Updated: May 15
In cosmetic world beeswax is, well... the bee's knees. Touted for excellent emollient and skin protective benefits, this easy to work with, natural, and affordable material is ubiquitous especially when it comes to lip products, lip balms, and color cosmetics. But what happens when brands want to market themselves as cruelty—free or vegan while using beeswax in their products? Why is this not ok and how to fix it? Read below to find out.
Today, in beauty world some of the questions most frequently asked by consumers are: are your products cruelty—free or tested on animals. Just take a look at comment section of any beauty brand Instagram ad and you will see a sea of questions relating to animal testing and cruelty. Growing majority of today's consumers want to know that the products they support with their dollars, in return support their particular ethical beliefs. And this trend is here to stay.
While I personally don’t really understand how consumers who eat meat at the same time insist on cruelty—free cosmetics, I applaud and welcome their conviction, because it has been leading cosmetic industry in the right direction for the past two decades. Thanks to significant push from the consumers and advocacy groups, like PETA, EU banned all testing of finished cosmetic products and ingredients on live animals in 2013. Even China, who used to require by law all imported cosmetics sold in their stores to be tested on animals, finally started to loosen this stance in 2019 by allowing "general cosmetics”—such as shampoo, body wash, lipstick, lotion, and makeup, to be sold without being tested on animals.
While cruelty—free claim has its own challenges to begin with (more on that in my next post), it is strange how we collectively accepted that testing of cosmetics on animals for human safety is cruel and a big no—no, but using animal—derived ingredients for which animals are either killed or handled inhumanely, is ok. The most obvious examples of this are beeswax and carmine (a.k.a cochineal extract or Natural Red 4), widely used red coloring made out of crushed bugs (yes, you heard that right).
Why are we against safety testing on animals but have no problem with unethical animal—derived ingredients?
So why is this? Even though I am against animal testing in cosmetics, the hard truth is that some very important safety tests still do not have a cruelty—free alternative method that we can replace them with. Many other in vitro methods still rely on parts from dead animals. One example is BCOP eye irritancy safety test done on cornea from cow eyes obtained from meat industry. Several companies are actively working on developing alternative methods and their effort is thankfully sped up by the pressure consumers and animal advocacy groups are putting on them.
But unlike some safety tests, in case of unethical animal—derived ingredients, we do have many ethical and just as effective replacements. If we look at this purely rationally, it is much more justified to conduct an irreplaceable test on an animal, if absolutely necessary to ensure human safety, than it is to use unethically sourced animal—derived ingredient when we can easily be using something else instead.
Different consumers, of course, can have different levels of comfort with animal cruelty or animal—derived ingredients. And that is fine. The purpose of this article is not to shame those who don't feel as passionately about the topic. The purpose is to raise awareness around the paradox of so many beauty brands touting "cruelty—free" and "no animal testing" labels while using unethically sourced animal—based ingredients like beeswax. This falls under non—ethical or non—transparent marketing. And while marketing ethics are unfortunately often clouded by the bottom line, more confusing is that the same consumers who insist on cruelty—free, earth—friendly, sustainable products are complacent with ubiquitous use of beeswax.
So can you actually be cruelty—free and use beeswax? I think not.
Mind The Bees
When it comes to beeswax, I have especially big issue with this "turn a blind eye" attitude. Today bee population is in serious decline and some bee species are endangered. Bees are invaluable to the entire ecosystem and ultimately to human existence. Thanks to their pollination efforts, we have bees to thank for approximately 25% of all foods that humans consume. Without these hard—working little pollinators everything from strawberries, tomatoes, chocolate or even coffee would suffer. This is huge! There is a whole complex story behind types of bees that are the most endangered as well as habitat competition between certain bee species, like honeybees and native bees (find out more about that here and here). But short version is that in collecting beeswax, majority of bee farms handle bees inhumanly. Their habitat is disturbed, their wings are clipped, and queen bees get forcibly inseminated. Often entire hives are killed at the end of the season, if beekeepers deem it too expensive to keep them alive through the winter. (For more, check out these articles: What’s wrong with beeswax, Why don't vegans eat honey, Eating honey is more complicated than you think)
So I am sorry, but no. Brands cannot claim "ethical beauty" or "cruelty—free" if they are using beeswax in their products. While "no testing on animals" claim is a fair game, touting cruelty—free is in this case misleading and dishonest.
Claiming "ethical beauty" or "cruelty—free" while using unethical animal—derived ingredients, like beeswax, is misleading and dishonest marketing.
Synthetic Beeswax as a Cruelty–Free Replacement
On a positive note, some raw material suppliers are investing a lot of money and effort into sustainable beeswax harvesting, like Koster Keunen. And some others are making cruelty—free synthetic beeswax that can be naturally derived. One example is Croda's Syncrowax SK1, which is 79% natural.
