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Vegan Cosmetics 101

01 November, 2020 7 min read

You don’t have to be vegan to enjoy the benefits of vegan and cruelty-free cosmetics. But if you’re not eating it or wearing it, what does our makeup have to do with veganism? And what’s the difference between ‘vegan’ and ‘cruelty-free’? Well my friends, it has everything to do with fantastic beasts and where NOT to find them.

TW: This blog covers the topic of animal testing which may be confronting for some readers.

A brief intro to veganism

While plant-based diets date as far back as 3300–1300 BCE (with rumours that even Einstein led a vegan lifestyle in his later years), the term wasn’t invented until 1944. Animal rights advocate and World Vegan Society founder Donald Watson coined the term to help differentiate non-dairy vegetarians within their growing community.

Fun fact: His witty wife Dot actually came up with the word, taking the ‘veg’ and ‘an’ from vegetarian to represent ‘where vegetarian begins and ends’. Poetic, no?

While this originally defined vegetarians who didn’t consume dairy products, today being vegan involves a lifestyle exempt from animal products, derivatives, and exploitation of any kind. And this philosophy encompasses everything; from your diet, to your clothes, even how you spend your money (the brands and businesses you invest in).

What are cruelty-free cosmetics?

In Australia, products that are labelled as cruelty-free are certified by Choose Cruelty Free, PETA, or Leaping Bunny. Cruelty-free cosmetics are products which haven’t been tested on animals, but may still contain animal by-products or animal-derived ingredients like beeswax, honey or lanolin.

What are vegan cosmetics?

Vegan cosmetics are products which have not been tested on animals, and do not contain any animal-derived ingredients or by-products. Currently, the following third-parties offer vegan certification: Vegan Action, The Vegan Society, PETA and The Vegetarian Society. While plenty of brands make vegan cosmetics, it always pays to observe what the brand is doing holistically, when determining whether they align with your values. E.g. They may offer a vegan range but still include animal-derived ingredients in other products under their label.

So, what’s the deal with animal testing?

In the 1940s, animal testing was mandated in the US to make sure that products like soap, lipstick, and shampoo were safe enough for human use. Unfortunately, this meant a wide-sweeping adoption of animal testing and vivisection across the globe. (FYI: Vivisection is the practice of performing operations on live animals for the purpose of experimentation or scientific research.)

Without going into all of the devastating details, testing would often involve applying chemicals to the exposed skin and eyes of rabbits and rodents, or force feeding them to determine what dose of chemical or irritant would cause death. I know what you’re thinking, how could humans do this to sentient creatures that feel and hurt like we do? Surely there are alternatives which don’t blind bunnies or humans alike? Spoiler: There totally are.

Alternatives to animal testing

In 1991, the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods was established to oversee the development and acceptance of alternative test methods; introducing a new ‘3Rs’ policy for non-cosmetic animal testing.

The 3Rs stand for:

  • Reduction: using fewer animals in testing
  • Replacement: using alternative means to animal testing
  • Refinement: using methods that reduce potential pain and suffering of animals subject to testing

Over the past 30-years, animal testing has been progressively replaced by human tissue sampling, cell cultures, and computer modelling. These methods have been proven to better predict human responses than the animal tests they’d replaced; leading the way for safer and smarter cosmetics. And while Australia has only just implemented legislation to ban cosmetic testing on animals (this July, 2020), much of the world has moved onto better, safer ways of testing without involving any animals along the way. As this global movement grows and more consumers ask for kinder cosmetics, more brands are introducing vegan and cruelty-free ranges to their offering, with fewer countries allowing the sale of products tested on animals.

What animal products may be lurking in my beauty cabinet?

The beauty industry has hidden animal-derived ingredients and by-products under sneaky pseudonyms for far too long. So we’ve compiled a short glossary of animal ingredients commonly used in beauty products (aka the ones we unequivocally steer clear of, just see our blacklist) to help decode and demystify them for you during your next beauty haul - you’ll want to bookmark this.

Beeswax (cera alba, cera flava)

This is the wax that bees secrete to build their vast honeycombs. These maze-like structures are used to help rear larvae, store pollen and honey for the whole hive to enjoy. In cosmetics, this compound is used as a film-forming agent, as an emulsifier and as an emollient. Some plant-derived alternatives include carnauba wax, candelilla wax and Japan wax. Botanical oils which naturally occur in a range of fruits and flowers can also be used as emollients in cosmetics. (Just suss the miracle ingredients behind our lipstick range!)

Bee pollen (bee pollen extract)

This ingredient is often used as a skin conditioner. Bees gather pollen to feed their larvae. Humans gather this substance by using pollen traps placed at the entrance of a hive. These traps strip the pollen from the bees as they return, often tearing off wings and legs in the process.

Biotin (vitamin B7)

This compound is used as a skin conditioner or strengthener, and naturally occurs in animal livers, kidneys and egg yolk. But there are plenty of plant-based alternatives to consider, like sunflower seeds, yeast, almonds, soybeans, and cereals.

