Mya Care Blogger 28 Apr 2021

While consuming a vegan diet may promote health if related to an increased consumption of nutritious fruits and vegetables[1]; is it true that using topical vegan beauty products produces similar effects when compared to their animal counterparts?

The following article aims to take a look at plant-based cosmetics and to assess if they are indeed healthier than animal counterparts.

How Effective Are Plant-Based Cosmetic Products?

It is not necessarily true that plant-based cosmetics are more or less effective than animal-based products. The following considerations highlight this point and can actually extend to all cosmetic products available on the shelf, whether natural, synthetic, plant-based or animal-based.

The Testing of Vegan Cosmetics: Side Effects and Benefits

A vegan beauty product is free of ingredients that are derived from animal sources; however to make it truly vegan, it also needs to not be tested on animals in order to ensure the product is safe to use. Many vegan brands adopt a cruelty-free stance in this respect and strive to have their products or the individual ingredients tested on lab-cultured human skin cells and eventually human test subjects.

Cultured skin samples are being used more often to test cosmetic products, especially in Europe. There are pitfalls in this technology as the skin samples are not 100% the same as the skin found on living humans. They are a very close approximation nevertheless and can show if a product would be immediately harmful when applied. Results can be revealing for photo-toxicity, skin and eye irritation or corrosion and how well the product is absorbed by the skin; however it should be noted that these correlations are limited and being improved upon as sample cultures are better made to mimic human skin.

Eye tests may not be exact representations as most lab-cultured “eye” samples only mimic the cornea for testing. Factors that can’t be tested for using lab-cultured skin samples include dermal allergic reactions, how much of the product makes it into the system from the skin and if there is a risk of systemic toxicity, carcinogenicity beyond the dermis, reproductive side effects, etc.  These models are being continuously improved upon and perhaps in the next decade or so, we will be able to ascertain more information regarding the safety of cosmetics thanks to lab-cultured samples.

In spite of the progress made in cruelty-free cosmetic testing, a lot of these trials (including the human-based ones) do not cover for any potential long-term effects that the product may have and so it is difficult to tell if using your vegan cosmetics daily will still have the same effect in 10 years’ time.  However, many plant-based products consist of ingredients that are safe to eat, which is probably the most reliable indication that they can be used safely on the skin. This is not always the case though, as is demonstrated by chillies and onions, which may be eaten but would burn on the skin or in the eyes. Recent data shows that people experience allergic reactions to both vegan and natural cosmetic products[2].

Ingredient Interactions

Another problem arises when multiple ingredients are combined to form a cosmetic product, especially with regard to a combination of natural and artificial substances. Some companies will make use of data derived from single ingredients, stating the product has benefit because it contains the well-studied ingredient. This is misleading as it does not take into account the interaction of the ingredient when placed in combination with other products. One example includes resveratrol, which is a natural chemical found in many plants that protects them from UV radiation. When added to a cosmetic product, it can increase photo-toxicity when combined with water and actually have the opposite effect.

Skin Types

Did you know that different shades and types of skin have unique sensitivities and profiles regarding UV, acne, allergic reactions and more? Darker skin houses a lot more melanin than lighter skin and each tone confers different concentrations of nutrients that are stored in the skin such as Vitamin A and Vitamin D. This means that cosmetic products are going to have unique effects depending on the skin tone and skin type of the person. Currently, there is not a lot of data that supports the benefits of cosmetics across all skin tones and types, and much remains to be answered in this arena. Even animal tests cannot truly ascertain the effects these products may have across unique types of skin.

Synthetic Additives

Research on synthetic additives has proven consistently over the years that many of them are irritating or damaging to skin, help to induce skin allergies[3] and are even potentially carcinogenic. For many, the term ‘vegan’ is synonymous with ‘natural.’ However, both vegan and natural products that are available contain many synthetic additives such as preservatives, fragrances, and plastic compounds. [4]

In this respect, it is possible that some non-vegan beauty products may have more health benefits over their vegan counterparts simply because they contain less chemical irritants.

A lot of customers who buy vegan beauty products believe that because they are vegan, they are healthy for the skin due to having less chemicals. Unfortunately, this is not the case and even in vegan or natural products that have minimal synthetic additives, there are enough additives in many tested products shown to produce allergic reactions on the skin (contact dermatitis).

