Q&A: What’s the difference between Vegan and Vegetarian Cosmetics?


You might have seen some beauty products being described as “vegetarian”. Knowing if a product is vegetarian is useful not only for vegetarians, but for making an informed decision about a product and its ingredients.

The difference between vegan and vegetarian cosmetics is essentially the same as the difference between vegan and vegetarian diets. A vegan doesn’t eat animals (including meat, fish, seafood, etc.) and doesn’t eat anything produced by an animal (including eggs, milk, butter, cheese, etc.). On the other hand, a vegetarian doesn’t eat animals but does eat products made by animals.

For a cosmetic product to be vegan, it must not contain any animal ingredient at all, be it a part of an animal (like gelatin or animal fats) or derived from an animal (such as honey, beeswax, yogurt, lactic acid, and so on). For a cosmetic product to be vegetarian, it must not contain any animal part, but it can contain ingredients that are animal bi-products, or produced by an animal. For example, a beauty product that contains beeswax is vegetarian but not vegan. A beauty product that contains gelatin (derived from animal collagen) is neither vegetarian nor vegan.

Although “vegetarian” cosmetic labeling is not very common, it helps us draw a clearer line between what is and isn’t a product of animal cruelty. Identifying a vegetarian product isn’t always simple, though! I’ll give you an example. If you’re not familiar with the ingredient Carmine, it’s an insect-derived red pigment commonly used in makeup. Carmine is an acid that some scale insects produce to repel predators.

But in order to extract this acid from the cochineal insect, thousands of them have to be killed and factory-processed: To prepare carmine, the powdered scale insect bodies are boiled in ammonia or a sodium carbonate solution, the insoluble matter is removed by filtering, and alum is added to the clear salt solution of carminic acid to precipitate the red aluminium salt, called “carmine lake” or “crimson lake.” (wikipedia). This is why most vegetarians agree that a product containing Carmine is not vegetarian. Insects are animals too!

There are more examples like this one, but I’ll keep this post short!

Most often, the difference between vegan and vegetarian cosmetics is that products labeled “vegetarian” will contain natural animal-made ingredients, most commonly beeswax and honey, which are avoided by vegans. Many green beauty brands that aren’t 100% vegan will state that they’re vegetarian. If you want to make sure the products you’re buying are vegetarian, always look at the ingredients and do the research!

From The Cruelty-Free 101 Series: