Do you know what’s actually in your skin care products? I’m sure crushed insects, shark liver oil and fish scales aren’t exactly what comes to mind when you check the list of ingredients on your red lipstick, anti-wrinkle eye cream or sparkly nail polish. But animal ingredients and by-products have found their way into our cosmetics, skin care and hair products to give these products a specific texture, or to serve a specific purpose. Vegan cosmetics are, however, much better for both you and nature. In this article, we guide you through some of these animal ingredients so you can become more aware of what is actually in your cosmetics.

Animal ingredients

Although animal ingredients are often classified as “naturally derived” and “derived in a way that does not harm animals”, there are minimal (i.e. non-existent) animal welfare measures currently in place in the cosmetics industry.

These animals that are bred and exploited for the production of ingredients for human skin care are virtually unprotected. These ingredients are added to our cosmetics as emulsifiers, soothing agents, skin and hair conditioners or colorants.

We list below some of the most common (and sometimes hidden) animal ingredients and by-products used in cosmetics today.

(Long read)

Bee products

1. Beeswax is secreted by bees to build their honeycombs, which is where they breed larvae and store their pollen. Beeswax is used in cosmetics as an emollient, emulsifier and film forming agent. Honey is produced by the bees from the nectar on flowers, and is stored in their honeycombs. Honey is used in cosmetics as a sedative, moisturiser and humectant.

2. Propolis, also called bee glue, is a mixture of tree resin and bees’ digestive juices. Propolis is used in cosmetics as an antiseborrheic, moisturiser, smoothing agent, and as an antimicrobial agent in toothpaste, shampoos, deodorants, etc.

3. Bee pollen is collected by bees and used to feed their larvae. Humans collect it using pollen traps. The bee pollen is then used in cosmetics as a skin conditioner just like royal jelly which is excreted by the worker bees’ glands.

Animal proteins and vitamins

There are many different proteins and vitamins found in cosmetics.

4. Keratin is a protein found in various vertebrates’ horns, hooves, claws, nails, hair, scales, and feathers. Keratin is used in cosmetics as a hair and skin conditioner.

5. Collagen is found in the connective tissue of animals, and is extracted from bones, teeth, skin and cartilage. It is used as an active ingredient against wrinkles and as a wetting agent in cosmetics. Processed collagen is also used as a cosmetic ingredient, particularly collagen amino acids, and hydrolysed collagen and its derivatives. Collagen is also used in cosmetic surgery for anti-wrinkle injections.

6. Elastin is a fibrous protein present in the connective tissue of animals, and used as a skin conditioner.

7. Biotin is a soluble vitamin that plays an important role in cell growth and metabolism. It is used as a hair and skin conditioner in shampoos and cosmetic creams.


8. Silk forms when the natural excretions of caterpillars come into contact with air. Unfortunately, for that to happen, the caterpillars have to be boiled alive in their cocoons. The silk amino acids are then extracted from the raw silk, and used as an additive in skin and hair care products due to its high serine content which has excellent moisture-protecting properties. Silk glue, hydrolyzed silk and silk powder are all used as smoothing agents in cosmetics and hair conditioners.


9. Mother-of-pearl is the inside lining of mollusk shells. A pearl is a round deposit of mother-of-pearl which forms in these shells under certain conditions. Pearls form naturally but to satisfy industrial demands, the process of artificially provoking these conditions has developed. “Cultured” pearls are created by inserting an irritant into the shell which causes it to produce mother-of-pearl to defend itself against the irritant. Over half of shells however do not survive this ordeal. A hydrolyzed pearl (i.e. chemically modified mother-of-pearl powder) is used as a skin conditioner in cosmetics as it helps improve the appearance of the skin.

Fish and marine animals

10. Squalene can originate from either animals, or vegetables. It occurs naturally in fish liver oil, such as shark liver oil, but also in many vegetable oils, such as olive oil… It is an emollient for hair conditioners and a wrinkle filler in cosmetics.

11. Guanine can be extracted from fish scales, but it can also be synthesized. On an industrial scale, Guanine is made from the scales and skin of fish, but it can also be extracted from uric acid (a component of urine). It is used as a colouring agent in cosmetics such as shampoos, nail polish and eyeshadow.

12. Glucosamine occurs naturally in the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans. It is also industrially extracted from the shells of crabs and shrimps. It is an ingredient in hair and skin conditioners.

13. Chondroitin is extracted from the connective tissue of animals. It is an important component of animal cartilage, and is used in hair and skin conditioners.

Cow's milk

14. Lactoferrin and lactose are components of milk. Cows are artificially inseminated to produce more milk. The calves are removed from them and used for human consumption. Lactoferrin is an iron binding protein and is used in skin and hair conditioners. Lactose is used as a humectant and in skin conditioner. Chemically-altered proteins are also used in conditioners.

Insects and mollusks

15. Slug mucus is collected from live snails on farms and processed for use as a cosmetic ingredient. Slug mucus supposedly improves skin elasticity and helps with the healing of scars.

16. Carmine is a red dye made from scale insects. Over 150 000 insects are needed for 1kg of dye… It is used in lipstick, lip gloss and foods.

17. Shellac is dark brown resin made from the secretions of lac bugs. This resin is collected from the branches where the bugs live, killing many of them in the process. It is used most famously in nail polish, but is also used in softening agents, film forming agents, viscosity regulating agents and hair fixatives.


18. Lanolin is secreted by sheep’s sebaceous glands, and is extracted by washing the sheared wool in hot water. Lanolin is used in cosmetics as an antistatic, emollient, hair and skin conditioner, surfactant and carrier.

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