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From Squalane to Carmine: Animals in Cosmetics

Hey beauty lovers!

Continuing our Veganuary journey, and following up on our article about 35 animal-derived ingredients in cosmetics, we're taking another deep dive into the beauty world. This time, we're shining a spotlight on five common animal-based ingredients lurking in your go-to beauty products.

Ladybug on leaf and made-up woman, symbolising animal ingredients in cosmetics

But we're not just talking about their effects on your skin. We're going deeper to reveal the ethical concerns they raise and to introduce some fantastic vegan alternatives. From the hydrating magic of lanolin to the striking red of carmine, we're about to unveil the real stories behind these ingredients. So, get ready to learn how you can make more ethical and sustainable choices in your beauty routine. Let's get started!

Quick Summary

  • Lanolin, derived from sheep's wool, is praised for its moisturizing properties in beauty products. However, ethical concerns arise from its association with the wool industry's practices, such as inhumane treatment of sheep.

  • Collagen, a protein found in animals, is a popular ingredient in skincare for its moisturizing benefits. The ethical issue lies in its sourcing, primarily from the skins and bones of livestock, linking the beauty industry to animal exploitation.

  • Gelatin, obtained from boiling animal bones, skins, and tendons, is used for its gelling properties in cosmetics. Similar to collagen, its production raises ethical concerns due to its animal origins and the associated cruelty.

  • Squalane, known for its hydrating qualities, is often derived from shark liver or plant oils. The use of shark-derived squalane raises significant ethical and environmental issues, including the endangerment of shark populations and marine ecosystems.

  • Carmine, a vibrant red dye used in various cosmetics, is made from cochineal insects. The ethical dilemma here involves the mass killing of these insects, raising concerns about animal cruelty and the impact on local ecosystems.

Lanolin / Wool Wax

What is it?

Lanolin, or as some call it, wool wax, is this waxy substance that comes from sheep's wool. It's pretty much like the oil our skin makes, known as sebum. Sheep produce it to keep their wool nice and waterproof. In the beauty world, lanolin is a big hit for its moisturizing, emulsifying and cleansing properties. You'll find it in a bunch of products like lip balms, lotions, and shampoos, where it helps lock in moisture and make everything feel smoother (ScienceDirect; Incidecoder).

Lamb in field, denoting lanolin's animal origin in cosmetic products

What are the Ethical Concerns?

Now, let's get into the not-so-pretty side of lanolin. It's all tied up with its source: the wool industry. To get lanolin, they spin the wool in this centrifuge machine that separates the wool wax from the rest.

While lanolin itself doesn’t cause sheep deaths (since it's collected after shearing) and might seem like an innocent, natural byproduct for the wool industry, the bigger picture is a bit grim. Sheep, which could live for up to 17 years, are often slaughtered for meat, usually before they turn 6, especially when their wool production goes down. And the conditions they live in? Far from humane. We're talking about stuff like mulesing (removing skin around the tail), along with ear punching, tail chopping, and castration - all without anesthetics. Plus, they often go through long and stressful journeys to the slaughterhouse, all cramped up and exposed to chemicals (PETA; Axiology). 

So, when we chat about lanolin, it's not just about this useful ingredient, but also about the indirect contribution to all these practices and treatments that would be considered cruel if applied to dogs or cats.

What Vegan Alternatives?

Plant-based oils, butters and waxes mimic, and often exceed, the properties of lanolin while being both skin-friendly and ethical. Examples include: 

  • Shea Butter: Extracted from the nuts of the shea tree, it's like a deep-conditioning treatment for your skin. It's loaded with vitamins and has this amazing ability to soothe and moisturize even the driest skin. Plus, it contains vitamin A and E, two powerful antioxidants that help prevent cell damage (Cleveland Clinic, 2022).

  • Jojoba Oil: Extracted from the nuts of the Jojoba plant, this oil mimics the natural oils of your skin, making it a fantastic antioxidant and moisturizer that doesn't feel heavy or greasy. It's perfect for balancing out both dry and oily skin, and it's a hit with people who have acne-prone skin too (Healthline).


What is it?

