We all hear about the debate over whether certain chemicals are safe to be used in cosmetics, but do most of us know where our beauty products come from? Based on how shocked I was to find out the origins of many common beauty ingredients, I highly doubt it.
I’ve been vegetarian for twenty years due to a love of animals. A few months ago, I found out some of the horrific truths of the dairy and bug industries, became vegan and started researching what products I could now eat. This research led me to look into what ingredients were in my makeup. I was disgusted by the can of worms this opened.
I knew about carmine, as I had recently heard that this came from the cochineal beetle and had been wrestling with my conscience as a vegetarian over whether it was acceptable, arguing with myself that the bugs died naturally and were then harvested (which I now know is rubbish) or that there was a synthetic version that must be cheaper to produce (no idea where I read this – again, turned out to be rubbish). I wrongly thought any beauty product that didn’t contain carmine or honey/beeswax was vegan. I wish this had been the case.
I had already started looking up suspicious or unusual sounding ingredients in makeup, as I was curious as to what exactly I was putting on my face. This soon evolved to looking up any ingredient I didn’t recognise or have a rough idea where it came from. The majority of the beauty products I had assumed to be vegan turned out not to be, and I question whether they could be considered vegetarian to anyone who chooses to avoid meat for ethical reasons, as I imagine many would not want to wash their hair in meat either.
The first ingredient I came across was, by chance, perhaps the most shocking, although fortunately not the most common. Squalene and squalane are two ingredients from the same origin, although I believe one is a processed form of the other. Whilst squalene can be made synthetically or using plants, it is sometimes extracted from sharks’ livers. If this wasn’t bad enough, my further research led me to discover the sharks are not usually needed for anything else and so are dropped back into the sea, often still alive, after having their livers butchered. Fortunately, most western companies now use plant-based or synthetic squalene due to pressure from media attention of the issue a few years ago, but many eastern brands still use the shark form.
I soon found many more common ingredients that are often or always animal-derived lurking in the depths of my bathroom cabinets. A few examples of these are stearic acid, which usually comes from cows’, pigs’, sheep’s, or even dogs’ and cats’, stomachs and is in an unbelievably huge number of products either in its original form or as derivatives such as stearates and cetearyl alcohol; glycerin, a byproduct of soap manufacture, which usually uses animal fats, and tallow (and its derivatives), which is rendered beef fat.
Something to watch for when looking for animal ingredients is the hidden forms of them or their derivatives. There is often more than one name for a particular ingredient, or derivatives that are made using an ingredient plus something else and are not as obvious. It is worth looking up any ingredients that sound a bit like another ingredient that you know could be animal-based, for example, stearic acid is often part of a derivative if it starts stear- (e.g. magnesium stearate) or contains -ear- (e.g. cetearyl alcohol). It is also worth bearing in mind some ingredients hide completely using different names and numbers. Carmine, for example, is also very commonly referred to as CI 75470, Crimson Lake and Natural Red 4, amongst other names.
The potential animal ingredients that can be found in cosmetics are so numerous that lists of just the common ones are overwhelmingly long and virtually impossible to memorise. Whilst fact-checking for this post, I have found another common ingredient that I had not remembered seeing on non-vegan lists and had assumed to be synthetic: hyaluronic acid. As with many potentially animal-based ingredients, this can be produced synthetically, but can also be from umbilical cords and animal joints.
If in doubt as to the origins of a particular ingredient (many can be animal-based, plant-based or synthetic), contacting the manufacturer directly is the best option, although many manufacturers, shockingly, have no idea where certain ingredients that they use in their products come from.
If you are trying to cut out animal-based cosmetics ingredients, I would suggest starting keeping an eye out for the most common ingredients mentioned in this article (stearic acid, stearates, cetearyl alcohol and glycerin) and skimming through a list of potentially animal-based ingredients (such as the one on the Peta website here) every now and then to increase the number you remember. Obviously the ideal situation would be looking up every ingredient you don’t recognise, but not many people have time to look through every ingredient in their makeup and toiletries whilst shopping, and any effort to stop yourself contributing to animal cruelty is better than none.
As a final point, when you realise just what awful things are in your cosmetics, it is very tempting to have a clear out and throw them all away. This is obviously a matter of personal preference, but to me, the point of cutting out animal products is to help animals and therefore throwing those products away rather than using them up would simply mean the cruelty that went into them was for absolutely nothing. To me, it is better to simply focus on trying to avoid purchasing new animal products than to dispose of ones you already have.