Being an attempt to explain what it means to be nice to animals.
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”— Margaret Atwood
Today marks the start of the second miniseries of posts, The Rougueoisie. This miniseries is actually what inspired me to truly turn this into a blog, instead of just constantly fishing for attention on Facebook by posting selfies. (I still do that, I just also have a blog now.) In this series, we’re going to talk about the ethical dilemmas present in the beauty and makeup industry. There are… a lot. So many. I thought that this first post was going to get to be multiple topics in and of itself, and I think it will have to just be one. In this miniseries, we will be discussing problematic brands and YouTubers, product contamination, soulless corporate tie-ins, and even, occasionally, things that brands are doing well and people that I admire.
Let’s do this.
Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Sapphire Siren Atwood. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is very upset that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, and that is doubly true for makeup.
Basically every subgroup or interest can become a microcosm of everything that is wrong with capitalism. And makeup is that. All over. All the time. It’s just… wow. There’s a lot to cover. So let’s start with the first two concepts that are probably the most important and also the most divisive, “cruelty free” and “vegan” makeup.
Like a lot of terms that you think should have a legally-mandated definition, “cruelty free” does not have a legally-mandated definition, and any brand can claim to be cruelty free, even if they test on animals, without any legal repercussions. (There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism…) Instead, it has been left to a patchwork system of activists, consumers, brands, and certification organizations to decide what “cruelty free” actually means. When we talk about wanting makeup to be “cruelty free,” there are actually a few different levels of cruelty-free status that can be obtained. Because capitalism is complicated, and cruelty, like ogres, has layers. And like pretty much everything in the world today, it has a lot to do with China.
China has about 1.4 billion people, so it is literally the largest single-country market on Earth, and pretty much all brands would like to sell there for obvious reasons. However, it’s a little bit complicated for makeup brands. As Jen of Jen Luvs reviews explains in a video (that is legit the basis for basically the next three paragraphs) the Chinese government (with the exception of Hong Kong) requires that any makeup product that is sold to Chinese citizens undergoes animal testing (or is open to undergoing animal testing). So outside companies who want to sell in China have to pay a fee to the Chinese government to perform pre-market testing. Companies that actually make their products in China and then sell in China (which is a lot of them, honestly) can be made to undergo government-funded post-market testing if there is an issue, though in March of 2019 they stopped just performing post-market testing on randomly selected products. So a lot of whether a brand can fairly call itself “cruelty free” depends on whether or not they sell products in China. Which brings us to the Hierarchy of Cruelty Free-ness.
The Hierarchy of Cruelty Free-ness
At the bottom of the hierarchy, we have what I call the “I’m Technically Correct, Which is the Best Kind of Correct” level. These are brands that don’t test on animals themselves, but pay companies in China to test on their behalf. Basically every US and European brand can fit this very loose definition of cruelty free. Brands like L’Oreal, NARS, Benefit, Estee Lauder, and MAC (none of the French-named ones get their little accent, because they don’t deserve it and I am also lazy) all explain that they don’t test on animals in the production of their products (which is admittedly a step up from how things used to be) but that when required by law/regulatory bodies, *cough* China *cough* they allow outside companies to test their products using animals.
Then we have what I like to call the “Ignorance is Bliss” level. This is the level where the specific brand that you are purchasing from does not test on animals in the production of their cosmetics and also does not sell in China. But (and you knew there was a but) they are owned by a parent company that DOES sell in China. So any brand that is owned by one of the previously mentioned companies (and quite a few other companies) falls into this grey area. Examples of this level that Jen gives includes Too Faced (which you probably shouldn’t buy anyway, but we will talk about that later) and Urban Decay. I tentatively put Wet n’ Wild in this same category, for slightly different “ignorance is bliss” reasons. Their products are produced in mainland China, so they are not required to have mandatory pre-market testing, but they are subject to post-market testing if any of their products seem to cause any kind of negative reaction for a consumer. So as long as their products are carefully quality controlled and clearly labeled, everything should be fine. But there is the possibility that their products will be tested on animals if something goes wrong. (They got into a big controversy over this in 2019, as you already know if you have watched the video. They also say on their website that they are cruelty free, and have been given the PETA cruelty-free symbol, which is a Whole Thing we are going to talk about later on in this post.)
Finally we have what I call the “Morally Pure, as Much as a Cosmetics Company Can Be Morally Pure” level. These are cosmetics that don’t sell in China, don’t test on animals in the production of their cosmetics, and either have parent companies that do not sell in China or do not have a parent company. This is why it is really important that you pay attention, whenever you are able, to whether your favorite indie brand is being bought by a larger parent brand. A brand that was 100% on the up-and-up prior to being bought could wind up owned by a parent company that sells in mainland China.
Figuring Out if Something is Cruelty Free
The blog Cruelty Free Kitty is one of the most comprehensive sources to look to when trying to figure out if something is cruelty free or not. They keep lists of cruelty free and non-cruelty free brands, and also help explain what they mean by that. As explained by CFK, there are two main organizations/endorsements that signify that a brand is (at least claiming) to be cruelty free. The first is an endorsement from PETA, and the second is an endorsement from Leaping Bunny.
PETA, to the surprise of no one who as ever heard of PETA before, has a shadier endorsement system than Leaping Bunny. To get a PETA endorsement, a company “must complete a short questionnaire and sign a statement of assurance verifying that they do not conduct, commission, or pay for any tests on animals for ingredients, formulations, or finished products and that they pledge not to do so in the future.” And… that’s it. So if a company fills out a questionnaire and pinky promises not to test on animals or pay for animal testing, they get the endorsement.
Leaping Bunny kicks things up a notch. The pledge that companies must make applies to both their own practices and the practices of their ingredient suppliers, and also requires signees to allow for independent audits to make sure that they are telling the truth:
“[a] voluntary pledge that cosmetic, personal care, and/or household product companies make to clear animal testing from all stages of product development. The company’s ingredient suppliers make the same pledge and the result is a product guaranteed to be 100 percent free of new animal testing. All Leaping Bunny companies must be open to independent audits, and commitments are renewed on an annual basis.”
Companies with either certification can put an icon on their products to indicate their cruelty free status. To make things more confusing, both endorsements involve rabbits. To make things even more confusing, PETA has recently altered their logo, so brands with PETA certification may use one of two different icons:
(Don’t worry, we’ll talk about the “vegan” aspect here in a bit.)
The leaping bunny logo is… a bunny leaping through the stars?
Now as you probably noticed, both PETA and Leaping Bunny (Though Leaping Bunny is more stringent) leave some pretty big loopholes open for the “Ignorance is Bliss” level of The Hierarchy of Cruelty Free-ness. Wet n’ Wild is, in fact, PETA certified, but as shown in Jen’s video, the makeup it produces in China is also sold in China, which means post-market testing could happen to the products. Since Wet n’ Wild isn’t paying for the testing themselves and isn’t testing on animals in production, they still qualify for the PETA certification. (From my reading, they would qualify for the Leaping Bunny certification as well if their ingredient suppliers were also cruelty free).
Another thing to note is that both the PETA and the Leaping Bunny certification are voluntary programs, not industry standards. Thus it is possible for a brand to be some level of cruelty free but to not have either certification if they decided for some reason not to pursue that certification. (Maybe it costs money? I admittedly did not do extra research into the process of applying for certifications, because I was afraid I’d be writing forever.)
That’s why my genuinely best advice to find something that is fully cruelty free is to check out the Cruelty Free Kitty site, as the companies that they list fit the top criteria of the Hierarchy of Cruelty Free-ness. You can see on their list whether a brand has a PETA certification, a Leaping Bunny certification, both, or neither.
Interestingly, products can be vegan without being cruelty free, and cruelty free without being vegan. That’s because most of the animals whose byproducts are used in makeup don’t fall under the normal umbrella that is covered by animal testing laws; namely, bugs and fish. There are also animal byproducts that don’t fall under animal cruelty laws because the products used would have also been used for other purposes/the animal was killed for purposes unrelated to makeup testing. I’ll explain some of the most common ones, with help from the Ethical Elephant website.
Some of the most common non-vegan products come from bees. Wax is often used as an emollient (aka a softening agent) an emulsifier (aka a stabilizing agent) and a film forming agent (aka a chemical that leaves a constant covering over the skin.) Honey is also a common ingredient for moisturizers, soothing agents, and humectants (aka something that reduces moisture).
Other bee products are also used in various ways, though I’ve personally not seen them frequently in products.
Lanolin is a secretion from sheep. It helps them keep their wool anti-staticky and healthy, and it is used for similar reasons in products. It’s used to prevent static, as a conditioner and emollient, and a surfactant (something that reduces the surface tension of what it is put into).
Carmine is one of the most common non-vegan ingredients in cosmetics (it is also referred to as cochineal, carminic acid, crimson lake, carmine lake, CI 75470, and E 120). It is a dark red color that is gained from grinding the shells of cochineal insects.
Ethical Elephant has additional information on insects and shellac, but this is becoming a super long post and I’m moving on.
Bone and Stuff:
Keratin, Collagen, and Elastin are all potentially sourced from animals, including from ground scales, horns, nails, and feathers. They are used for… sciency things.
Some lipsticks contain products from fish scales, and a very fun to say word, squalene, may be sourced from fish liver oil.
There are some other animal products listed on Ethical Elephant site, but these are the big ones (to me).
How to Tell if a Product is Vegan
The PETA certification, as you saw above, has an option for products that are cruelty free as well as vegan. There is also “Certified Vegan” certification of various types, which look like these:
Cruelty Free Kitty’s list of cruelty free makeup has a filter for 100% vegan brands, and if you have concerns about a particular ingredient, you can look it up on doublecheckvegan.com.
How Do I Do?
My own ethics with makeup on this one are… mixed. I have makeup from a number of top-tier cruelty free brands, but not exclusively. I didn’t know that Benefit pays for direct testing and I have a Benefit brow pencil and some foundation, because the lady who does eyebrow waxing at Ulta works at the “Benefit Brow Bar” and gets extra commission money if she talks customers into things and I’m very impressionable. And I have a surprising amount of products from the “Ignorance is Bliss” level of the Hierarchy of Crualty Free-ness. I actually have a number of Wet n’ Wild products, because they are some of the best cheap products you can find, and their liquid matte lipstick can go toe-to-toe with lipsticks that cost three to four times as much. I also didn’t realize that Urban Decay wasn’t an independent brand, so I have a few Urban Decay products. (I also looked up one of my other most loved brands, NYX, and found that they are also owned by a parent company that sells in mainland China.) And I’ve legitimately never paid much attention to animal products in makeup. (Except for ambergris. I don’t mess with ambergris because despite my best intentions, I did, in fact, read Moby Dick.) I’d like to think that I’ll be more careful in the future now that I’ve done this research. I’m the type of person who can “ruin” things for myself, and be unable to forget the bad thing I learned about products, brands, people, etc. and thus be unable to manage to do things guilt-free after the fact. I’ll admittedly probably not sweat ingredients like beeswax, but I’m going to try harder to pay attention to other animal-based ingredients.
At the end of the day, everyone has to decide what their own comfort level/ethics level is, and just go with it the best they can. But understanding what all of the aspects of cruelty free and vegan mean can help you determine your level.
Join me next time, where I tackle one of the other (dear lord there are so many) aspects of ethics in makeup.
Sapphire Siren Atwood.