Collagen is a naturally occurring protein found in the human body, predominantly in the skin, bones, and connective tissues. It's essential for maintaining skin elasticity and strength.

In the beauty world, collagen is a star ingredient in loads of products like creams, serums, and supplements, as a powerful humectant and moisturizer (and no, it does not have those anti-aging effects it’s often hyped for) (Sionkowska et al., 2020; Incidecoder).

What are the Ethical Concerns?

Now, where does this collagen in our skincare goodies come from? Mostly, it's sourced from animals – we're talking about parts like the skins and bones of cows, pigs, fish and other sea animals such as jellyfish and sea cucumber (Sionkowska et al., 2020; Incidecoder).

This means the beauty industry is pretty much linked arm-in-arm with the meat and fishing industries. And let's just say, these industries have a bit of a reputation – not exactly the best when it comes to being kind to the planet or the animals.

Cattle and cows lineup, illustrating collagen's animal source in cosmetics

Think about it: when we use animal-derived collagen, we're adding to the already hefty environmental load of the livestock industry. This industry is a major player in greenhouse gas emissions and is known for needing a lot of resources. Ever heard about the Amazon getting cleared out? This article by The Guardian links collagen to Brazilian deforestation. And then there's the fish collagen. Pulling collagen from fish isn't just about catching a few fish here and there; it's contributing to overfishing and destroying marine ecosystems (National Geographic). And what about fish farming? Kicked off by the rising demand for marine collagen, fish farming has its own bags of issues. It's tangled up in environmental and ethical problems, especially around feeding people and livestock (Plant Based News, 2023).

What Vegan Alternatives?

Good news: vegan collagen is a thing! Thanks to the wonders of biotechnology, using yeast and bacteria, we've now got vegan collagen on the scene (remember our article about the power of biotech, with companies like Modern Meadow leading the way?).

But, since it's still pretty new, finding vegan collagen in the market can be hard. In the meantime, most companies sell collagen boosters, rich in vitamin C and zinc – all buddies of collagen production. Your diet can be a natural collagen enhancer too. Load up on soy products, beans, seeds, and nuts – all packed with collagen-friendly amino acids like glycine, lysine, and proline (Healthline).

Jellyfish swarm, symbolizing gelatin's animal origin in cosmetics


What is it?

Gelatin is a protein derived from collagen, obtained from boiling the bones, skins, and tendons of animals. Traditionally sourced from cows or pigs, gelatin is also increasingly made from fish. In beauty products, gelatin is a go-to for its gelling and binding properties, making it a popular choice in things like creamy cosmetics and hair care products (Science Direct; Science Direct; Incidecoder).

What are the Ethical Concerns?

Gelatin faces the same ethical issues as collagen since it's derived from animal collagen. For more on these concerns, check out the collagen section above!

What Vegan Alternatives?

When it comes to replacing gelatin in beauty products, hydrocolloids extracted from plants are a fantastic choice. Often dubbed as 'veggie gelatine,' these plant-based alternatives include agar, carrageenan, pectin, xanthan gum, modified corn starch, and celluloid. They're great for giving that gelling effect in various products (FACTS, 2022).

My personal favorite (both for cosmetics and for cooking) is agar. Extracted from seaweed, agar is known for its ability to stabilize moisturizing and thickening agents in cosmetics. It's particularly beneficial in skincare, where it helps to maintain the product's consistency and can also aid in reducing skin dryness (L’Oréal). 


What is it?

Squalane is a bit of a superstar in the skincare world. It's a stable, purified, hydrogenated form of squalene, an oily compound which is not very stable in its natural form. That's where squalane comes in – it's a more stable version that's used in a variety of skincare products.

Squalane is known for its exceptional hydrating properties and its ability to mimic our skin's natural oils. It's non-greasy, absorbs quickly, and is suitable for all skin types, including sensitive and acne-prone skin. Plus, it's a fantastic antioxidant, helping to fight skin damage and signs of aging (Healthline; Incidecoder).

Squalane has an interesting backstory. It's found in shark liver and plant oils like olive, as well as in human skin sebum (that oily substance our skin naturally produces). And yes, you read that rightsharks. This is where the ethical concerns start to come into play.

