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Cruelty-Free Makeup Brushes: Synthetic or Natural?

by Suzana Rose

May 22, 2018

Buying cruelty-free makeup is already tricky enough, but when it comes to the topic of cruelty-free makeup brushes, there are even more things to consider. If a cruelty-free company offers brushes made from natural hair, does it mean the brushes are cruelty-free? Does it mean that the company isn't cruelty-free? In this quick guide, I'm going to walk you through all the questions you might have about choosing brushes that are 100% cruelty-free, and share with you my personal opinion on what truly makes a brush animal-friendly.

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The term cruelty-free usually strictly refers to animal testing. If a product is cruelty-free, it means that it hasn't been tested on animals at any point of production or afterwards. Cruelty-free does not however take into consideration things like animal ingredients, meaning that a product can still be certified cruelty-free by the Leaping Bunny and contain animal ingredients. This is a controversial subject and it's very subjective where the line between what is and isn't literally "cruelty-free" can be drawn, but for the sake of clarity: cruelty-free refers to the testing methods, while vegan refers to the ingredients.

As you know, most makeup brushes are made from natural bristles of animal hair. Brushes themselves don't have to be tested on animals, and are often sold by makeup brands that are completely cruelty-free in the sense that they abide by a strict no-animal-testing policy and are sometimes even certified. By this standard, it might be logical to conclude that brushes made from natural hair are also cruelty-free, although not vegan. This might sound right, but I disagree with it 100%, and here's why.

Where everyone draws the line when it comes to what is and isn't cruelty-free is sometimes a matter of opinion, and while I have pretty strong convictions given that I'm passionate about living cruelty-free and what it means to me, I also respect most opinions on the subject. And I'll share my personal opinion with you: I believe that no makeup brushes made from animal hair can be cruelty-free. This applies to the vast majority of brushes, especially those that are cheaply-made in places like China. About 99% of brushes made from natural hair are, in my opinion, obtained from cruel methods that can be just as cruel as animal testing.

Many companies claim that the hair used in their makeup brushes is obtained through "humane methods" and that the animals only "get a haircut" in the making of those mass-produced brushes. But who are we kidding! Does that sound plausible to you? Even though there's no real way to prove it, it all sounds like sugar-coating to me. Also remember that a lot of brushes use badger hair and squirrel hair, and in those cases, it's safe to assume that those small animals are getting more than just "a haircut". So there you go: I believe that buying synthetic, or vegan, brushes is the safest way to ensure that your makeup tools are cruelty-free.

That being said, I still support cruelty-free companies that sell natural hair brushes under their brand, although I will personally not buy or recommend buying their animal hair brushes. Sonia Kashuk is an example that comes to mind: the company is cruelty-free and their makeup brushes are excellent, but I only choose to buy their synthetic ones. It's a matter of preference, as well as where you personally draw the line. If you're a cruelty-shopper and still buy non-synthetic brushes, I'm not here to preach. After all, the official message of these brands is that their animal hair brushes are, indeed, cruelty-free.

Lastly, I want to point out that there are many companies offering quality vegan brush lines completely made from synthetic hair, at every price range. EcoTools and Everyday Minerals have some decently-priced soft vegan brushes, Illamasqua has a completely vegan and super wide range of makeup brushes, and there are other independent companies that offer synthetic brush sets available online, like Pirouette or Nanshy.

Where do you draw the line? Do you avoid all animal ingredients? Are you fine with all animal ingredients, or do you only buy cosmetics that contain some of them, like beeswax, and avoid others? Or like me, do you draw the line at animal hair brushes?

Stay tuned for my personal cruelty-free and vegan brush suggestions!

Image credit: Vassilis

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+ Show Comments (23) - Hide Comments (23)
  • My says:

    There are newer brands that are 100% cruelty free and vegan when it comes to their makeup brushes. Such as Spectrum Collections, Sigma, Otto Torro, Anisa, BK Beauty, and Furless to name a few. Sure they’re a bit pricey but it’s soo worth it at the end of the day.

  • Natalie says:

    Great article! I was going to buy some Wayne Goss brushes because he claims they are “cruelty free” but then read the brush is made from blue squirrel tail. Like wtf?!!!
    Obviously the squirrel is killed for it’s tail – how the hell is that cruelty free?

    It’s a touchy subject and I thank you for writing about it.

