22 Cosmetic Products With Animal Origins

22 Cosmetic Products With Animal Origins

07 May -
16 min read

Living in a conscious and sustainable way starts by tracing where the things we use come from to reduce our use of the Earth’s natural resources and protect biodiversity. Essentially, it’s about living mindfully which impacts all areas of our life. In being mindful of what we’re putting into our bodies, it’s also important to be aware of what we’re putting on them. The beauty and skin care industry has a long history of using animal-derived ingredients, some of which are well known, some of which are more obscure. When our skin absorbs only a part of the products we apply to it, it’s alarming to think of what we’re actually putting on. Animal fat? It’s known as glycerin and extremely common across a range of products. Beetle juice? That’s what gives many lipsticks their red colour! 

The simplest way to prevent further infectious diseases is to let nature thrive on its own and avoid interfering with natural habitats and wildlife. Dennis Gross, a dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon with a PETA-approved line of vegan skincare products insists that animal ingredients haven’t proven themselves to be superior to their plant alternatives. The truth is, plant-based ingredients could actually be gentler and more soothing to the skin than their animal counterparts. It also doesn’t hurt that they’re chock-full of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that repair and nourish the skin too! In creating the first empowering step towards becoming a conscious consumer, we’ve compiled a list of common animal-derived that you might be using in your products everyday.

Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic Acid can come from three types of sources in skincare products: animal, synthetic, and plant. Its animal origins come from rooster combs, which are saved after the animal has been slaughtered for consumption. Hyaluronic acid is an important moisturizer because of its ability to draw and retain moisture in the skin. In finding a safer way to source Hyaluronic acid for Smog-block, we use a revolutionary plant-derived version that is as clinically efficient as those derived from other sources. Due to its low and high molecular weight properties, it also has the ability to simultaneously moisturize both the surface and deeper layers of your skin. 


The majority of squalene used in skincare and makeup is extracted from the livers of sharks. Squalene is naturally produced by humans in our sebum to prevent moisture loss and boost cell regeneration. In cosmetics and skincare, it’s used as an emollient in anything from face serums to hair conditioners. There are a few ethical plant-based sources available that are made from olives, so be sure to check where your squalene is coming from. 


Collagen in skin care products tends to be derived from chicken feet and ground up animal horns. It’s a protein that gives strength and structure to our skin and is included in products intended to replenish our own natural supply. However, the effectiveness of collagen in products is of varied opinion as the collagen molecule is ineffectively too large to deeply penetrate all the layers of the dermis. The more effective and ethical way to get your collagen fix is through collagen-stimulating foods such as green tea and anything with beta-carotene, like carrots!


Retinol in skin care products is usually derived from animal sources such as liver, meats, egg yolks, and fatty fish. It’s a potent source of vitamin A and a multitasker known for its anti-aging, anti-breakout and exfoliating properties. Alternatively, you can find carotenoids, the other group of retinoids, in leafy greens and vibrant fruits and vegetables, such as oranges and lemons. Once consumed, beta carotene converts to vitamin A inside the body.


A common smoothening ingredient in shampoos, conditioners, and hair straightening treatments, keratin is an animal-derived protein extracted from ground up horns, hooves, feathers, and various kinds of animal hair. Because there are no synthetic or plant-based forms of keratin, alternative plant sources that carry similar benefits include almond oil, amla oil, rosemary oil, and soy protein. 

Shellac Gel Nails

Shellac, which comes from the shell of the lac beetle (shell + lac), is a resin obtained from lac beetles to create a form of nail polish that consists of equal parts polish and gel. Although the secretions of these beetles can naturally be scraped of tree bark, larger corporations boil the beetles alive to procure their secretion quicker. Quite disproportionally, hundreds of thousands of lac beetles are killed for small amounts of product.

False Eyelashes

Mink eyelashes are the latest trend in false eyelashes and eyelash extensions for their naturally shiny, fluffy look and weightless feel. Although many brands market their mink lashes as ‘cruelty-free’ on account of using the hair collected from brushing the coats of minks, it’s more plausible that fur farms actually kill minks for their pelts from an assessment of PETA’s record of their living conditions on the farms. 

Natural Makeup Brushes

The ‘natural’ in natural makeup brushes sounds wholesome, but when ‘natural’ means real animal hair, it’s anything but. Natural makeup brushes are commonly made from horse, goat, sable, mink, fox, or squirrel hair. And although they possess exceptional ability to pick up product, they come at a price. The cosmetics industry masks a deeply grey area in how animals are obtained, looked after, and sometimes killed during the hair collection process. If you’re after truly cruelty-free brushes, opt for the synthetic kind which can mimic most natural hairs in feel and quality with much lower maintenance. 

Red Pigment in Lipstick and Blush

Carmine, or cochineal dye, is most commonly found as colouring in lipsticks and blush products. It comes from the female cochineal beetle who feeds on red berries from cacti. When crushed, the beetles leave behind a red dye prized for its non-fading, stable range of red to pink tones. PETA has reported that approximately 70,000 beetles are crushed to produce just 500 grams of red dye, which has led some companies to search for plant-based alternatives – the most promising seeming to be sweet potato which contains a red pigment in its tuber. When looking out for carmine in beauty products, its technical terms come under natural red 4, E120, and C.I. 75470. 

Guanine (The shimmer in your cosmetics)

If you’ve ever wondered how come cosmetics achieve that wonderful shimmer, it’s thanks to fish scales. Guanine, or technically known as CI 75170, is a crystalline material made from ground-up fish scales. When crushed, the iridescent powder is incorporated into various forms of skincare and makeup all the way from cleansers to nail polish to give them (and you) a pearly glow. 


Used widely in the skincare and cosmetics world, glycerin is found in several products including balms, moisturizers, hair care, toothpastes, and soaps to provide smoothness and lubrication. Its name doesn’t give much away, but glycerin is actually a byproduct of animal fat. Many companies have started replacing it with plant-based vegetable glycerin, so if this is something that concerns you, check with your favourite brand to see where their ingredients come from.


Biotin, a B vitamin also known as Vitamin B7, is a natural hair and skin conditioner found in both plant and animal sources. In animals, it occurs in the liver, kidney, and egg yolks. Biotin is primarily used in shampoos and conditioners to add body and shine to the hair, and in creams for a smoother texture. In most products, it is synthetically manufactured from petroleum but can also be made from cysteine, a sulfur-containing amino acid that’s one of the 20 building blocks of protein.


Tallow is rendered from beef and mutton fat. More specifically, it’s rendered from the fat that floats to the top of the pot when animal carcasses are boiled in industrial slaughterhouses. Tallow is used as an emollient, or moisturizing ingredient, in soaps, lotions, balms, and anything with a potentially creamy consistency, like cream, cream blusher, and lipstick. Although tallow promotes younger-looking skin and can protect the skin from some kinds of external damage, it’s not always clear how pure the tallow in your product is. Approved ‘pure’ tallow for goods manufactured in the United States contains no greater than 0.15% of impurities, but what’s in that 0.15% is unknown to customers. Why does this matter? Because in larger concentrations, which may be the case in homemade skincare products or in products manufactured in countries with looser tallow laws, these impurities can cause harmful effects like the formation of ‘mad cow disease’.

Urea/ Carbamide

If urea sounds familiar to you, you’re right. Urea, or carbamide in its organic solid form, is a component of urine. Its skin-softening, moisturizing, and mild exfoliating properties contribute to its widespread inclusion in cleansers, lotions, hair care products, deodorants, and various types of makeup. Urea is either extracted from the urine of horses or made from synthetic ammonia and carbon dioxide. Although synthetic urea prevails in cosmetics, the product’s packaging doesn’t have to indicate where the urea actually comes from. 


A major component of anti-aging products because of its ability to restore bounciness in the skin, elastin is a protein derived from animal connective tissue, such as the neck ligaments and aortas of cows. Even though human skin naturally contains elastin, the body stops producing it after the age of twelve or thirteen which, over time, enables the loss of elasticity and leads to sagging skin. The general consensus, however, is that harvesting it from animals doesn’t do us much good either: research shows that topical elastin cannot penetrate the skin deep enough to have significant results. 


Panthenol, the nutrient that inspired Pantene’s name, is a form of vitamin B5 that can be extracted from either whole grains, organ meats, or honey (specifically, Royal jelly). As a moisturizer and lubricant, panthenol is often used in shampoos and conditioners to add shine and strength to hair, in moisturizers to soften skin, and as an additive in certain makeup products like mascara and lipstick. The source of panthenol won’t be listed in the ingredients, so if you’d like to stick to the less common plant-sourced variety, check for a vegan or animal-free tag. 

Stearic Acid

Stearic acid is a natural fatty acid typically derived from the fat (the lard or tallow) of pigs, cows, and sheep. A multi-tasker of an ingredient, it binds, thickens, softens, and stabilizes substances to give products form and prevent them from running when applied. You could find stearic acid in anything from bars of soap, where it’s used as a hardener, to cleansers, where it binds ingredients that normally wouldn’t mix like oil and water, to various cosmetics to prevent the product from melting. Although stearic acid is also found in plant-based sources such as vegetable oils and cocoa butter, the majority of skincare products use the animal-derived kind. Because the label of the product doesn’t have to list its source, buying a vegan product ensures that if stearic acid is listed as an ingredient, it’s the plant kind. 


Glucosamine may be a sugar, but its origins in cosmetics come from seafood. This anti-aging, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-loaded ingredient is extracted from the shells of crustaceans like crabs and shrimps. Because glucosamine stimulates the synthesis of hyaluronic acid in the skin, it’s found in many anti-aging products to retain the skin’s moisture and decrease the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It’s also used in moisturizers and eye creams to prevent hyperpigmentation and replenish, brighten, and exfoliate the skin. For an ingredient with so many benefits, enough demand has spurred vegan alternatives that are explicitly labelled as such.

Animal Ingredients in Perfumes

Throughout history, animal products have been used in perfumes as powerful base notes, enhancers and fixatives. In their pure form, these products might hit you with their pungency. Once diluted and added to perfumes, they reveal beautifully sensual scents that add to the fragrance’s symbol of glamour and exoticism. Behind these alluring perfumes, however, lies a background of secrecy, killing, pain, and torture.

The inclusion of animal ingredients in perfumery is controversial because of its extraction methods. Some scents can’t be derived without killing the animal. With others, the process of extraction from a live animal has historically involved cruel animal treatment. Although ethical forms of extraction are being developed, it’s still unclear how ethical and sustainable these practices actually are. 

It may be difficult to find out which animal ingredients are in your perfumes because perfumes aren’t required to share their ingredients. By law, formulas are considered ‘trade secrets’ to prevent other perfumers from recreating them. What this means is that upto thousands of fragrances can hide under the single term ‘fragrance’. And it’s not just consumers who are unaware of these – most perfumes don’t even share their ingredients with the brand they’re creating the scent for!

Several luxury perfumers have long used animal products in their perfumes, and those that currently still do don’t openly disclose them. As consumers, the only way to know is to try and extensively research your perfumes to see if animal essences have been used and, if so, if they’re natural or synthetic. To help you out, here are four of the most widely-used animal ingredients to look out for:


Expensive and exotic, musk, a brownish substance secreted by the male musk deer, is often used as a base note in fragrances for its ability to balance out the rest of the notes. With its sense of warmth and sensuality, many consider it to be an aphrodisiac – not an inaccurate claim considering musk is collected from the sex glands of deer. Once the deer has been killed (because in most cases, hunted male and female deer are indiscriminately shot over more sustainable versions of extraction), its gland sac is removed and dried to produce a musk pod. The powder of the pod is then stored in ethanol while the musk mellows and matures. This musk-infused alcohol is what forms the basis of several perfumes.

Because only a few grams of musk can be extracted from each gland, over 150 deer are killed for each kilogram of musk. Musk deer, found across the Himalayan mountain ranges of India northwards to Russia, are now found in populations so low, they’re classified as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Barring vintage perfumes and a few contemporary perfumers who still use natural musk for their luxury lines, many perfumes now use more affordable and ethical synthetic versions. Natural musk is found in the following perfumes: Serge Lutens’ Clair de Musc, Il Profvmo’s Musc Bleu, Montale’s White Musk, Narciso Rodriguez’s For Her, and Areej Le Dore’s Siberian Musk. 


Civet is a buttery paste secreted from the anal glands of the civet cat. Initially fecal-smelling, it becomes quite seductive once diluted and blended, adding warmth, radiance, and a sense of shimmer to floral notes. To make this sweet scent, wild civet cats native to the tropical forests of Asia and Africa are captured and caged without release for upto 15 years. Every 10 days, the scent is extracted from the glands of completely conscious civets, an enduringly painful process that often causes them to lose their appetite. Because civets secrete more musk when stressed, many breeders keep them in consistently high states of distress in order to produce more paste. 

Although civet is now replaced with synthetically replaced with civetone for ethical reasons, natural civet is found in the following perfumes: Calvin Klein’s Obsession, Chanel’s Coco Eau de Parfum, Chanel No. 5, Guerlain’s Shalimar, Jean Patou’s Joy, and Yves Saint Laurent’s Y


For a perfume ingredient prized for its sweet, earthy aroma and shimmering effect, Ambergris’s roots are far less inviting. Named “Floating Gold”, by molecular biologist Christopher Kemp, ambergris is a rare secretion produced by sick sperm whales who can’t properly digest the squid they eat. The result is a waxy, grey substance expelled at sea that floats over currents for years before washing up ashore. Once the soft, dense ambergris dries and hardens into a rock-like material, it starts releasing its alluring scent. This by-product of sperm whales has been used as a perfume and aphrodisiac for centuries. Its ability to anchor a fragrance’s volatile ingredients, increase its staying power, and fix onto the skin give it great value. 

Sperm whales were killed for ambergris when whaling was commonly widespread, but with many countries now outlawing the exploitation of sperm whales, leading to ambergris’ increasing rarity and high costs, many synthetic versions have begun to replace its natural counterpart. Natural ambergris is still found in the following perfumes: Bvlgari’s Opalon, Acqua di Parma’s Colonia Ambra, Mugler’s Heal Your Mind, and Paco Rabanne’s Dangerous Me


The deep leather, woody, and amber notes that castoreum brings to perfume come from the castor sacs of beavers. In fact, the word ‘castor’ itself comes from the Latin word for beaver. Located just under their tails, these castor sacs are filled with a thick goo that beavers use to grease their fur and construct scent mounds to mark their territory. Traditionally, beavers were killed to extract castoreum, but today they’re anesthetized while their castor sacs are ‘milked’ – a process still ethically questionable. As the castoreum paste dries into a solid, it mellows into a sensual leathery scent with a hint of sweetness. Due to the inconvenience and high cost of harvesting castoreum from live beavers, synthetic derivatives are now widely used. 

Natural castoreum is found in the following perfumes: Dior’s Diorama, Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium, Shalimar, Givenchy III, and Tom Ford’s Oud Wood Intense and Tobacco Wood Intense. 

If our lives are the reflections of our beliefs and actions, then every time we make the choice to purchase something, we’re voting for that product and all it encompasses: all the way from its ingredients and manufacturing methods to its packaging. As consumers, becoming aware of the products we use allows us to make more intentional decisions. Sharing these findings with our friends, family, and community then creates greater awareness which leads to discussion and instigates progress. Together, with progress, let’s create a kinder and more responsible world for all living beings. 

We need to overhaul our current systems and start paying attention to where our products come from and the effects of their production. Research shows that decreasing human activity and conserving wildlife diversity may reduce the likelihood of future animal-derived diseases emerging. Our call to you is to stand with us and help say no to industries that disrupt ecosystems and beauty that hurts the world. 

“How differently would we see our time on Earth if we wrote the date as January 26, 4.543 billion?”― Ziya Tong

References for this information:
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Gold, Cleo. “These Are the Animal Ingredients Hiding in Your Make-Up.” Dazed Beauty , 5 Mar. 2019, www.dazeddigital.com/beauty/head/article/43600/1/animal-ingredients-hiding-make-up.
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