Shark, emblematic of squalane's animal source in cosmetics

A study by the BLOOM Association, a marine conservation charity, back in 2015 found something startling: 1 in 5 creams they tested had shark squalane in them. The same study revealed that more than half of Asian beauty brands (around 53%) were using shark squalane, while most Western brands moved away from it. Unfortunately, we don't have super recent studies showing exactly how much shark squalane is still out there in our products.

What are the Ethical Concerns?

Let's talk about the ethical side of shark-derived squalane, and honestly, it's a bit of a shocker.

Historically, squalane came from shark liver oil, and this has been really tough on shark populations. Get this: a 2012 BLOOM Association study reported that a whopping 2.7 million deep-sea sharks are killed each year just for cosmetics, gobbling up 90% of the world's shark liver oil production. Deep-sea sharks are particularly targeted because their livers are huge – like, up to 20% of their body weight. And these sharks are so overfished that scientists say we shouldn't be catching them at all (Axiology).

Shark livering: a brutal, unethical reality in cosmetics

The way they get this squalane is pretty harsh too. Fishermen often take just the shark's liver and toss the rest of the shark back into the ocean – a practice known as "shark livering". It's as bad as it sounds, kind of like shark-finning (Patel et al., 2022).

And here's why this matters big time: sharks are apex predators, the big bosses of the ocean. They keep everything in check, from the fish below them to the health of coral reefs and seagrass habitats. Without sharks, the whole ocean ecosystem could go haywire (Fisher Scientific).

What Vegan Alternatives?

Luckily, there's a silver lining. The beauty industry is catching on and making a shift towards plant-based squalane. We're talking about sources like olives (which are the most popular), amaranth seed, sugarcane, rice bran, and wheat germ. The cool thing is, plant-derived squalane offers all the same skin-loving benefits, but without the baggage of animal cruelty and the environmental and ethical issues (Axiology).

Just a heads-up, though: even if the EU made moves to ban deep-sea shark fisheries back in 2010, there aren't any legal labeling requirements that force companies to specify where their squalane comes from. This means that labels don't always tell us if the squalane is from plants or animals. So, most of the time, we're left guessing whether it's plant-based or shark-derived (Cosmetics Design, 2014). Keep that in mind when you're picking out your next skincare product!

Carmine / Carminic Acid / Cochineal / Crimson Lake / CI 75470 / E120 / Natural Red 4

What is it?

Let's talk about carmine – that vibrant red dye you see in a lot of lipsticks, blushes,

and eyeshadows. This colorant is known for its intensity and durability, and people love that it's a 'natural' option compared to synthetic colors. But here's the scoop: do you know where carmine actually comes from?

Close-up of red lipstick, made with carmine from insects, posing ethical issues

Surprise – it's made from female cochineal insects. Yep, insects! These little critters hang out on cacti in Latin America and are the secret behind that rich, vibrant red pigment (Incidecoder). For Muslims, carmine is considered non-halal as the consumption and use of insects and their derived colorings are not permissible (Islam QA).

What are the Ethical Concerns?

Now, let's dive into how carmine is made. The process of turning cochineal insects into dye is quite intricate and, frankly, a bit unsettling. After collecting cochineal insects (either harvesting them from wild cacti or farming them), most are killed for dye production. They're either immersed in hot water, exposed to sunlight, steamed, or heated dry. The method used affects the dye's color, tailored to meet specific color demands in the market. Post-killing, these insects are dried to about 30% of their body weight, ground up, and then the carminic acid is extracted to make the dye (Rowe, 2020).

Now, let's talk numbers. Did you know it takes about 100,000 of those tiny cochineal insects to make just 1 kg of dried cochineal - 1,000 per single lipstick? And every year, we're talking about 22 billion to 89 billion adult female cochineals being killed to produce carmine. That's a whole lot of bugs just for that vibrant red color in our makeup, right?

But it's not just about the numbers. The large-scale farming of these insects for carmine can mess with local ecosystems and communities (The Skynth Research, 2023). And here's something else: carmine can affect people's health too. Research shows that exposure to carmine can lead to some serious reactions like severe allergies, asthma, and even anaphylactic shock.

