Why You Should Care About Vegan Beauty
How a super-niche category got to be so buzzy.
By Andrea Cheng
Feb. 26, 2019
Once perceived as health-conscious people by some, and very, very picky eaters by others, vegans are trending.
The Economist declared 2019 as the year of the vegan, reporting that a quarter of millennials identify as vegan or vegetarian. Outspoken celebrities like Beyoncé and Jay-Z are encouraging fans to become vegan, if not for ethical reasons, then because of health and environmental benefits. In a 2018 report, the vegan food industry recorded 20 percent growth over the previous year, with sales peaking at $3.3 billion.
This demand for all things vegan has made other industries take notice, especially beauty.
“Beauty follows food because we use a lot of the same ingredients,” said Tata Harper, the founder of a namesake natural beauty brand that’s predominantly vegan. “If they’re good to ingest, then they’re typically great to apply topically.”
Sunny Subramanian has been waiting for this moment since she introduced her Vegan Beauty Review site in 2007. An animal lover in Portland, Ore., Ms. Subramanian made the decision to go vegan 19 years ago. She cut meat, dairy and eggs from her diet; she stopped wearing leather, silk and wool.
But with beauty, she was confronted with a problem: She couldn’t find any information online about vegan beauty brands. So she did something about it.
“When I first started, it was crickets — I was the only vegan beauty blog,” Ms. Subramanian said. “Back in the day, we made up such a teeny-tiny percentage of the population.”
What Does Vegan Beauty Actually Mean?
There’s a lot of confusing jargon around vegan beauty — “cruelty-free” is one example, with many people assuming that they’re one and the same.
Plain and simple, vegan beauty means the absence of animal ingredients, while cruelty-free refers to a product that doesn’t test on animals. In other words, it’s possible for a vegan item to have been tested on an animal and a cruelty-free product to contain animal ingredients.
Adding to the confusion is the lack of Food and Drug Administration guidelines. A handful of organizations have rolled out insignia to signal whether a product is vegan or cruelty-free, the most distinguished being the Leaping Bunny Program, which grants certification to personal care and household product companies that ensure that no animal testing is done at any phase of the production process.
“A finished product could say it’s cruelty-free, but that’s not good enough,” said Dennis Gross, a dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon whose skin-care line is certified by the Leaping Bunny Program. “Most animal testing occurs on the ingredient level, so with the Leaping Bunny Program, you’re 100 percent certain that no animal testing occurs in the laboratory.”
PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies Program lists every registered company that is either cruelty-free or both vegan and cruelty-free, and has corresponding logos to match. In Britain, the Vegan Society charity, the oldest vegan society in the world, has registered thousands of brands that are both vegan and cruelty-free.
“It’s easy to pick a food item and decide if it’s vegan or not, but it’s more difficult with beauty,” said Dominika Piasecka, the media and public relations officer of the Vegan Society. “There’s a huge need for it to be labeled.”
Unpacking Animal Versus Vegan Ingredients
Common animal-derived ingredients found in beauty products include honey, beeswax, lanolin (wool grease), squalene (shark liver oil), carmine (crushed-up beetles), gelatin (cow or pig bones, tendons or ligaments), allantoin (cow urine), ambergris (whale vomit) and placenta (sheep organs).
While they’re harmless, they’re not better for you, either, though the thought of smearing on the animal parts found in moisturizers, cosmetics and shampoos may be a deterrent.
“Animal ingredients haven’t been proven to be superior in any way, and wholesome vegan alternatives do exist,” Dr. Gross said.
But the term “vegan beauty,” which is synonymous with “plant-based,” can be misleading, too. It conjures up images of virtuous greens and, in turn, healthiness, which is not necessarily the case.
“Chips are accidentally vegan, but they’re not healthy,” Ms. Subramanian said. “It’s the same with makeup. Just because it’s vegan and cruelty-free doesn’t make it healthy. “Its ingredient list can be chock-full of unhealthy chemicals and fillers.”
The next step is to clean up the ingredient list without completely stripping away preservatives, which, Dr. Gross points out, can help maintain a product’s freshness.
“Using only ingredients that are natural, you’ll often see separation and bacteria growth, which can lead to contamination and loss of efficacy,” he said. “With vegan beauty, you can use a pure nature-derived ingredient along with important additives to prevent them from spoiling. It’s in the right combination.”
Giving In to Consumer Demand
In the 30 years that Kathy Guillermo, a senior vice president of PETA, has campaigned to end the use of animals in laboratory experiments, she can pinpoint two industrywide shifts that spurred vegan awareness in beauty. The first was in 1990, when Estée Lauder and Revlon stopped testing on animals.
Unfortunately, the very same companies began to sell in China, where animal testing is required on many beauty products. It caused backlash and consumer demand for cruelty-free products, which eventually led to the development of instrumentation to replace animal testing.
The second is occurring now. In October, Unilever, the parent company of Dove, Axe, Dermalogica and many more, announced that it has committed to a policy of no animal testing across all of its product lines. “The big companies that held out for so long are now making a change,” Ms. Guillermo said.
For many brands, she said, concern about the ethical and environmental impact of their products is the No. 1 consumer question they encounter.
“I think consumers, especially millennials and Gen Zs, are looking to make purchases that are in line with their personal values,” said Dr. Gross, whose patients regularly ask about vegan and cruelty-free products. “It’s driving a big change in the industry.”
Nine years ago, Dr. Gross converted his skin-care line to be cruelty-free and vegan, and it took three years to reformulate his offerings. (Now only two products in his 52-item lineup have animal-derived ingredients — pearl powder and beeswax — and those will be switched once he has found alternatives.)
“It’s a more involved process to be vegan and cruelty-free because it’s cheaper and easier to do animal testing,” he said. “Clinical testing can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But since we made the switch, we’ve been able to produce products that don’t compromise their effectiveness. We’re showing people it can be done.”
The Vegan Beauty Effect
Perhaps the biggest benefit to come out of the vegan beauty movement is that it’s pushing consumers to assess ingredients. “People are starting to question and research what they’re buying, and I think that’s empowering,” Ms. Piasecka said.
All signs point to an industry that’s working toward being not only cleaner, but also vegan and cruelty-free. (CoverGirl, for instance, is now certified Leaping Bunny, the largest makeup brand to be so designated.) Ms. Subramanian used to know every vegan beauty brand. Now, she said, it’s impossible to keep up.
“The future of the beauty industry is vegan and not animal-tested,” Ms. Guillermo said. “Not every company has realized this yet, but a lot of them have, and those are the ones that are going to get ahead and stay in business. We’re in discussions with enough of them to know that this is, without question, the trend.”