Why vegan beauty is becoming mainstream

By Katerina Mansour - 29 June 2022

In the past few years, veganism has become increasingly widespread when it comes to diet. Some research on Google search results even indicates that from 2004 to 2018, vegan was a more popular keyword than vegetarian. While percentages still remain low compared to the overall population, the number of vegans worldwide is growing. The Guardian estimates there are 79 million vegans worldwide. On a smaller scale, the UK saw a 163% increase in vegan food orders on Deliveroo in 2020, compared to 2019. However, while vegan diets are becoming more common, there’s still a long way to go before veganism becomes mainstream. Vegan beauty, on the other hand, is arguably well in the process of reaching that status.

The vegan cosmetics market was valued at $16 billion in 2021 and is projected to be worth $25 billion in 2028. Interestingly enough, various studies show that many consumers of vegan cosmetics aren’t vegan themselves. For example, a Cosmetify study showed that 39% of the British women surveyed who exclusively buy vegan beauty products aren’t vegan. In this article, we look at some of the drivers behind vegan cosmetics adoption as opposed to vegan diets. We’ll also go over some of the key challenges this sector faces, and what startups are bringing to the table.

Why are consumers moving towards vegan beauty?

While there are a plethora of reasons behind the choice to purchase vegan cosmetics, a few key explanations stand out.

The clean beauty trend

The emergence of clean beauty as a trend indicates just how much consumer preferences have shifted as of late. While there is no official definition of the term, clean beauty generally refers to safe and non-toxic cosmetic products that take into account both human and environmental health.

A mixture of several factors are pushing consumers to demand clean beauty: the rise in sensitive skin, growing awareness of the impact chemicals have on our bodies, an overall desire to lead a more sustainable lifestyle, etc. Demand for clean beauty also comes from the desire for transparency. Consumers want to know and understand what is in the products they’re using on their skin. Clean beauty brands tend to focus a lot on providing information on their ingredients for consumers.

Transparency is especially important to users in countries like the United States, where regulations are arguably laxer than elsewhere in the world. For example, the EU has banned 1,328 chemicals from cosmetics that are known or suspected to cause cancer, genetic mutation, reproductive harm or birth defects. The FDA, on the other hand, has only banned or restricted 11 chemicals from cosmetics.

However, regardless of their region, consumers increasingly understand they must do their research before buying a cosmetic product, as not all harmful ingredients are known and thus banned yet. Furthermore, it takes a long time for ingredients to undergo the research and investigation that precedes a ban. As such, it might be known an ingredient is questionable, but a ban has not been put in place yet. Many therefore choose to err on the side of caution and seek transparency so they can avoid questionable ingredients even if they’re not banned yet. Cosmetic brands on the other hand are starting to include more educational materials in their marketing and product ingredient lists. Many will opt not to include a questionable ingredient, even if it hasn’t been banned yet.

Shifting generational values and beliefs

A Klarna survey of 15k US consumers showed younger generations’ biggest considerations when buying beauty products is for them to be natural and use non-toxic ingredients. The survey also showed they were more likely to buy cruelty-free and vegan beauty products than their older counterparts.

Furthermore, younger generations like Gen Z are focusing more on skincare than makeup. They seek a natural look, they want healthy skin, and a big part of that is paying close attention to ingredients. Although there’s some debate around this claim, it is said that our skin absorbs 60-70% of what we put on it. With that in mind, younger consumers aren’t keen to wear products that use urine, ground hooves or insects (commonly used components in non-vegan cosmetics) as ingredients. Moreover, vegan cosmetics tend to use only natural ingredients, thus reducing the risks of our skin absorbing chemicals that can cause rashes and other bad reactions.

Cruelty-free and sustainability as key priorities

A survey by Kyra, mainly focused on US and UK consumers, showed that 50% of Gen Z wouldn’t purchase from a cosmetics brand that wasn’t certified cruelty free.

Younger generations tend to demonstrate their activism throughout their purchasing habits. Lab animals are kept in small cages their entire life until they are ultimately euthanised when no longer of use. As such, younger generations are less and less likely to condone animal testing and they avoid purchasing from brands that aren’t cruelty-free.

Furthermore, their environmental activism leads them to seek more sustainable products. One of the factors making vegan cosmetics potentially more sustainable than their counterparts is the limited use of synthetic chemicals, which both reduces the likelihood of toxic chemicals leaking into nature and means fewer fossil fuels are used to produce the product.

