Whether you’re vegan or not, it’s always good to be informed
The internet has done a great deal to democratize the cosmetic industry and empower consumers to study their ingredients. But at the same time, the endless flow of new promotional jargon and hero ingredients makes it impossible to keep up. From patented proprietary complexes to scientific names for common botanicals, ingredient nomenclature is nothing if not opaque. If you’re a vegan, you probably already know to steer clear of ingredients like lanolin and beeswax. In fact, you may even rely on the stamp of approval from organizations like The Vegan Society to certify a product or range as vegan, and therefore free from any animal or insect-derived ingredients and that the product, as well as its component ingredients, have not been tested on animals.
But what if (like me) you’re not a vegan, but still curious about animal byproducts in your cosmetics? Chances are, there are a lot of common cosmetic ingredients you didn’t realize came from animals. If a product isn’t explicitly sold as vegan, from the consumer perspective, it can be difficult to figure out why this is the case and find the animal byproduct hiding in the ingredients. If you’re going at it alone, you might look to PETA’s widely reprinted list of possible animal-derived ingredients. The list errs on the side of caution to a point of being overly inclusive, giving the impression that certain ingredients are always animal-derived when they have in fact been replaced by synthetic alternatives.
Sometimes we need to call in backup to help us demystify the ingredients we’re told we need. I reached out to cosmetic chemist, formulator, and blogger, Stephen Alain Ko to find out about a handful of lesser-known cosmetic ingredients of animal and insect origin. Because you don’t have to be a vegan to be curious about the ingredients in the acid toner you just spent your full paycheck on, but (if writing this article has taught me anything), you probably do need to be a chemist to figure out if they came from an animal.
Collagen is a structural protein found in the connective tissue of humans and animals. (It’s also the ingredient that gets processed into gelatine for use in food.) Cosmetic formulas have traditionally used collagen derived from bovine or marine sources. But vegan collagen can be produced from modified yeast and bacteria, as well as modified plants, like the tobacco plant, according to Ko.
When applied topically in hair care, skincare, and sometimes make-up formulas, collagen provides hydrating benefits. But according to the cosmetic chemists behind the blog The Beauty Brains, vegan, or synthesized collagen isn’t differentiated from animal-derived collagen in ingredient listings. So how can a consumer know if the product they’re buying is made with synthesized collagen? When in doubt, Ko advises contacting the company directly to ask about the source of their collagen. “Vegan collagen tends to be more expensive, so it's likely they would brand their product with this information.”
Guanine, also known as Pearl Essence, is a colour additive derived from fish scales. Crystals of guanine give a glimmering, iridescent effect to cosmetic products, primarily nail polish. Ko adds that guanine is also one of the nucleotide bases that make up DNA. Some products do contain DNA components, so guanine is probably included in those.
Acetyl Glucosamine and N-Acetyl Glucosamine (NAG)
In cosmetics, Acetyl Glucosamine and N-Acetyl Glucosamine (sometimes referred to as NAG), are interchangeable. Maybe you haven’t heard of it yet – I hadn’t either – but you’ll find it in skincare formulas, foundations, and even antiperspirants. The ingredient is patented as Neoglucosamine by skincare brand Neostrata, who describe it as “the building block of skin’s natural hyaluronic acid.” Sounds promising, but where does Acetyl Glucosamine come from? Traditionally, from the shells of marine animals. However, Ko explains that glucosamine can also be sourced from mushrooms or through microbial processing of corn and wheat. But most of the formulas I came across don’t purport to be vegan: Neostrata and Paula's Choice (who also use Acetyl Glucosamine in several of their products) both note that they source their ingredient from shellfish. The few vegan examples I did see were explicitly labelled as vegan. Vegans, take note.
You’ve definitely heard of keratin. Keratin is the key structural protein that makes up hair and nails (and horns) in mammals. Brands market keratin as a saving grace for damaged hair, but The Beauty Brains say the jury’s still out. Generally speaking, protein products may be beneficial to hair, but keratin protein, in particular, is not more effective than some other protein source.
Regardless, the hair care market seems to be saturated with keratin. Is it ever vegan? Ko tells me that “Vegan keratin is not keratin, but a mixture of plant amino acids which are meant to mimic the amino acid mixture of keratin. It shouldn't be listed as keratin on the ingredient list.”
Ingredients derived from silk
Silk-derived ingredients are used in a wide range of cosmetic products including hair care products, skincare and eye creams, facial powders and mascara, among others. Silk is the base for many different ingredients. Here’s what to look for: silk protein, hydrolyzed silk protein, silk peptides, and silk amino acids. Not all of which contain the word silk, however, so also watch out for sericin and serica powder, which Ko explains as the glycoprotein isolated from silk and the finely-milled powder made from ground whole silk, respectively.
But are they always derived from insects? I’ve heard of synthetic silk textiles, what about synthetic silk proteins? “It is possible to recreate the amino acid composition of a silk amino acid product, for example,” says Ko. “But it would not be listed as silk.” So if you see the word silk (or serica or sericin, for that matter) in the ingredients, then it’s not vegan.
‘Cruelty-free’ mink lashes
If you’ve ever had or shopped for false lashes or lash extensions, you’ve probably heard or seen the word ‘mink’ thrown around. Mink lashes (made from the individual animal hairs) are said to be softer, lighter, and more natural looking than synthetic alternatives. More recently, brands have been marketing ‘cruelty-free’ mink lashes harvested by brushing ‘free-range’ mink to collect naturally shed hair. According to Mandy Carter at The Dodo, mink are aggressive, solitary animals, who cannot safely be kept under free-range living conditions. PETA has also taken a stance against mink lashes that claim to be cruelty-free.
Synthetic alternatives do exist and are widely available. For example, synthetic mink and synthetic silk lashes are both made of plastic, but designed to mimic the effect of their natural fibre counterparts.