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The Ultimate Guide on Hidden Animal Ingredients in Cosmetics

Hey there, beauty enthusiasts and conscious consumers! As we continue our enlightening journey through Veganuary, I'm thrilled to bring you the second installment in our series. Today, we're diving into a topic that's often overlooked but incredibly crucial - the mysterious world of beauty product labels.

Have you ever found yourself squinting at the tiny print on your favorite lotion or lipstick, wondering what those long, scientific-sounding words actually mean? You're not alone! Understanding the ingredients in our beauty products is like decoding a secret language, but fear not – I'm here to be your translator.

In this article, we're going to uncover the hidden truths behind those complex labels. We'll explore the common hidden animal-derived ingredients lurking in many cosmetics and introduce their vegan alternatives.

Owl and woman juxtaposed, evoking hidden animal ingredients in cosmetics

This isn't just about making cruelty-free choices; it's about empowering you with knowledge so you can choose products that align with your values and lifestyle. Let's get started!

Quick Summary

  • While challenging, decoding cosmetic labels is achievable. Key techniques include checking for certifications like "100% Vegan" or "Certified Vegan," understanding ingredient lists, and using apps to analyze cosmetic ingredients.

  • Animal-derived ingredients are common in cosmetics, with examples like lanolin, collagen, and glycerin. These ingredients are often hidden under scientific names, making it more difficult yet crucial to recognize and understand their origins.

  • For every animal-derived ingredient, there are vegan alternatives available. These include plant-based butters and oils for moisturizers, synthetic collagen, and vegetable glycerin, offering ethical and sustainable choices for conscious consumers.

Assorted cosmetics laid out, alert for hidden animal-derived ingredients

Decoding Labels: Your Compass in the Vegan Beauty World

First, let’s recognize that navigating the labyrinth of beauty product labels can feel like deciphering an ancient script. But fear not! As your guide in the vegan beauty world, I'm here to help you decode these labels, turning you into an informed and conscious consumer. 

  • Understanding Ingredient Lists: The first step is to familiarize yourself with ingredient lists. Ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration, so those at the top have the highest quantity. While this helps prioritize which ingredients to scrutinize, remember that even trace amounts of animal-derived ingredients are a no-go for vegans.

  • Identifying Vegan Products: Look for explicit labels like "100% Vegan" or "Certified Vegan." These are clear indicators, but not all vegan products are labeled as such. That's where your newfound knowledge of specific ingredients comes into play. Cross-reference the product ingredients with your list of animal-derived substances and their vegan alternatives.

  • Cruelty-Free ≠ Vegan: A common misconception is that 'cruelty-free' means vegan. While cruelty-free products haven't been tested on animals, they may still contain animal-derived ingredients. Always look for both 'cruelty-free' and 'vegan' labels to ensure a product aligns with ethical vegan standards.

  • Certifications to Trust: Certifications can be a reliable shortcut. Look for logos from reputable organizations like The Vegan Society or PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies (for both ‘vegan’ and ‘not-animal-tested’). These certifications often require rigorous checks, giving you an added layer of assurance.

Woman's eyes with mascara peek over leaf, mindful of cosmetic origins

  • Beware of Hidden Ingredients: Some animal-derived ingredients aren't blatantly obvious. For instance, 'squalene' might sound innocuous, but it's often shark-derived. And remember: there aren't any legal labeling requirements that force companies to specify where their ingredients come from animals or plants (Incidecoder). Your vigilance in recognizing such hidden ingredients and their origin is crucial. Below, we have compiled a list of some of the most frequently encountered hidden animal-derived ingredients in cosmetics, aiming to offer greater clarity on this topic.

  • The Power of Technology: Utilize technology to your advantage. There are apps and websites dedicated to analyzing cosmetic ingredients - Yuka and INCI Beauty to name a few. They can be a handy tool in your beauty arsenal, offering quick insights into the status of a product. Yuka’s premium version allows scrutiny for vegan products.

35 Hidden Animal Ingredients in Your Cosmetics

Navigating the world of beauty product ingredients can be a daunting task. To help you on this journey, we put together a comprehensive (yet not exhausting, unfortunately - check PETA’s list of animal ingredients for the full picture) list of 35 common and not-so-obvious animal-derived ingredients. For each, we'll explore their benefits in cosmetics, their animal origin, and the vegan alternatives available:

Lanolin / Wool Wax:

  • Benefits: Acts as an excellent emollient, providing a smooth, soft texture to skin and hair products (ScienceDirect; Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Extracted from sheep's wool.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Plant-based butters, oils and waxes like shea butter, olive, jojoba and coconut oil offer similar moisturizing properties

Happy child holding a lamb, a reminder of lanolin use in cosmetics


  • Benefits: Promotes skin elasticity and strength and is often used as a powerful humectant and moisturizer (Sionkowska et al., 2020; Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Extracted from the skin, bones, and connective tissue of animals such as cows, pigs, fish and other sea animals like jellyfish and sea cucumber.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Soy protein and synthetic vegan collagen made from yeast and bacteria offer similar benefits without animal harm (Healthline).


  • Benefits: Used for its gelling and binding properties in cosmetics, giving a smooth texture to products (Science Direct; Science Direct; Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Made from boiled animal bones, skin, and tendons (including fish).

  • Vegan Alternatives: Agar-agar, carrageenan, pectin, xanthan gum, modified corn starch, and celluloid are plant-based substances that provide a similar texture (FACTS, 2022).


Woman underwater with shark, symbolizing squalane's controversial origin
  • Benefits: Known for its moisturizing, skin-repairing and antioxidant properties (Healthline; Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Sourced from shark liver.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Plant-based squalane is a sustainable and ethical alternative, mostly made from olives, amaranth seed, sugarcane, rice bran, and wheat germ.

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

Ladybug on a leaf, a gentle nod to ethical pigment sources versus carmine
  • Benefits: Offers a vibrant red pigment used in lipsticks and blushes (Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Made from crushed cochineal insects.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Beetroot powder and dyes made from bacteria and fungus provide cruelty-free color.

Glycerin / Glycerol

  • Benefits: A popular humectant in skincare, it helps retain moisture in the skin and improve skin barrier function and protection (Sethi et al., 2016; Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Can be derived from animal fats.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Vegetable glycerin, derived from plant oils (e.g., soybean, corn, canola, sugarcane, coconut), is an effective and common substitute.


  • Benefits: Strengthens hair and nails, often found in shampoos and conditioners (Healthline; Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Derived from animal hair, horns, nails, wool, feathers and hooves, especially from chickens, sheeps, and bovines (Chilakamarry et al., 2021).

  • Vegan Alternatives: Almond oil and soy protein can strengthen hair naturally. Additionally, the properties of keratin can be replicated using synthesized amino acids from grains like rice and wheat, creating hydrolyzed proteins that serve as a vegan alternative to traditional keratin treatments (V Label, 2022).


  • Benefits: Acts as an emollient and stabilizer in skincare and makeup products, preventing the separation of their oil and liquid components (Cosmetics Info; Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Sourced from animal fats, commonly extracted from the spinal cords of cattle or from lanolin. It can be also derived from cow brains and spinal cords (McGill, 2019).

  • Vegan Alternatives: Synthetic cholesterol and plant sterols mimic the properties of animal-derived cholesterol (Healthline).

Hyaluronic Acid

Chicken on ladder, a call to consider sources of hyaluronic acid in beauty
  • Benefits: Highly valued for its moisture-retaining properties, giving skin a plump and hydrated look (Papakonstantinou et al., 2012; Narurkar et al., 2016; Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Sometimes sourced from rooster combs and cocks’ combs (Serra et al., 2023).

  • Vegan Alternatives: Hyaluronic acid produced through bacterial fermentation from sugar, corn and wheat, offering a cruelty-free hydration solution (Serra et al., 2023).

Stearic Acid

  • Benefits: Used as an emollient, emulsifier and thickener in a variety of cosmetics (Incidecoder; Medical News Today).

  • Animal Origin: Commonly derived from pork, beef, mutton or sheep (Medium, 2023).

  • Vegan Alternatives: Plant-based sources like cocoa or shea butter are effective substitutes (Medium, 2023).


  • Benefits: Helps maintain skin elasticity, often found in anti-aging products (Baumann et al., 2021).