What challenges does vegan beauty still face?

Education is certainly still a big hurdle for the vegan beauty sector. While vegan cosmetics are in-demand, not all consumers are aware of their existence or benefits.

The difference between vegan beauty and cruelty-free beauty

Terminology is a cause for confusion in this sector. Many users don’t necessarily understand the difference between ‘vegan’ and ‘cruelty-free’. In short:

  • Vegan cosmetics refers to a product that has not been tested on animals and that does not include any ingredients derived from animals.
  • Cruelty-free cosmetics refers to a product that has not involved any animal testing.

However, even when the consumer understands both terms correctly, they may still face difficulties ensuring a product truly is what it says it is.

False or misleading advertising

Because there are no regulations around terms like cruelty-free in many countries, brands are able to adopt deceptive marketing tactics.

Thankfully, organisations have emerged with labels to help users verify the validity of the claims made by a cosmetics company. Some examples include:

  • PETA’s “cruelty-free” or “cruelty-free and vegan” bunny
  • The Choose Cruelty Free “Not Tested on Animals” bunny
  • Cruelty Free International’s Leaping Bunny certification
  • The Certified Vegan button (verified by Vegan Action)
  • The Vegan Society trademark

Each of them has varying requirements and checks in place. For example, PETA’s bunny has a reputation for being quite lax. Many consumers have pointed out PETA allows brands that sell cosmetics in China to receive their label. Yet, in China there is the right and propensity to adopt post-market animal testing. Furthermore, to receive PETA’s bunny label, companies need only sign a pledge stating they and their suppliers do not currently test on animals and will not in the future. This involves trusting the company’s word, which many consumers are not willing to do.

Overall, this shows how even the solutions to the problem of discerning what products are cruelty-free, vegan, or not, come with challenges. In the end, beauty consumers are increasingly aware that no matter what, they’ll need to do a lot of digging to fully vet a product.

False advertisement scandals have also arisen in terms of the ingredients themselves. For example, popular beauty YouTuber Jaclyn Hill faced backlash when consumers found out an eyeshadow palette she had released with Morphe Cosmetics was no longer vegan as they had claimed. The company had reportedly changed the formulation of many makeup products, thus rendering many of them no longer vegan. They did so without alerting customers of this change. This is just one example of the deceptive practices many beauty brands have been accused of in recent years.

What do startups have to offer?

Corporates worldwide in the beauty space have been slowly but surely embracing the demand for vegan beauty. One recent example of this is Hourglass Cosmetics’ launch of a vegan red lipstick. The Unilever-owned brand developed an alternative to carmine (crushed beetles used for red makeup) for this release.

Nevertheless, as is the case for many sectors, startups are helping many corporates tackle the vegan market either via new ingredients or new technologies. Furthermore, beauty consumers often prefer startups and independent brands due to a lack of trust in large corporations. Some noteworthy startups include:

  • Upcircle develops sustainable, vegan cosmetics. The startup uses recycled packaging and excludes ingredients such as SLS, SLEs, parabens, mineral oil, parfum and sulfates from its formulations.
  • Curology, which has quickly made a name for itself on the market, offers personalised skincare treatments designed by dermatologists via an online subscription service. The startup has stated its products are fully vegan.
  • Typology, a startup that has also skyrocketed in popularity, offers vegan skincare products free from ingredients like parabens, phenoxyethanol, paraffin oil and sulphates. The startup acquired B Corp certification, illustrating its efforts to be sustainable as well.
  • Skin-Match develops a software solution for beauty brands to include an ingredient list that comes with detailed information for consumers to consult.
  • Petit Vour offers a vegan beauty subscription box to help consumers discover new products personalised to their wants and needs.
  • Modern Meadow develops Bio-Coll@gen, a natural collagen based on engineered yeast strains which bypasses conventional animal-based extraction methods and is vegan.

What’s next for the vegan beauty market?

Ultimately, given current generational and environmental trends, the vegan beauty market will continue to grow and present brands with key opportunities. Younger generations will continue to seek out natural, clean and eco-friendly beauty products. This will further push large brands to adopt new formulations and rethink their packaging. Full transparency and honesty will also be key for consumers. They’ll need this to trust or easily verify claims brands make about their products. Indeed, confusion and regulatory changes around cruelty-free and vegan products will likely continue. This will require consumers to continue researching products before purchasing.

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