I read an article this week about squalene oil extracted from shark livers to make expensive creams and lotions. It is thought that around 3 million sharks are caught each year to provide squalene for the cosmetics industry. Not only did this practice disgust me, it also got me thinking – what other animal products are used in cosmetics? We are so focused on trying to stop testing on animals that we don’t often stop to think about the animal products that are actually used in our cosmetics.


I’ve compiled a list to demonstrate yet again why it is not a good idea to buy ‘bog standard’ cosmetics when there are perfectly good botanical alternatives available. Do you really want to smear chicken bone marrow on your face if you don’t have to? You might think twice about trusting the latest skincare crazes once you read where some of your luxury brand ingredients might have originated.

Rooster Hyaluronic Acid1. Hyaluronic Acid is used in anti-ageing skincare products as it is an antioxidant, a humectant (drawing moisture up in the skin) and it boosts collagen synthesis. Sounds like a fantastic ingredient for a skincare product, right? Hyaluronic acid is found in human umbilical cords and rooster combs. Since the early 1980s, it has been produced from rooster combs on an industrial scale. If you buy a product that contains this anti-ageing ingredient, check that it was made by producing enzymes from a bacteria-based biofermentation process.  It is likely that most products you buy in the shops will contained the rooster comb variety.

2. Carmine is a red dye that is often used in lipsticks, rouge, eye shadow and other cosmetics. It is also used a lot in food and drinks, particularly items that are bright red (think of ruby-red juice and supermarket curries!). It is made of red pigment from the crushed female cochineal insect. PETA reports that 70,000 beetles must be killed to produce one pound of this dye. Sounds horribly unnecessary when you can also use beetroot which, as everyone knows, stains everything red.

Chicken Glucosamine Collagen3. Collagen – Ever seen a skincare product advertise that it contained collagen? Sounds like a great idea, given that the loss of collagen is one of the main signs of facial ageing. However, collagen in skincare products won’t actually do all that much, as the consensus is that it won’t be absorbed deeply enough into the skin (if at all) to help strengthen fibrous tissue. And you might be even more put off when you find out that most collagen in skincare creams comes from chicken feet and ground-up animal horns.

4. Glucosamine – this skincare ingredient is thought to be barrier enhancing, moisturising and help with evening out skin tone. It’s found in many animals’ exoskeletons but apparently chicken bone marrow is a great source of glucosamine for the cosmetics industry (is this going to be a blog post just about chickens?!).

Sperm Whale Ambergris5. Ambergris a.k.a. whale vomit. This grey floating faecal-smelling lump is a sperm whale bile duct secretion. Gosh, that’s really selling it, isn’t it? It’s still used by some perfume manufacturers to ‘fix’ the smell of a perfume. Thankfully most perfume manufacturers use synthetic alternatives nowadays, although Cosmetics Design Europe reports that it is still used by Dior and Kenneth Cole.

6. Fake vanilla fragrance – Vanilla has a lovely aroma, as we all know. This Mexican plant is beautiful and produces fantastic orchid-like flowers which have a symbiotic relationship with its pollinator, the Melipona bee which is native to Mexico. For that reason, the only way vanilla can be cultivated around the world is through hand pollination, which is how almost all of the vanilla pods you buy in the shops came about (ever seen Mexican vanilla for sale? I didn’t think so). In other words, extracting vanilla fragrance is an expensive job. Which is why we can all breathe a sigh of relief that scientists at the International Medical Center of Japan can now extract a fake vanilla fragrance from cow dung.

Cow Elastin7. Elastin – much like collagen, the loss of elastin is one of the main reasons for facial ageing. Again, skincare companies are clamouring in order to be able to claim that their product boosts elastin so some of them add it into their creams and lotions. Will it penetrate your skin far enough to do much? The consensus is probably not. According to PETA, this protein is extracted from the neck ligaments and aortas of cows.

8. Placental protein – this one says it all really, doesn’t it? Animal placenta is extracted from the uterus of animals in abattoirs and seems to be used quite widely in skincare products. It seems to be used as a humectant, which means that it is used to draw moisture up into the top layers of the skin.

Fish Crystalline Guanine9. Stearic acid – many natural skincare products will tell you if this fatty acid is plant-derived. However, those that don’t tell you are probably using animal-derived stearic acid. Rendering factories separate the fat from waste animal tissue in order to create stearic acid. Animals used for this process will include cows, pigs and sheep. Sources of meat include abattoirs, restaurant and butcher shop trimmings, expired meat from supermarkets, and the carcasses of euthanised and dead animals from animal shelters, zoos and vets.

10. Crystalline guanine – ever wondered what creates your pearly iridescent effect in your shampoo, eye shadow and nail polish? We all love a bit of superficial prettiness, after all. The shiny effect is caused by crystalline guanine, extracted from fish scales.

11. Panthenol – you will probably recognise this chemical as it is often used in shampoos and conditioners to moisturise and lubricate your hair. It is also used in some lotions and mascaras. Panthenol is often made from one of the components of honey but is also found in certain vegetables and meat. The majority of panthenol used in the cosmetics industry comes from meat or honey. Given the price of honey and the worldwide decline in numbers of bees, I’m guessing meat might be a more common source of panthenol nowadays.

Hooves Keratin12. Keratin – I bet you’ve seen this one advertised in some of your haircare products. Many shampoos and hair rinses like to tell you all about their added keratin which will strengthen your hair. What they don’t tell you is that it’s extracted from the ground-up horns, hooves, feathers, quills, and hair of various animals.

13. Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug which is then scraped off trees. This ingredient is used to create a shiny lacquer in products such as hairsprays, shampoos, mascara and lipstick. Although shellac is a secretion that is harvested, the process inevitably leads to the death of lac insects. In fact, according to a study undertaken in India, 300,000 lac insects are killed for every kilogram of lac resin produced and up to 25% of unrefined shellac is composed of insect debris.

If you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t consider that some of the creams and lotions you were applying to your face and body contained ground-up bits of dead animal. Whilst I can see the attraction of using a by-product such as chicken bone marrow or horns & hooves from abattoirs that would otherwise go to waste, the idea of using it to moisturise my face still really doesn’t appeal to me.

Which skincare ingredient do you find most disgusting? Share your worst with me in the comments below!

References and Further Reading

PETA’s Animal Ingredient list. http://www.peta.org/living/vegetarian-living/animal-ingredients-list.aspx


tagged in skincare science