  • Helen says:

    D.C I have the same question, and I didn’t get an answer. I think the problem isn’t only the cruelty-free aspect, but also the fact that people seem to collect things. Especially makeup brushes. The quality of Japanese brushes is exceptional and for sure they last decades with proper care. Why people have to buy like 30 of them, and from different companies? The high demand for natural hair makes it more expensive and as a result, the fur industry is becoming more aggressive. And the same goes for synthetics brushes that are produced in high rates for the masses, in factories that we don’t know how they treat their employees and also we don’t know how they manage their waste. How many synthetic brushes does a person need? This is not only for the make up brushes but for everything that we buy as consumers.

  • Teodora says:

    Hello! This is not really about the makeup brushes but I felt this is the most appropriate article to comment on. I am interested in hair brushes – what are the cruelty free options?

  • D. C. says:

    Does anyone know of any compostable/biodegradable synthetic bristle materials (for example made from plant matter)? There are materials that look and function like plastic bags, for example, but are actually plant-based and home-compostable. If this is possible, surely it’s possible to make plant-based synthetic bristles as well.

    But the only vegan bristles I’ve come across are made from plastic, which pollutes our environment and harms animals in the process.

    If anyone can point me in a sustainable / zero-waste / plastic-free / vegan direction for makeup brushes, I would be so grateful. Thank you!

    • My says:

      There is this one brand I know of called Complex Culture that has biodegradable aspects in their brushes. The handle I think.

  • Teodora says:

    Hi, didn’t know where else to ask this – can you recommend some cruelty free and/or vegan HAIR brushes? I apologize if there is a post about this I could not find it. There is this brand Wet Brush, I found claims they are cruelty free, however they do use boar bristles in some of their models, so they are definitely not vegan. I am not sure if boar bristles can be obtained through a non painful method :/ There is another brand I heard of, Ikoo, they have been certified by Peta, but that means literally nothing to me…

    Thank you so much for your response! (:

  • Carla Norris says:

    I am looking for a lip brush, and the only such brush available from one of my favorite sources is billed “natural,” which is typically an automatic deal-breaker for me.
    However, the site insists, “The natural hair from our brushes will come from pony, sable, goat or raccoon hair. The hair is retrieved through safe clipping or brushing processes that do not harm the animals.”
    I’m skeptical. Should I be?

  • Daisy m says:

    Many of your conclusions are based on assumptions. Please show some facts, your personal opinion is not backed up by evidence and it is difficult to convince.

    “I BELIEVE that no makeup brushes made from animal hair can be cruelty-free”

    “Even though there’s no real way to prove it, it all sounds like sugar-coating to me. Also remember that a lot of brushes use badger hair and squirrel hair, and in those cases, it’s safe to ASSUME…”

  • Abner says:

    Actually, I totally against for you said: “I believe that no makeup brushes made from animal hair can be cruelty-free. This applies to the vast majority of brushes, especially those that are cheaply-made in places like China.”
    Please do NOT put all the trash into China! Maybe you think makeup brushes from Japan and Korea are so high-end and wonderful. But you don’t know 80% of brushes still made in China until you look up Customs Data.

    Don’t you think that’s so funny? Import brushes from China and export from Japan and Korea to the USA and Europe, you just think “how lovely, amazing and unbelievable”. That’s so stupid just like you currently, used brushes made in China but slander China.

    So the mind is a good thing, you need use before speaking!

  • Rachel says:

    Thank you so much for helping clarify this! I’ve wondered about this for years. You phrased it perfectly and that makes so much sense! I’m trying to go cruelty free and isn’t easy! There’s so much conflicting information out there and brands trying to pretend that they’re cruelty free when really they’re not. It’s really overwhelming sometimes. Thank you so much for making this amazing site, it’s been extremely helpful!

  • JENNA says:

    Is it bad to buy synthetic/vegan brushes from a non CF brand? Like Morphe? (Trying to become cruelty free).

  • Milan Hervas says:

    But doesn’t it defeat the purpose if you still buy from a brand that sells natural hair brushes, even if you choose to buy the synthetic brushes from said brand the money you are giving them is in essence still being put towards the natural hair brushes, which I also belive is animal cruelty. Just wondering, not trying to sound mean in a way just trying to understand as much as possible bc being an ethical shopper is hard af

    • K M C says:

      Milan Hervas: It’s the same debate as buying from a company owned by a parent company that isn’t cruelty free. If enough people stop buying their natural brushes and start buying the synthetic brushes, A)eventually it will just cost too much to make the natural, because no one is buying and B)they will start seeing that people prefer vegan products. However it is each individual’s decision if they choose to buy, as you are right, you are still giving them money.

