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.”
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.