  • Animal Origin: Derived from animal connective tissue such as neck ligaments and aortas of slaughtered livestock (goats, cattle, poultry, cows, pigs) (Nasrollahzadeh et al., 2021; Nadalian et al., 2019)

  • Vegan Alternatives: Synthetic elastin, biodesigned elastin (such as Geltor’s Elastapure® - remember this article about the power of biotechnology in beauty?) and plant-based proteins can mimic its skin-firming effects.

Guanine / Pearl Essence / CI75170

  • Benefits: Adds shimmer and shine, commonly used in nail polishes, lipsticks, eyeshadows and shampoos for its pearly, metallic effect (Cosmetics Info).

  • Animal Origin: Sourced from fish scales.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Synthetic pearl, leguminous plants and aluminum or bronze particles are ethical alternatives for that sparkle.

Oleic Acid

  • Benefits: Moisturizes and softens skin, found in a variety of skincare products (Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Often derived from animal fats like lard and tallow.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Many plant oils (such as olive, avocado, macadamia, marula, coconut oils) are a rich source of oleic acid and are entirely plant-based.

Shellac / Resinous Glaze

  • Benefits: Used in nail and hair products, mascara and moisturizers for its binding and emulsifying properties and its durable, glossy finish (Incidecoder; Treehugger).

  • Animal Origin: Secreted by the female lac bug.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Plant-based waxes (e.g., carnauba wax) and natural resins (e.g., dammar resin) can provide a similar shine and durability. Other vegan shellac alternatives are made from a corn protein called zein and offer a similar glossy finish with the same moisturizing and encapsulation properties (Treehugger; Utopia).


  • Benefits: Acts as a base for soaps and creams, providing a rich, creamy texture (Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Rendered form of beef, mutton, cattle or sheep fat (Science Direct).

  • Vegan Alternatives: Ceresin and vegetable waxes (such as Japan wax) offer a similar texture without animal products.


  • Benefits: Acts as a humectant and skin conditioner in various cosmetics (Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Milk sugar from mammals’ milk.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Plant-based milk sugars (e.g., almond, soy milk) are effective for skin hydration.

Calf nuzzling a cow, a tender image challenging the use of lactose and casein in cosmetics

Casein / Caseinate /Sodium Caseinate

  • Benefits: Provides skin and hair conditioning and hydration (Kazimierska & Kalinowska-Lis, 2021; Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Milk protein derived mostly from cow’s milk.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Legumin, obtained from legumes such as lentils, beans and hemp, is the plant-based alternative to casein. Soy or almond milk are great plant-based moisturizers as well.

Beeswax (Cera Alba)

  • Benefits: Provides texture and structure in products like lip balms and lotions, thanks to its emollient and thickening action (Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Produced by honey bees.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Candelilla wax, rice bran wax, berry wax, Carnauba wax and soy wax can be used to achieve a similar consistency (The Minimalist Vegan).


  • Benefits: Known for its moisturizing, soothing and antibacterial properties, used in skincare and lip balms (Burland & Cornara, 2013).

  • Animal Origin: Produced by bees.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Plant-based balms such as coconut butter and olive oil, together with agave nectar, rice nectar and maple syrup are excellent for moisture without exploiting bees.


  • Benefits: Offers anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits, commonly used in skincare (Kurek-Górecka et al., 2020).

  • Animal Origin: A resinous mixture produced by bees.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Tree resins, such as pine resin and tree saps, and synthetic alternatives can provide similar skin benefits.

Royal Jelly

  • Benefits: Touted for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-aging and skin conditioning properties (Kurek-Górecka et al., 2020).

  • Animal Origin: A secretion from the throat glands of worker honeybees.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Aloe vera, comfrey and natural oils derived from nuts and seeds (e.g., sunflower seed oil, pumpkin seed oil, and watermelon seed oil) are gentle, effective alternatives.

Silk Powder

  • Benefits: Used as bulking and skin conditioning agent and for its coloring and mattifying properties in makeup (Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Secreted by silkworms.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Cornstarch, arrowroot powder and bamboo silk offer a similar silky feel.

Snail on leaf, representing snail mucin's role in skincare and cosmetics

Snail Mucin / Snail Slime / Snail Secretion Filtrate

  • Benefits: Praised for its antioxidant, hydrating and anti-aging properties in skincare. It’s one of the key ingredients in K-Beauty (Brieva et al., 2007; Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Secreted by snails, that are typically kept in captivity to produce mucin for skincare products (Utopia).

