By Caylie Warkentin
Ways of understanding the world are often delineated by where we place ourselves within it. Many of us find solace in our chosen labels – be it through religious beliefs, cultural values, our career, the foods we choose to both nourish and comfort us. How we exist within the world extends beyond our physicality and is deeply rooted in our belief system. For many, this manifests in the objects with which we choose to surround ourselves. From lamb-skin handbags to plant-based vegan skincare, our objects are all windows into our ethos, postage stamps that reveal where we have been on our journey and where we have yet to go.
Our beauty products are with us during our most intimate moments and provide a medium in which we can express ourselves not only through colours and textures but through ingredients, formulas, and brands that align with our chosen beliefs. In recent years a laundry list of terms like cruelty-free, plant-based, and locally sourced have become nestled alongside ingredient lists, and industry-led certification has led to images of leaping bunnies and entwined green leaves situating themselves alongside familiar logos.
The vegan beauty industry is currently projected to grow 5.1% from where it currently is with an anticipated market value of $20.6 billion dollars worldwide by 2026. Though this growth in quantifiable terms is unparalleled, vegan beauty is not new. Plant-based beauty harkens back to health and beauty regimens of 5000 years ago when ancient Egyptians bathed in scented oils, when castor oil nourished skin dry from sun belonging to a different climate.
Plant-based beauty is striking in its longevity, and compels us to pause and consider the journey each ingredient has taken before its arrival in our hands. If anything, it offers a space for reflection – for us to look in the mirror and think critically about the healthful properties of the botanical ingredients with which we adorn ourselves, a way of honouring the past by rediscovering it and reimagining it through contemporary, plant-based formulas.
Plant-based beauty in past
The story of plant-based beauty is one that is deeply interconnected with intimate knowledge and appreciation of all that the natural world offers. Cosmetic routines were far from vegan, as we understand the term now, and plant-based ingredients were used in conjunction with animal-derived ingredients.
Five thousand years ago the ancient Egyptians were applying scented ointments and oils to their skin, to both soothe and beautify. Fast forward to three thousand years ago and pigments made of copper minerals and lead ore were used alongside ingredients like castor oil, thyme, marjoram, red algae, rose, and olive oil. One familiar image is that of Cleopatra, Egyptian queen, eyes smouldering in kohl eyeliner - a formula made of burnt almonds, ochre, lead, ash, and oxidized copper.
Across the Mediterranean Sea and nearly two thousand kilometres north in Greece, lip tint is made of red iron and ochre clays, and crushed mulberries bring colour to the cheeks in a blaze of red. In India, henna dye from the native henna plant is used to paint intricate patterns onto the skin. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance minerals and elements in beauty regimens remained in popularity and skin was whitened with powdered white lead.
Plant-derived ingredients were valued not only for their ability to heal and beautify but for their simplicity and deep connection with nature, a reflection of lives led in partnership with the natural world. Formulas laden with fillers, additives or preservatives did not yet exist (and some ingredients, like lead, had tremendous adverse effects), but generally, beauty routines were grounded in simple, pant-derived ingredients.
Prior to the twentieth century, there was no umbrella term for cosmetic products that exclusively used plant-based ingredients. In modern history, the term ‘vegan’ was coined in 1944 by the founder of The Vegan Society Charity, the oldest vegan charity in the world. The term captures the use of plant-based products used solely for ethical reasons. This term was first used in conjunction with commercially sold beauty products beginning in the 1980s. A pivotal moment for vegan beauty occurred when Revlon stopped using the Draize test – a test that involved exposing the eyes and skin of animals directly to chemicals. Decades later, Canada introduced the Cruelty-Free Cosmetics Act and cosmetic brands whose impact is widespread became vocal in their support of vegan products, bringing contemporary plant-based beauty from niche, grassroots brands into the mainstream.
Plant-based beauty in present
If there is a single conclusion to be drawn from many thousand years of plant-based beauty it is that it nurtures a deep connection with nature and everything nature shares with us. As our modern lifestyles become more distanced from the natural world with palpable separation as we spend more of our days indoors, plant-based beauty presents a doorway through which we can reconnect with the simplicity of nature through plant-derived ingredients.
If anything, plant-based beauty provides a moment of calm and connection to the ingredients used. Vegan beauty allows us to simplify our daily skincare routine, grounding it in intentionality and mindfulness. Ingredients are evaluated with a balance of “close to nature” and efficacy, not only considering what is included in the product but also the absence of certain ingredients too. It allows us to extend our ethics beyond just the plant-based narrative to other aspects of the product – from how it is manufactured to how the ingredients are sourced and extracted.
When choosing vegan and cruelty-free beauty products, we also consider:
- Are the ingredients sustainable, locally sourced, and regenerative?
- Are the ingredients high-quality, healthful, and impactful?
- Is the product packaging sustainably made and aims to minimize harm to the environment and excess waste?
- Are the manufacturers and those who source ingredients paid a fair wage and treated ethically?
We value plant-based beauty for the conversation it opens up, for its ability to inform and educate on ingredients we’ve loved for centuries, and for us to reconnect with simple ingredients rooted with nature.
Sources + Further Reading
Cheng, Andrea. “Why You Should Care About Vegan Beauty.” The New York Times, 26 February 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/26/style/why-you-should-care-about-vegan-beauty.html
Mans, Dennis R.A. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”. Plants and plant-based preparations for facial care in Suriname, Clin Med Invest, 25 August 2017. https://www.oatext.com/a-thing-of-beauty-is-a-joy-forever-plants-and-plant-based-preparations-for-facial-care-in-suriname.php
Rabb, Maxwell. “Global Vegan Beauty Market Expected to Reach $20 Billion in Next Five Years”, The Beet, 28 September 2021.
Turner, Ali. “The Origins of Makeup,” Nuvo Magazine, 14 July 2020. https://nuvomagazine.com/daily-edit/the-origins-of-makeup