Quite a few of these products convey misleading advertising on their packaging as well, stating the product is great for sensitive skin when it contains a few known synthetic skin irritants. Natural additives and extractions used in unnaturally high doses can cause irritation in a very similar way to synthetic additives and are used in products designed for sensitive skin in a similar fashion.

In this respect, each product needs to be assessed as a separate case, taking the ingredients list into consideration.

Benefits & Side Effects of 8 Common Animal-Based Beauty Ingredients

Are all animal-based cosmetic ingredients bad for you? According to an article on the New York Times website, “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).” [5]

We decided to take a look at these common animal ingredients to see whether they are worse, better or neutral. As it turns out, not all of them are bad for health or commonly used and some of them may even be vegan, depending on where a brand sources its ingredients.

(May Be Vegan) Animal Ingredients

It should be mentioned that squalene and the derivatives of ambergris used in cosmetics can be derived from plant sources and are not necessarily non-vegan. This is true of many other animal products listed on PETA’s website[6] alongside vegan alternatives.

1. Squalene

Squalene itself is a component of the oil on the skin that has health-promoting benefits and can be used to deliver nutrients to deeper layers of the skin (assuming research methods are advanced enough to tell!).[7]

Potential benefits include skin hydration, increased flexibility, reduced oiliness, and antioxidant skin protection. On the other hand, squalene oxidizes easily and can become toxic under UV conditions. It was named after sharks due to being found in the highest quantities in shark liver oil; however it is also found abundantly in olive oil.

Vitamin A, E, and K1, beta-carotene, and coenzyme Q10 all have very similar chemical structures to that of squalene and can likely be used as precursor compounds to encourage the skin to manufacture its own squalene or in place of squalene with similar benefit.

2. Ambergris

Ambergris is chemically broken down into a few derivatives, all of which are chemically similar to amber and create beautiful-smelling scents commonly used in perfumes.

Ambergris can only be collected from the guts of sperm whales and is a rather rare substance[8]. The cosmetic industry does not generally make a practice of hunting down sperm whales in order to harvest ambergris – the majority of it used in cosmetics is artificially synthesized in a laboratory. [9] Furthermore, amber can be collected from many plant resins and is processed into similar ambergris derivative compounds.

There is little data indicating that ambergris is toxic; in-fact, a synthetic match of ambergris derivatives has been shown to have expectorant, pain-blocking and anti-inflammatory properties when inhaled[10]. The fact that it can promote mucus production in the airways may be an issue for certain types of bronchial diseases.

As a general rule, most artificial fragrances cause irritation and promote allergic reactions[11]; a phenomenon that occurs less frequently with rinse-off products, like shampoo[12]. Many natural essential oils are better alternatives to synthetic fragrances[13], however a vegan product may have either natural or synthetic ingredients.

3. Allantoin

This compound is traditionally manufactured from transforming uric acid into allantoin[14]. However it can also be extracted from bacteria and plants, such as some species of lotus (e.g. nelumbo nucifera[15]) and comfrey root.

Allantoin may help to promote wound healing by encouraging skin proliferation and regeneration due to its antioxidant properties[16] [17]. Studies reveal that allantoin may also help to prevent the formation of scar tissue in skin as well as lower inflammation, itching and burning. Allantoin does not seem to be effective for reducing skin pain in patients receiving radiation (chemo) therapy, and may even enhance this type of pain in the long-run.[18] Radiation aside, the majority of studies support the notion that allantoin is safe with little to no side effects in those who use it[19].

In spite of its use in cosmetic products, more research is required to understand exactly how allantoin exerts these effects on skin.

Animal Ingredients That Are Potentially Bad for You

The following animal-based ingredients are potentially harmful for skin, with their side effects out-weighing the benefit.

4. Lanolin

Lanolin is usually present in the form of an alcohol in cosmetics and is commonly known to irritate skin as well as soften it[20]. Just like ethanol, this ingredient is not great for human health nor for the health of the skin. A large amount of patients with sensitive skin are allergic to lanolin as well as ethanol. Paraben is another emollient compound that is used in place of lanolin, with equally allergenic side effects.[21] This is a clear example of how vegan alternatives are not necessarily healthier for us, even if they are natural (ethanol) or synthetic (parabens). 