  • Vegan Alternatives: Plant-based hyaluronic acid, aloe vera and plant oils can provide comparable benefits.


  • Benefits: Used as a fragrance fixative in perfumes (Treehugger).

  • Animal Origin: From the digestive system of sperm whales (either excreted from the animal or vomited out from the stomach) (Treehugger).

  • Vegan Alternatives: Synthetic fragrance compounds and vegetable fixatives (such as benzoin resin and oakmoss) can replicate its scent-binding properties.

Musk / Musk Oil / Civet oil (when extracted from the glands of civet cats)

  • Benefits: Used for its distinct strong, warm, sensual, and long-lasting fragrance in perfumes (Alvarez-Rivera et al., 2013).

  • Animal Origin: Extracted from the musk glands and genitals of animals, especially deer, beaver, muskrat, civet cat, and otter.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Plant-derived musk compounds from plants such as the ambrette or musk mallow plant offer a cruelty-free aromatic option.

Deer in the wild, invoking the ethical debate on animal-derived musk in perfumery

Placenta / Afterbirth / Placental Polypeptide Protein

  • Benefits: Claimed to nourish and repair skin (Byrdie, 2021).

  • Animal Origin: Derived from animal placenta, especially sheep’s.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Kelp (a type of seaweed) products and various peptides can offer similar hydrating, repairing and elasticity-enhancing properties.

Urea / Carbamide

  • Benefits: Widely used for its moisturizing and exfoliating properties. It helps to retain moisture in the skin and improve skin barrier function (Lodèn, 2003; Grether-Beck at al., 2012).

  • Animal Origin: Derived from urine and other bodily fluids of mammals.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Synthetic urea is now most commonly used and is an effective and cruelty-free alternative (Healthline).

Mink Oil

  • Benefits: Known for its hair and skin conditioning properties, it's used in some hair and skin products (Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Derived from the fatty tissues of minks (National Library of Medicine).

  • Vegan Alternatives: Vegetable oils such as jojoba oil and shea butter are excellent plant-based moisturizers that can provide similar benefits without harming animals.


  • Benefits: Tightens and tones the skin, used in facial masks and skincare products (Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Egg whites.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Plant-based proteins (e.g., from soybeans) can provide similar skin-tightening effects.

Panthenol / Pro-Vitamin B5

  • Benefits: Widely used for its moisturizing, soothing, and healing properties. It's common in skincare and haircare products, and even in some makeup items (Camargo Jr et al., 2011).

  • Animal Origin: It can be derived from animal sources.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Plant-derived Panthenol is widely used as a vegan-friendly option offering the same benefits. Panthenol can be also synthesized in labs from petrochemical raw materials (Veganavenue, 2023).

Caprylyl Glycol

  • Benefits: Functions as a moisturizing agent and preservative in cosmetics (Healthline).

  • Animal Origin: Can be derived from animal milk, particularly cow’s and goat’s.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Coconut oil is a plant-based option that offers similar properties.

Biotin / Vitamin H / Vitamin B Factor / Vitamin B7 / Coenzyme R

  • Benefits: Commonly used in hair and nail products for its strengthening and smoothing properties (Incidecoder, Cosmetics Info).

  • Animal Origin: Often sourced from animal products.

  • Vegan Alternatives: Plant-based sources of biotin include nuts, seeds, and certain vegetables, and can be synthesized in the lab.


  • Benefits: Acts as an emollient, emulsifier and stabilizer in cosmetics, helping to blend ingredients effectively (Incidecoder).

  • Animal Origin: Commonly derived from egg yolks, milk and animal nervous tissues such as bovine’s brain (Alhajj et al., 2020).

  • Vegan Alternatives: Soy lecithin and sunflower lecithin are widely used plant-based options.

Retinol / Vitamin A

  • Benefits: Renowned for its anti-aging properties, it’s widely used in night creams, serums, and eye treatments (Mukherjee et al., 2006).

  • Animal Origin: Derived from animal sources such as fish liver oil, egg yolk and milk derivatives (Gilbert, 2013).