Carmine (cochineal, Cl 75470, crimson lake, carmine lake, natural red 4, C.I.75470, E 120, carminic acid)

This compound is often used as a dye as it gives products a vivid red or purple colour. Unfortunately, carmine is produced by drying, crushing and boiling female cochineal insects - a practice that is neither bold, nor cute. Good news, anthocyanins like beetroot or red radish juice have been supplemented as vegan alternatives to carmine, lending their pigment powers for the good of lippie lovers everywhere.

Collagen (collagen amino acids, hydrolysed collagen)

Animal-derived collagen is commonly obtained as a by-product of the meat production industry. Cartilage, sinew and skin of cattle, pigs and fish, is processed into a gelatinous compound used in anti-ageing products and procedures; from face masks and creams to cosmetic injections.


Bees create honey by gathering and storing flower nectar in their honeycombs. While honey is produced to help feed their hive, humans extract this compound as an ingredient and for topical application to soothe and moisturise skin. Which may sound great for us, but maybe not so sweet for those worker bees.


This compound is used to strengthen hair, skin and nails, but is often produced from the ground horns, hooves and feathers of a wide range of animals. It always pays to review where the keratin is derived before buying.

Lactose (lactoferrin, hydrolysed milk protein)

Lactose is a type of sugar that naturally occurs in cows milk and is used cosmetically as a skin conditioner and humectant. It can also be chemically altered into a milk protein or iron-binding protein to be used as an antistatic or skin and hair conditioner. We’ve found plant-based proteins work just as well, if not better, just see our Rest & Repair Wonder Mask.

Lanolin (wool yolk, wool wax, wool grease, C10-30 cholesterol/lanosterol Esters)

Lanolin is a greasy compound secreted by the sebaceous glands of sheep, designed to protect their wool and skin from environmental stressors. This compound is commonly used in cosmetics like lip balm, as a skin conditioner and emollient. We’ve decided not to follow sheep, using plant-based oils as natural emollients in our lipsticks instead.

Pearl (hydrolysed pearl, pearl powder, pearl protein)

These extraordinary orbs are created when mineral deposits of mother of pearl are firmly compacted into the tissue of bivalves over time. These can be harvested naturally, farmed, or cultured using transplanted tissue from a donor bivalve. Imitation pearls are often created by sculpting mother of pearl fragments or powder into a round solid shape, or by coating wax pellets in fish silver (or guanine). Pearls are often harvested as adornments but can often be chemically altered or crushed up for skin conditioning purposes.


This is a kind of glue produced by bees to mend the hive. Cosmetically, this compound is used as an antimicrobial in toothpastes, deodorants and shampoo, and topically to moisturise and smooth skin.

Royal Jelly

Used as a skin-conditioning compound in cosmetics, Royal Jelly is naturally produced by worker bees to feed the queen bee’s larvae. Humans obtain this compound by snatching the queen bee from the hive (along with a hunk of royal jelly) and swapping her with new queen larvae; kickstarting an unnatural cycle of jelly production. Those poor worker bees keep making jelly for a never ending stream of royal larvae. To quote Destiny’s Child, clearly no one is ‘ready for this jelly’.

Silk (Peace Silk, Mulberry Silk, silk amino acids, sericin, hydrolysed silk)

Silk is a fibre weaved by silkworms to create cocoons. Unfortunately, this luxe compound is obtained by boiling these little worms alive in their cocoons. Peace Silk isn’t much better, obtained by waiting for the worms to depart their cocoons before harvesting. Not so keen on eviction? Kinder alternatives exist, including nylon, milkweed seed pod fibres, silk-cotton tree and ceiba tree filaments, polyester, and rayon.

Snail mucin (helix aspersa muller glycoconjugates, snail cream)

This is literally the glistening mucus that snails secrete as they stroll. While this compound is often obtained/farmed for skincare products, it begs the question, who was the first person to let a snail creep onto their face?

Squalene (and it’s derivative squalane, shark liver oil, fish liver oil)

This compound occurs naturally in the livers of many sea creatures like sharks. It is used in cosmetics as an emollient, an antistatic and refatting substance. However, there are plenty of perfectly good plant-based sources of squalene (like olive oil, rice bran oil and amaranth oil!), just waiting for their time to shine.

Tallow (cow or sheep fat, sodium tallowate, tallowate, sodium taloate)

This compound is usually found in soaps and cleansers and is obtained from rendered cow or sheep fat. Some kinder alternatives include: soy wax, shea butter and cocoa butter.

When it comes to our beauty products, it pays to do your research and find out what a brand’s values really are. Because while labelling might portray a product’s vegan status, it may not represent the brand’s sentiment as a whole.

At Kester Black, we stand by our vegan and cruelty-free certifications in that none of our products, methods or processes involves animals, animal-derived ingredients or by-products. We’ve found that synthetic and plant-based alternatives don’t just make our products cleaner, but that they perform better; delivering exceptional results that are kind to your body and the earth. This has earned us recognition from beauty editors around the world, and first-place at this year’s Cruelty Free NZ Awards.

While the beauty industry may have a not-so-pretty past, we can all help to rewrite the narrative by picking kindness over convenience; sending the industry a resounding message to lift their game.

Keen to learn about our 10-free nail polishes or better understand those little icons on your cosmetic labels? Just give our blogs a good hard look.