How to Shop for Cruelty-Free Beauty Products

Even as more and more companies add botanical beauty-boosters to their products, some still rely on animal-sourced ingredients, as well as chemicals that could mess with your health while wrecking the environment. Here's how to scan labels for questionable ingredients.
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Even as more and more companies add botanical beauty-boosters to their products, some still rely on animal-sourced ingredients, as well as chemicals that could mess with your health while wrecking the environment.

“We tend to assume that any beauty product on the shelf is automatically safe, but unfortunately that’s not how it works,” says Adria Vasil, author of Ecoholic Body: Your Ultimate Earth-Friendly Guide to Living Healthy & Looking Good. Not only that, but toxic chemicals in beauty products can cause pollution and put wildlife in jeopardy once they’re washed down your drain and dumped into waterways, Vasil adds.

Want to hew closer to veg values with your beauty routine? Help safeguard the Earth 
and all its creatures by scanning product labels for questionable ingredients.

Ditch the Dirty Stuff

Detox and defend by steering clear of these all-too-commonly 
used chemicals:

Phthalates Phthalates are chief among the endocrine-disrupting chemicals that pose a “global threat” to human health, according to a World Health Organization and United Nations Environment Programme report published in 2013. The report’s authors link such chemicals, which can throw your hormones out of whack, to increased risk of health problems ranging from obesity to pregnancy complications to some forms of cancer—while noting that endocrine disruptors may also cause hormone function to go haywire in wildlife. Phthalate group members dibutyl phthalate and benzyl butyl phthalate appear in many nail polishes. Phthalates also show up in synthetic fragrance (sometimes listed as “parfum” or “fragrance”), a common beauty-product ingredient that may constitute as many as 200 undisclosed chemicals. “The formula for a synthetic fragrance is regarded as a trade secret, so companies don’t have to tell us which chemicals they’ve included in those formulas,” says Kristen Arnett, a New York–based makeup artist and green-beauty expert.

1. Parabens

A pervasive class of endocrine disruptors, parabens typically turn up as preservatives in shampoos, conditioners, lotions, cleansers, and cosmetics. Often listed as ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, or propylparaben, these synthetic chemicals appear to mimic the activity of estrogen when absorbed into the body. Although research is limited, parabens have been identified in breast cancer tumor 
tissue samples.

2. BHA

To keep bacteria from accelerating the spoilage of moisturizers and lipsticks, some companies depend on the preservative action of a synthetic antioxidant called butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). Not only a likely endocrine disruptor, BHA is also bad news for aquatic life, according to Vasil. Research suggests that BHA buildup in water can kill off the algae that fish feed on.

3. Propylene Glycol

A type of alcohol, propylene glycol acts as a humectant, a substance that helps your skin and hair soak up and hold in moisture. But it’s also a notorious irritant known to trigger contact dermatitis—a form of skin inflammation marked by redness and swelling. And when it breaks down in surface waters, propylene glycol may rob aquatic life of the oxygen vital for its survival.

Don’t Be Cruel

You’ll be advancing compassion when you shun these ingredients, 
derived from harming animals:


Touted for smoothing 
hair and enhancing its shine, keratin is a key ingredient in many trendy straightening treatments. Unfortunately, “keratin is always obtained from the ground-up horns, hooves, feathers, quills, and hair of animals,” says Green Beauty Recipes author Julie Gabriel. Naturally conditioning and botanically based ingredients such as almond oil can serve as keratin alternatives when it comes to softening hair, Gabriel notes.

2. Collagen

There’s no evidence that use of collagen-enriched products can replenish your skin’s supply of this firming protein—yet many skin-care companies offer up supposedly anti-aging creams featuring collagen taken from the skin, bones, and connective tissue of animals. What’s more, a report from the Vegetarian Resource Group notes that the “marine collagen” listed on some product labels comes from fish scales and fish skin, rather than from algae as claimed.

3. Carmine

For bug-friendly beauty, stay away from cosmetics made with this coloring agent. Found in many lipsticks, blushes, and eye shadows, 
carmine is obtained by killing and crushing up female cochineal beetles to draw out the red pigment naturally present in their shells.

Learn More

See how your favorite products rate on the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, and get familiar with PETA's Animal Ingredients List.

Curious about making your own personal-care products? Try these homemade beauty "recipes."