  • Vegan Alternatives: Bakuchiol or synthetic forms of retinol are available and widely used in vegan skincare products.

Diver among fish, illustrating the search for vegan sources of retinol

Animal Hair (in brushes)

  • Benefits: Used in makeup brushes for smooth application.

  • Animal Origin: Sourced from various animals, to name a few: horse, goat, badger, squirrel (Queenbrush).

  • Vegan Alternatives: Synthetic fibers offer cruelty-free precision in makeup application.

The Vegan Beauty Checklist: Making Informed Choices

As you delve deeper into the world of vegan beauty, having a checklist can be incredibly helpful. This checklist is designed to guide you in making informed choices, ensuring that your beauty regimen aligns with your vegan values:

  1. Check for Vegan Certifications: Look for labels or certifications from recognized organizations like The Vegan Society, PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies, or Leaping Bunny. These certifications are a quick way to confirm a product's vegan status.

  2. Read Ingredient Lists: Familiarize yourself with common animal-derived ingredients and their alternatives. Always read the ingredient list, keeping an eye out for hidden animal ingredients and derivatives.

  3. Research the Brand: Do a quick background check on the brand. Many brands are committed to vegan and cruelty-free practices. Supporting these brands can make a significant impact.

  4. Contact Brands Directly: If you’re unsure about a product’s vegan status, reach out to the brand. Most companies are more than willing to provide information about their ingredients and sourcing.

  5. Beware of Misleading Marketing: Terms like ‘natural’, ‘organic’, or ‘green’ don’t necessarily mean vegan. Don’t be swayed by marketing jargon; always verify the ingredients.

  6. Utilize Technology: Use apps and online resources that specialize in identifying vegan products. They can be a handy tool in quickly determining a product's vegan status.

  7. Sample Before Buying: If possible, try samples first. This approach ensures you’re investing in products that not only meet your ethical standards but also work well for you.

  8. Connect with the Community: Join vegan beauty communities online. Social media groups, forums, and blogs can provide support, recommendations, and reviews from like-minded individuals. Learning from others’ experiences can be incredibly helpful.

  9. Start Small: Don’t feel pressured to overhaul your entire beauty routine overnight. Start by replacing products as they run out with vegan alternatives. This gradual approach is more sustainable and less overwhelming.

By following this checklist, you can navigate the vegan beauty landscape with confidence and ease. Remember, each product you choose is a reflection of your commitment to a cruelty-free and ethical lifestyle. Happy vegan beauty hunting!

Rabbit in hay, a symbol against hidden animal-derived ingredients in cosmetics


What animals are used in cosmetics?

Various animals might be used in cosmetics, including sheep (for lanolin), cows and pigs (for collagen and gelatin), fish (for squalane and guanine), insects like cochineal (for carmine), and bees (for beeswax and honey).

What are animal-derived ingredients?

Animal-derived ingredients in cosmetics are substances obtained from animals, such as lanolin from sheep's wool, collagen from animal skin and bones, and carmine from crushed cochineal insects. These ingredients are used for their beneficial properties in beauty products.

Which shows that the product does not contain any animal product?

Products labeled as "100% Vegan" or "Certified Vegan" indicate that they do not contain any animal-derived ingredients. These labels are a clear indicator of a product's compliance with vegan standards.

How do you know if makeup is vegan?

To determine if makeup is vegan, look for explicit labels like "100% Vegan" or "Certified Vegan." Additionally, check the ingredient list for animal-derived substances and consider using apps or websites that specialize in analyzing cosmetic ingredients for vegan compliance.

What is the common alternative ingredient in vegan cosmetics?

Common alternative ingredients in vegan cosmetics include plant-based butters, oils, and waxes like shea butter, olive oil, and jojoba oil, which replace animal-derived emollients. For coloring, beetroot powder and synthetic dyes are used instead of carmine.

What is the order of ingredients in INCI?

In the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI), ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration. Those at the top of the list have the highest quantity in the product, while trace ingredients are listed towards the end.

Is there an app to check ingredients in products?

Yes, there are apps like Yuka and INCI Beauty that allow users to check the ingredients in cosmetic products. These apps can provide insights into whether a product is vegan and analyze its overall composition for consumer awareness.

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