And just like natural beeswax, its synthetic cousin is an excellent emollient and skin protectant that helps prevent skin moisture loss. But keep in mind that not all synthetic beeswax is cruelty—free, as many contain a combination of natural beeswax mixed with other ingredients. As a consumer the only way to know which synthetic wax a brand is using is to ask the brand directly and hope for an answer.
So why is beeswax such a ubiquitous cosmetic ingredient, especially in lip products and color cosmetics? Beeswax is one of the oldest cosmetic ingredients, first used by ancient Chinese and Egyptian civilizations. Besides being natural and easily accessible, beeswax is used because of its unique properties that make it hard and flexible at the same time. Its hardness provides good structure to stick products, like lipstick and lip balm. And flexibility makes product easy to spread on the lips or face while preventing sticks from cracking or breaking because they are too brittle. That's all really great and makes beeswax versatile and easy to work with. But while ancient civilizations didn't have the luxury of advanced chemistry knowledge and techniques, we do. And today, we have many beeswax alternatives in cosmetics, including natural waxes that are plant—based and cruelty—free, like:
Candelilla wax (Euphorbia Cerifera Cera)
Berry wax (Rhus Verniciflua Peel Cera)
Myrica fruit wax (Myrica Cerifera Fruit Wax)
Carnauba wax (Copernicia Cerifera Cera) and many others
All of them can be combined together or with natural oils, butters, or many safe synthetic ingredients to create the same wonderful properties that beeswax provides.
So why are more brands not doing this? Because it is often easier and cheaper to formulate with beeswax. Hence, I call this the lazy chemistry syndrome.
There are many cruelty—free natural, naturally—derived, or safe synthetic replacements for beeswax. So why don't more beauty brands use them?
Beeswax Allergy and Contact Cheilitis
Another reason I would love to see more beeswax alternatives used in cosmetics is because natural beeswax can cause contact allergy in some people. This is especially true when used around lips, which is ironically the type of products beeswax is most often used in. Lip balms, lipstick, lip scrubs, and lip masks are product categories with the highest usage of beeswax. According to a study recently published in British Journal of Dermatology, 4% of people are allergic to propolis and this number is on the rise in the last 15 years, probably because of widespread use of beeswax in personal care products. Natural beeswax contains propolis in small amounts, so it has the potential to cause same type of contact allergy. To put this in perspective, it is estimated that 8% of people have contact allergy to fragrance, a well—known cosmetic irritant. So 4% in case of propolis or beeswax is quite significant.
In another smaller study published in Contact Dermatitis, 95 patients with confirmed contact cheilitis (inflammation of the lips, characterized by swollen, red, dry, itchy, or cracking lips) or facial eczema were patch tested for white and yellow beeswax. 18% of them tested positive to one or both types of beeswax. This indicates that in people with sensitive skin or those prone to eczema and atopic dermatitis, beeswax contact allergy is even more common than in general population. In addition, "Beeswax can present danger for those who are allergic to pollen, honey, or other bee products," as pointed out by a board—certified dermatologist Ife J. Rodney.
4% of consumers are allergic to propolis or beeswax and this number is rising.
If you are thinking: "Well I used products with beeswax before and I didn't end up with anaphylactic reaction, so I'm fine", keep in mind that contact dermatitis that we are talking about here is different from Type I hypersensitivity that causes anaphylactic reaction. It belongs to Type IV reactions (delayed hypersensitivity), which are activated by continued exposure or re—exposure to a specific irritant (in this case beeswax). So it can take many uses before a person develops a reaction.
This was my case. After using products with beeswax for many years, I developed a very annoying contact cheilitis that always shows up 1—2 days after using any product with beeswax on my lips. Because beeswax is not included in standard allergy patch testing panel, it took a lot of trial and error and ingredient elimination for me to finally conclude that it was beeswax that was causing my lip issues. Funny enough, if I use a body product with beeswax, I don't notice the same extreme irritation, except for some itchiness. This is likely because lips are much more sensitive than legs, for example, and because concentration of beeswax in lip products is typically much higher than when used in body products.
Is Beeswax Vegan?
According to The Economist, who declared 2019 as the Year of The Vegan, 25% of American millennials identify as vegetarian or vegan. This consumer demands not only products not tested on animals, but also without animal—derived ingredients. The trend is only expected to grow.
Currently on the market, beeswax free lipsticks or lip products are still fairly limited compared to their beeswax counterparts. Personally, I am certainly frustrated by the lack of options for people with beeswax sensitivities or allergies, like myself.
Smart beauty brands who pay attention and quickly address the needs of this growing population of consumers will be rewarded through their bottom line. The ones who continue with the status quo will, in the best case, fall behind. And more likely, they will be called out and will have to answer to an unhappy, vocal consumers who feel mislead by dishonest marketing.