Vegan Makeup: The Latest Millennial Beauty Fixation

Vegan makeup — once a niche subcategory relegated to health food stores — has dropped its crunchy persona and entered the mainstream beauty fold.
As consumers — particularly health-conscious Millennials and Gen Z — increasingly shop for products that align with their values, “vegan,” along with adjacent terms like cruelty-free and plant-based, has become the latest beauty buzzword to serve as an identifier of a cool brand. With vegan status now a covetable attribute, companies in both the natural and mainstream beauty spaces are racing to reformulate old products containing animal byproducts like lanolin or beeswax, or remarket existing vegan formulas with more overt vegan branding.
Vegan and cruelty-free brands represent 32 percent of the prestige makeup market in the U.S., according to The NPD Group. The trend is especially prevalent in niche and Indie brands. In the first half of the year, vegan and cruelty-free brands sold in limited distribution — three retailers or less — grew by 20 percent.
Within beauty, color cosmetics is the fastest-growing category. More than a third of vegan beauty and personal-care launches globally from July 2017 to June 2018 were color cosmetics products, according to Mintel. In the past few years, several prestige makeup brands have unveiled commitments to go fully vegan. Kat Von D Beauty pledged in 2016 to have a completely vegan assortment by 2017. Unilever-owned Hourglass Cosmetics last year said that it would go vegan by 2020, and Milk Makeup in April said it had officially reformulated its products to be 100 percent vegan.
Vegan makeup’s rise in popularity has come in tandem with the growth of veganism in general, which is no longer a fringe movement. In the U.S., the number of consumers who claim to be vegan grew 600 percent from 2014 to 2017, according to a report by research firm GlobalData. Plant-based lifestyles are trending on Instagram, and plant-based businesses like the fashion favorite meal delivery service Sakara Life have developed cult followings. The cruelty-free movement is experiencing a swell of consumer interest — this month the California senate passed the California Cruelty-Free Cosmetics Act, which would make selling cosmetics and ingredients tested on animals illegal in the state by 2020. Even mass brands have taken note — last Tuesday, Unilever revealed that the Dove brand had achieved PETA cruelty-free accreditation.
“It’s a couple of things,” said Jenni Middleton, head of beauty at WGSN. “It’s this very articulate, prevalent group of on Instagram talking about plant-based diets and posting compelling photos of what clean eating looks like and what the results are for the hair, skin, nails and physique. It’s also the generation of future consumers — they are obsessed with making sure we do the right thing by the environment, and the vegan movement is inextricably linked with the sustainability movement.”
There is a growing demand from beauty brands for vegan cosmetics formulations, suppliers say, despite the fact that vegan formulas aren’t necessarily new. Products that were once pain points for brands trying to formulate vegan — red lipstick, for instance, which uses carmine, and mascara, which often relies on beeswax for hold — are now easier to formulate without animal ingredients due to advancements in technologies. Milk Mascara’s Kush High Volume mascara — launched on April 20 — is formulated with cannabis oil instead of beeswax.
“We’ve been offering vegan formulas for years, but definitely there are more brands asking for specifically vegan formulations — or they may not initially ask, but at some point in development they’re like, ‘Wait, hold on — is this vegan?’” said Jenny Hsu, chief strategy officer at HCT Group. “There’s a wave of certain buzzwords and categories right now — the natural, organic, vegan, healthier categories are much more popular. That’s definitely what we’re seeing on our side.”
In March, Milk Makeup revealed that it had gone 100 percent vegan, and had reformulated its product line to exclude animal-derived ingredients such as honey, beeswax, lanolin, collagen, gelatin and carmine.
“We were 98 percent vegan when we launched two-and-a-half years ago, we just didn’t ," said Dianna Ruth, chief operating officer and product developer at Milk Makeup. “We were getting tons of e-mails, DMs, asking if we were vegan. We were constantly saying yes, but it wasn’t a widespread message — it was hidden on an info page on our web site.”
When Milk launched in 2016, it lauded itself as cruelty-free, but Ruth said the company decided to reformulate the nonvegan products and remarket the brand explicitly as vegan after seeing how enthusiastic its customers were toward its mostly vegan product assortment.