      Environmental Journalist: Yes, it would be better to have ethically-sourced natural fibres, and like I mentioned above, from the shearers perspective this is entirely possible. HOWEVER there is currently no way to guarantee that the fibres are being sourced ethically. That is a problem we need to tackle BEFORE choosing this as an option.

  • Suzann says:

    Thank you – very true about “natural” brushes. Yes, they are naturally from natural animals. And of course, the animals suffer when we buy those brushes. I try to buy vegan always — as you recommend. That’s the only way I can be sure.

  • Environmental-journalist says:

    But why is no one taking into consideration the impact that micro plastics are having on our environment because synthetic bristles are made from taklon or other petrochemical derived components which is 1. Not sustainable and 2. Pollutes the environment and 3. Has a deadly affect on our wildlife. In fact plastics, especially small plastics like synthetic bristles, tiny exfoliating beads and synthetic fibers, are just now being studied with results that are surprising as these plastics photodegrade into even smaller pieces getting into our airways, food and water supply. So let me ask you, isn’t it better to utilize humanely sourced animal hair for cosmetic brushes than support the on going plastic problem? Because to me, that would be truly cruelty free.

    • Ash says:

      I’m glad this comment was posted. I was about to say the same thing. Synthetic brushes do not biodegrade and remain in our ecosystem. They negatively impact the animals we are trying to protect. I’ve been having the hardest time finding wood/aluminum/natural hair brushes and it’s irritating to no end! Also, if you’re cruelty-free, do not buy faux fur!

  • K. M. C. says:

    One of the things that makes me wonder the most on the subject is the case of goat or horse hair brushes… You see I have a background as an animal groomer. I know from this experience that the clippers used can easily remove hair close to the skin, without cutting skin- just because of the way they are made. (There are different blades, that are shaped like combs with no flat edge whatsoever. Each is a specific length that can only remove the corresponding length of hair; if you try to go shorter it literally will not work, the hair will remain that length now matter how many times you run the clipper over/through it.) It takes some learning, but once you know how to use them (and if it is your job, to groom animals or shear goats or sheep, I’m guessing you would still need to have that training to be hired for the job- whether a business cares about animals or not, competent workers bring in higher profit) Additionally, grooming a domestic animal is actually beneficial for them: it stops tangles and mats forming that can irritate the skin, in winter months stop snow from sticking to the legs and underside of the body, and in warmer months it provides relief from the heat. Knowing how animal hair is removed, leads me to wonder if it depends on the animal? For example if someone asked me to collect a goats fur for a brush and a badgers, I could grab my tools, contact a farmer, and have the supply set up, knowing I could go in and at best actually do something that raise the animal’s comfort, or at the very least collect the hair for my employer without ever hurting the animal whatsoever. With a badger however, I would decline, knowing it meant trapping and caging an animal (at best) before ever even picking up my tools.

    I would like to know if anyone has any information on Sable/Horse Hair versus Badger/Squirrel etc. Personally I feel like it is easily possible to have Sable without harming an animal but impossible to do so for Badger. Of course, I do not have experience seeing where they actually make the brushes or their process. Has anyone ever seen the process of brush-making that could tell more?

    • Laura says:

      My issue with buying ANY natural hair brushes, even if it’s from goats or horses, is that there’s no way to know for certain that the animals are being properly taken care of. For all we know it could be a factory farm-like environment.

  • Destinee McGhee says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I know Morphe also has amazing synthetic brushes that are affordable as well. I have a bunch and am working on making sure all of my brushes are synthetic/vegan. I also know It Cosmetics, Wet N Wild, Makeup Geek and Juvia’s Place carry all vegan/synthetic brushes.

  • Beth Brootality says:

    “[…] I’m not here to preach.” And this is why I love reading your blog. So many vegans just want to speak down to other vegans, and it seriously discourages the movement. No one is perfect, and some vegans just don’t know or think about things like this. They will probably read this and think, “This is a really good point, and I haven’t though about it.” Versus if you had preached and condemned them, they’d just want to keep a closed mind out of spite.

    • Suzi says:

      Thank you for commenting on this, Beth. You’re totally right! I want to be as inclusive as possible, and I can’t stand that holier-than-thou approach because it does the opposite and alienates.

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