Vegan and Cruelty-Free Doesn't Always Mean Non-toxic

Recently we came across an indie brand that I really want to love because it is hand crafted and they make efforts to do refillable palettes and be somewhat sustainable. They have a huge following on Instagram, and indie makeup accounts promote the products heavily. It's easy to see why.

The colors are jaw-droppingly bright and pigmented. So much so that I had a pit in my stomach about reading the ingredients. My hunch was right — the formulas are full of toxic synthetics. While technically they can be called vegan and cruelty-free, they would not be considered safe for human use. The dyes and pigments being used are known human carcinogens with substances linked to cancer and with links to ADHD in children. At the very least the products should come with a warning label. 

The reds alone in a specific palette gave me pause. Reds are tough to get bright if you are formulating to be vegan and clean. The palette ingredients include Red 7, Red 27, Red 33, and Red 40. The EWG safety ratings are through the roof toxic. I wouldn’t put this stuff on my hand even for 5 seconds, let alone paint my eyelids with it. In fact, some of these reds like Red 7 are illegal to use on the eye area in the US. Illegal. That says a lot given the US is historically lax when it comes to regulating the safety of specific cosmetic ingredients. These pigments are also banned in the EU for their known carcinogenic properties. With these types of ingredients, toxicity is cumulative meaning it builds over time — so you may not even know you are slowly being poisoned. I’m genuinely concerned that this beauty brand is unintentionally poisoning themselves and their customers. Will we see a cancer diagnosis in the future? I really hope not. I’m going to assume it is unintentional and not a willful omission of information.

The problem with calling something vegan and cruelty-free is it gives the impression that these products are better and safer for the environment than conventional cosmetics. 

These vegan and cruelty-free labels do not address human safety or environmental safety. Sometimes the real story is that they have swapped out traditionally non-vegan colorants such as carmine with chemical-laden synthetics often derived from petroleum-based chemicals and other known carcinogenic chemicals. 

Red flags to look for:

  • Is that vegan red lipstick or eye shadow intensely bright pink or red? If so, stop before you buy and check the ingredients. 
  • Is the yellow color super intense? Check those ingredients too. Yellow Lake 5 and 6 are problematic as they contain known carcinogens such as Benzadine.
  • Is that foil eye shadow really really metallic and shimmery? Again these can only be achieved using sketchy synthetic dyes and reflective plastics.

Ways to research ingredients:

  • The EWG database. The Skin Deep website and Healthy Living App are part of the Environmental Working Group’s years-long effort to document the safety of every ingredient. Just pop in the name of the ingredient and you will get a safety rating along with toxicity data. The higher the rating, the more toxic the substance. Most people shoot for an EWG score of under 4 to be safe.
  • You can also try an app like Think Dirty that allows you to scan a barcode. Unfortunately, these don’t always include Indie makers that don’t use barcode technology, so you may still need to research if you are buying from an indie brand.


My hope is that the US begins to get more serious about regulating cosmetic safety so we aren't always left to figure things out ourselves or walk around with cancer-causing chemicals slathered on our faces. All we have to do is look to Canada or the EU to follow their lead.