What Vegan Alternatives?

So, are there vegan alternatives to carmine? Absolutely, and they're pretty exciting.

Let's start with the plant-based goodies. Beetroot is a natural star, giving us that natural, vibrant red, while lycopene, found in tomatoes and other red fruits, serves as a fantastic natural dye. And have you heard about the Hansen sweet potato™? This little gem is the result of a 10-year selective breeding journey, and it's a fantastic, natural red alternative to carmine.

But wait, there's more – the world of biotech is bringing some seriously cool stuff to the table. Scientists are busy fermenting specially engineered bacteria to whip up a sustainable and ethical dye (Yang et al., 2021). And then there's the fungus game-changer. Companies like Chromologics are using fungus to create a carmine alternative, and let me tell you, it's making some serious waves in the beauty industry.

Wrapping Up: Embracing Conscious Beauty

Wrapping up, remember that being an informed consumer is key. Dive into researching vegan brands and products – there's a treasure trove of information out there. Get to know the labels and certifications that mark a product as vegan and cruelty-free, but keep in mind that 'cruelty-free' doesn't always mean 'vegan' (read here to find the differences). Educating yourself about common animal-derived ingredients and their vegan alternatives empowers you to make conscious choices. And don't forget, online communities are fantastic resources for recommendations and support.

By staying informed and vigilant, you can navigate the beauty world in a way that aligns with your ethical and sustainable values!

Joyful woman with shaved head, laughter symbolizing informed vegan beauty choices


What is lanolin used for in cosmetics?

Lanolin is used for its moisturizing, emulsifying, and cleansing properties in products like lip balms, lotions, and shampoos.

What is lanolin made from?

Lanolin is made from sheep's wool, similar to the oil our skin produces.

Are sheep killed for lanolin?

Sheep are not killed specifically for lanolin; it's collected after shearing. However, sheep in the wool industry often face harsh conditions and may be slaughtered for meat.

What is a substitute for lanolin?

Plant-based oils, butters, and waxes like shea butter and jojoba oil are effective substitutes for lanolin.

What exactly is collagen?

Collagen is a naturally occurring protein in the human body, predominantly found in skin, bones, and connective tissues.

What does collagen do to your face?

Collagen in cosmetics acts as a powerful humectant and moisturizer for the skin.

Where does collagen come from?

Collagen in cosmetics is mostly sourced from animal parts like the skins and bones of cows, pigs, and fish.

What is collagen used for in cosmetics?

Collagen is used in cosmetics like creams, serums, and supplements for its moisturizing properties.

Is collagen good for the environment?

The production of animal-derived collagen can have negative environmental impacts, including deforestation and overfishing.

What do vegans use to replace collagen?

Vegans use biotechnology products like yeast and bacteria-derived collagen or collagen boosters rich in vitamins and minerals.

What is gelatin made from?

Gelatin is made from boiling the bones, skins, and tendons of animals, traditionally cows or pigs, and increasingly from fish.

What does gelatin do for skin?

Gelatin is used in cosmetics for its gelling and binding properties, contributing to product consistency.

Is gelatin good for the environment?

Similar to collagen, the production of gelatin from animals can have negative environmental impacts.

Is there a vegan substitute for gelatin?

Yes, plant-based hydrocolloids like agar, carrageenan, and pectin are vegan substitutes for gelatin.

What is squalane made from?

Squalane is made from shark liver oil and plant oils like olive, with a shift towards plant-based sources.

What does squalane do for the skin?

Squalane hydrates the skin, mimics natural oils, and is an antioxidant, suitable for all skin types.

Is there vegan squalane?

Yes, modern squalane is often vegan, derived from plant sources like olives.

What is carmine made from?

Carmine is made from cochineal insects, specifically the female insects.

Is there a vegan carmine?

Yes, vegan alternatives to carmine include beetroot, lycopene, and biotech products like fermented bacteria and fungus-derived dyes.

Is carmine halal in makeup?

Carmine is generally considered non-halal in makeup as it's derived from insects, which are not permissible for consumption in Islam.

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