5. Carmine (Carminic Acid or Cochineal Extract)

Carmine is a component of red dye or red food coloring that is also labelled as E120. Carminic acid is the main active component of carmine, which is extracted from cochineal insects such as dactylopius coccus (hence also the name cochineal extract[22]). The use of these beetles for red dye has been recorded for more than 2800 years.

As disturbing as it is that as many as 70 000 of these insects are crushed up yearly for the sake of red makeup and food coloring, carmine is also known to trigger severe allergic reactions such as asthma[23] [24] and dermatitis[25] [26]. Science journals have pressed for this additive to be labelled as a common allergen[27], however it is not always labelled as such.

While many cosmetics still contain animal-derived carmine, bacterially-derived carmine is being investigated and can currently be produced from a fungi known as aspergillus nidulans[28]. This is likely to replace bug sources of carmine as the extraction process is laborious, expensive, somewhat unpredictable and inefficient. Nevertheless, it likely will not change the allergenic profile of carmine.

Animal Ingredients with Potential Skin Health Benefits

The following ingredients may have skin health benefits in spite of originating from animal sources. Not all of them have great skin absorbability and therefore the benefits may be questionable.

6. Honey, Beeswax, Pollen and Other Bee Products

Honey bee products are perhaps prime examples of very healthy animal-derived products that have been applied to skin for thousands of years. Bee products can act as natural preservatives which may extend the shelf life of some products, if used in appropriate concentrations.  Further benefits include antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial effects[29].

Honey has been used to treat burns and wounds, containing a wealth of all the pollen that bees collect from hundreds to thousands of flowering plants. Pollen extracts are also used directly in cosmetics and can be collected from plants to constitute a vegan alternative.

In spite of being largely anti-allergenic, those who are allergic to bee stings may need to avoid all bee products.

7. Collagen

Collagen is another animal-based product that has benefits for maintaining skin vitality and is found in abundance in connective tissue such as skin, tendons, joints and bone.[30] Cosmetic applications of collagen generally include anti-aging moisturizers, face masks and hair treatments.

For the most part, collagen has been proven to be non-toxic; although it is difficult to generalize when 29 unique types have been identified and when different sources exude variability in their active components. The main types of collagen in skin include type I and type III collagens, which are broad classifications that some of the 29 subtypes are grouped under.

Applying some forms of collagen externally to skin is known to help to seal moisture in by acting on the surface layer, but the collagen itself is not well-absorbed. Of the collagen absorbed by skin, it appears to promote skin cells to make more native type I collagen[31]. This is likely due to the presence of amino acids and other similar precursors, which could serve as natural and vegan alternatives on their own to animal collagen in cosmetics. Since different collagens have different amino acid profiles, the results will differ.

Studies show that ingesting collagen is more effective at increasing skin collagen levels (if depleted) than applying it topically.[32] It is difficult to say if this is true of all types of collagen, yet this is a commonly known fact that discourages its use in cosmetic products. Some cosmetic formulations may enhance the dermal absorbability of collagen through making use of synthetic alterations. These synthetic forms may reduce wrinkles as an added benefit.[33]

Synthetic plastic alternatives to collagen are already available that are plant-derived[34], yet there is very little research to indicate if this type might cause skin irritation or not.

What About Gelatin?

Gelatin is a form of collagen that has been highly denatured and is also used extensively in cosmetic products[35]. This form of collagen has limited health effects when compared to other types, yet there is little evidence to suggest that topical gelatin is outright bad for the skin. It is commonly used as a stabilizer or thickener in cosmetic products and is a by-product of the waste generated by the meat industry.

True Benefits of Vegan Beauty Products

While vegan beauty products may not be always healthier, there are a few benefits in using vegan products:

  • Free of Unnecessary Animal Cruelty

The main benefit of vegan products, whether cosmetic or otherwise, is that most of them are almost entirely free of animal cruelty. 