“Our demographic is smart enough to understand that science has made a better way than using animal products,” said Ruth. “No one drinks whole milk anymore — there’s so many different types of milk, that no one accepts that as normal. Our generation is very socially and environmentally aware — it’s an all-around lifestyle and mindset in general.”
The perception of vegan makeup products as less efficacious and sophisticated than luxury makeup is beginning to fade.
“For me, it’s all about normalizing it,” said Katherine Von Drachenberg, the tattoo artist-turned-reality-show-star turned founder of vegan and cruelty-free beauty brand Kat Von D. “Being a vegan has gotten a bad rap over the years — you think about the overbearing hippie wearing Birkenstocks and eating granola, and the truth is that I am a modern vegan. I like style, I like luxe products and artfully minded packaging that’s not brown and green. To me it’s very appealing to give the world of veganism an updated, modern face.”
Drachenberg — who is also known as Kat Von D — has been a vegan for at least six years. “I remember being vegan when people didn’t know how to pronounce the word,” she said. Aligning her values system with her brand in an official capacity was important to Von Drachenberg, who said in 2016 that Kat Von D products — which were already cruelty-free and mostly vegan  — would be made with 100 percent vegan formulations within the year. “It was so important for my actions to align with my values,” said Von Drachenberg. “Yes, we go to makeup shows like the traditional beauty companies, but you’ll also see us at animal rights events.”
In the mass market, playing an activist role as a cruelty-free and mostly vegan brand has been a way for Wet ‘n’ Wild to stand out. In a mass market makeup category where sales are down across the board, Wet ‘n’ Wild has managed to be a consistent outlier, growing sales in the double-digits while its peer brands like Cover Girl and Revlon struggle.
“The fact that we’re a mass brand with a lot of distribution and we’re easy to access and we’re vegan is — that’s unusual,” said Wang. “We’re always the affordable options, and sometimes when consumers are looking for certain products their only choices are more expensive brands. We see it as part of our mission to provide an affordable vegan option for consumers. We get a lot of mentions from influencers, and get a lot of specifically vegan influencers who are interested in working with us because they know it’s an important value for the brand.”
The Markwins-owned brand has pledged to go fully vegan, and is about 70 percent there with existing products, and is formulating all new products to be 100 percent vegan. “It’s a plus for most consumers,” said Evelyn Wang, vice president of marketing at Wet ‘n’ Wild. “If you’re looking at two equal products, why not choose the one that is ? Especially more so for Millennial and Generation Z brands, the value systems of the brand they buy is so important.”
For Wet ‘n’ Wild, going vegan has been a way for the brand to market its products as “better for you.” Said Wang, “Wellness and health is certainly a huge trend at the moment, so vegan products are seen as being healthier, perhaps better for you.”
In today's wellness-obsessed culture, a beauty product marketed as vegan can automatically be construed by the consumer as a healthier choice.
Most consumers don’t fully understand the true definition of a vegan product and are confusing vegan with other buzzwords — such as “natural,” “organic,” and “clean”, said Annie Jackson, co-founder and chief operating officer of Credo Beauty, the San Francisco-based clean beauty retailer.
“So many customers will walk into our store and say, ‘Oh, I get it, clean beauty — everything is vegan,’” said Jackson. “It’s funny because there is so much lack of clarity. The brands coming to the table now that are going vegan — half are well-intended vegan that really care deeply about the treatment of animals and the other half are in it for the marketing.”
Jackson’s merchandising priority for Credo is cruelty-free — products sold in Credo are mandated to be cruelty-free, and many are vegan, though it’s not a priority for her, or for her customers, who she said are primarily concerned about whether ingredients have been ethically sourced. “We do allow a handful of animal product-derived ingredients, like beeswax, carmine and lanolin. We remind people that vegan doesn’t equal clean — spicy cheese Doritos are vegan."
In the mainstream beauty world, clean or not, the vegan label can wield considerable power, serving as a signal to young consumers that a product is healthier, or "better for you."
Said WGSN's Middleton: "It's an intimate relationship that you have with beauty products, similar to with food — you're putting someone on your body. Younger consumers care about the provenance of things, and they're obsessed with doing the right thing."
“ is becoming more and more standard,” said Hsu. “I think what brands are trying to do right now is reach more people and trying to cater to Millennials and Gen Z, who want to know that their products speak to them and they can feel good about using them.”
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