and lipsticks/balms.
  • Hydrolyzed milk protein, which is used in moisturizer and comes from cow’s milk.
  • Cholesterol, an emollient used in moisturizer, is usually derived from sheep’s wool.
  • Collagen, which is used in moisturizer and derived from cows or fish-and a little gimmicky, according to Romanowski. “People know skin is made of collagen, so they think a collagen lotion works better (even though it doesn’t).” (If you want to actually boost your skin’s collagen, start with these ingredients instead.)
  • Silk protein, a moisturizer used in hair products. “It takes a lot of silkworms to make silk, which is a ‘hot’ item in beauty right now,” says Phoebe Song, founder of Snow Fox, a vegan skin-care line. “But the worms are boiled to extract the silk, so it’s not as gentle a process as extracting honey from bees.”

You might find animal-derived ingredients in your makeup and hair products too: “Guanine, a pearly essence from fish scales is used to make makeup shimmery,” Song says. “And keratin, which you’ll find in a lot of hair-care products, is made from protein taken from animal hooves, horns, and feathers.”

Of course, if you’re against any and all animal products, you’ll want to avoid these ingredients entirely. But Romanowski notes that they’re usually a by-product of food production. Take the keratin just mentioned: “No animals are killed specifically for keratin,” he says. “There’s just a lot of keratin available after food processing.”

Plus, vegan isn’t everything…

As with food, vegan doesn’t always mean ethical. Glycerin, an ingredient common in moisturizer and cleanser, sometimes comes from palm oil, which Song says is technically vegan but “plays a role in mass deforestation and affects wildlife.” (Palm oil production is associated with deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, which reduces the region’s biodiversity.)

Then, there’s the issue of animal testing. “A company can make a vegan product containing no animal by-products but still test on animals,” says Jacquelyn Foster-Quattro, founder of Jersey Shore Cosmetics. “Although animal testing isn’t required by law in the U.S., some companies test on animals to determine the lethal dose and the risk of eye or skin irritation.”

To be fair, though, animal testing is pretty rare to begin with. Romanowski says most of the ingredients commonly used today have already been tested on animals, so this isn’t as much of an issue as it used to be. But to be sure your products are animal-friendly, not just animal-free, look beyond the ingredient list. “Look for cruelty-free logos-like Leaping Bunny, PETA’s cruelty-free bunny logo-as well as animal-free ingredients,” Foster-Quattro says.

MIMI (Multi ion mask insert)

  • Can be worn with any facemask and provides additional heavy-duty protection.
  • Adult & Youth Sizes Available

Consider these vegan, cruelty-free products.

Like Romanowski says, there’s still a good chance your favorite products are already vegan: “Cosmetic companies were already avoiding animal ingredients long before the vegan trend began,” he says. But if you want to be 100 percent sure your skin care is cruelty-free and uses only ethically sourced ingredients, consider the products below.

1. Sugar Rush by Tarte, Whipped Body Butter: This cruelty-free body butter from Tarte’s new vegan line uses shea butter and almond oil to keep skin hydrated. It’s also free of all the non-vegan ingredients above and legit smells like cake.

2. Snow Fox Skin Care Omega Repair Cream: All Snow Fox products are specifically formulated to be gentle on sensitive skin, including this lightweight repair cream that uses omega fatty acids derived from olive and macadamia oils, solid (and common) alternatives to the ingredients mentioned earlier. Use it to prime skin for makeup. 

3. Tuel Eye Corrector Firm & Lighten Gel: Tuel is a paraben-free skin-care line that manufactures all-vegan products in California; their under-eye gel has a silky feel-without the silk. 

4. Jersey Shore Cosmetics Hydrating Whole Body Butter: Instead of animal-derived emollients, this vegan, cruelty-free body butter uses shea butter, hemp seed oil, and vitamin E to moisturize-and it’s gentle enough for the skin on your face, too. 

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