  • More Likely to Be Health-Oriented

While vegan products are not necessarily healthier than non-vegan counterparts, vegan brands do tend to be more health-conscious. This means that less synthetic compounds and more natural, plant-based ingredients are used on average in vegan products. However, there are exceptions. Many cosmetic companies will stick a label on their product if it happens to be vegan, yet the product may contain many potentially unhealthy additives, fragrances and preservatives. 

  • Potentially More Eco-friendly

Vegan products are generally bio-degradable and better tolerated by the environment. However, this still depends on how health-conscious the brand is as many synthetic ingredients are not easily broken down by the environment. Plastic compounds and heavy metal pollutants are the main environmental offenders in any industrial mass production line. Furthermore, air and water pollution may be an inherent part of making a vegan product, especially as far as plant chemical extractions and formulations are concerned.

Another point of contention to this notion lies in the way humans mine the planet for resources. Is a product environmentally friendly if in order to make it, destruction of and/or detracting from the environment had to occur? Not all vegan products were derived from renewable resources and therefore are not completely eco-friendly.

Possible Downsides of Vegan Cosmetics

As with anything, vegan products also have a downside to them, however these downsides are generally negligible and not enough of a reason to stop using these products.

  • Possibly Shorter Shelf Life

In the manufacture of all products with a shelf life, there lies a trade-off between the use of preservatives and the natural status of the product. Many preservatives present with toxic side effects when ingested in high enough concentrations and they tend to detract from natural products. However, there are a few exceptions, such as ascorbic acid, yet these exceptions are not always desirable to use as they may also interfere with the products’ actions (e.g. ascorbic acid has a sour taste, may overly acidify the product, etc).

In the context of natural cosmetics, it is well-known that they may not have a shelf life as long as synthetic alternatives, whether vegan or not. This is particularly true in hot, dry areas subject to high atmospheric temperatures which may cause the products to spoil at a quicker rate without proper use of preservatives. While natural preservatives such as honey have been purported to work; they are also often conducive to microbial growth (generally positive or probiotic fermentation) which may have undesirable side effects, such as conferring an unpleasant odor and increasing the risk of spoilage.

  • Decreases Use of Animal Waste Products

Until everyone on the planet decides to stop consuming animal products, there will always be a need to dispose of the waste that arises from such consumption. A lot of animal-based cosmetic ingredients arose as a convenient way to dispose of waste from the food and agricultural industry, turning it into something useful and profitable. If recycling this waste is reduced, it may not cause less meat consumption and may instead cause an even bigger waste management problem.

Vegan Beauty Myths

The following two conceptions about vegan products are in fact myths.

All Vegan Beauty Products Are Natural

This is not true. Many synthetic (unnatural) additives have been derived from plant sources, are vegan and are harmful for skin.

Natural Vegan Products Are Good for Sensitive Skin (Hypoallergenic)

Even if the product is natural, it does not mean it will be good for sensitive skin. For every chemical compound on the planet, there is a person (or several thousand people) that will be allergic! This includes even the most hypoallergenic natural substances you can think of, like lavender and chamomile.

The risk of allergic reactions increases with the amount of ingredients in the product too as multiple ingredients combined together can have unique chemical interactions with unintended side effects (or benefits!). 


Vegan beauty has been receiving more attention as the movement has been gathering momentum across the globe. In spite of many claims, a vegan product is not necessarily natural or healthy and each case needs to be taken into consideration separately when considering potential health or skin benefits.

In the same way, animal-based products cannot be immediately dismissed as having no benefit or of being unhealthy, as each case is unique. For the most part, animal products are unethical and often are a cause for animal cruelty, however this is also not always the case.

Finally, the future of skincare is moving away from animal-based sources in an attempt to end unnecessary animal cruelty. Therefore many non-vegan ingredients will become vegan within the next decade or two as plant-based sources of the same ingredients become increasingly used. Nevertheless if you are looking for healthy beauty products, you need to check your ingredients list and make sure that you are not allergic to any of the components, irrespective of whether the product is vegan or not.

If you would like to switch to vegan beauty products, but not sure how to choose products, one way is to sign up for a subscription beauty box service and try a variety of different products. One example is Kinder Beauty, whose beauty boxes contain products that are vegan, cruelty free and don’t contain other harmful toxins.

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