The Guardian’s beauty editor Sali Hughes, picks top 50 beauty buys: best ethical; best vegetarian, vegan and cruelty-free products
15 Jul 2017
Sali Hughes: ‘The cruelty-free, vegetarian and vegan beauty market has exploded in recent years.’
Photograph: Seb Winter for the Guardian
A few months ago, I decided to write a column on the best beauty products for vegans, and soon realised that one column wasn’t going to cut it: I probably had enough for 30. The cruelty-free (no animal testing), vegetarian (no byproducts of animal slaughter) and vegan (no animal ingredients at all) beauty market has exploded in recent years.
Previously, vegans were barely catered for, with some uninspiringly packaged cold-pressed face oil and lavender everything. In much the same way as vegetarians are always presumed to want mushroom risotto, vegans were expected to want to smell like an airing cupboard pomander. But nowadays even the large beauty companies are releasing exceptionally good vegetarian and vegan products. This is driven not only by a surge in young people becoming vegan (some 542,000 British people aged 15 or over now describe themselves as such, up from 150,000 in 2006), but by everyday consumers who broadly agree that the harming of animals in the pursuit of beauty is pretty indefensible.
Which isn’t to say the situation is simple. Any beauty product bought in the UK is by definition cruelty-free: animal testing for cosmetic use in the EU has been banned since 2013; and it’s illegal to sell cosmetic products within the EU that have been, or that contain ingredients, newly tested on animals (clearly some everyday ingredients were tested on animals aeons ago, and one can’t change that now).
The issue of cruelty-free becomes more complicated when brands enter foreign markets. Animal testing remains legal in the US and Australia, although most major brands there have long since chosen not to do it. The bigger concern, though, is China, where animal testing is required by law for all cosmetics sold on its soil. Nothing on the list on the following pages sells in China, which is why they can truly be called “cruelty-free”. Thankfully, transparency of policy and ingredients is improving (although the misinformation and inconsistency is alarming), and after a number of backlashes against leading brands, multinational corporations are learning the hard way that consumers, whether vegan, vegetarian or not, broadly expect cruelty-free and vegan products to remain that way, however keen shareholders are to expand into China.
Overleaf is my final selection, though I was so spoilt for choice that I could easily have doubled it without compromise. In the end, my picks were chosen to reflect what a diverse and exciting market this has become, from luxury vegan foundations to a 100% vegan high street chemist skincare line. It is entirely possible to maintain your principles without sacrificing either luxury or performance.
Top vegetarian picks:
Liz Earle Hand Repair, £10.50
With the exception of beeswax, propolis and manuka honey, none of the ingredients in this range are animal-derived, making it suitable for vegetarians. I have singled out this brilliant hand cream because it is one of the few to moisturise thoroughly, while leaving an ungreasy, matte finish. I can open the bathroom door without sliding off the handle.
Every product in M&S’s own-brand beauty range is suitable for vegetarians, and much of it is vegan-friendly, too; but nothing boasts as devoted a following as this clinically proven, independently tested night cream for all skin types. M&S can barely keep it in stock. It is a rich but ungreasy night-time moisturiser, to be massaged in post-cleanse, following serum, to comfort skin and give it a well-rested look.
This happens to be vegan, but every product in the Body Shop range is at least vegetarian-friendly, which is especially impressive when you consider there are several thousand of them. This is my favourite. It removes heavy eye makeup with neither effort nor grease; it lifts stains from clothes, carpets and upholstery; it even lifts grease from the hairline, allowing blow-dries to limp through an extra day. Magic.
I love everything about this brand, which makes affordable luxury bath, shower and body products containing no animal ingredients except beeswax, honey and milk. It also boycotts parabens, mineral oils and skin-drying, environmentally dubious sulphates, all without sacrificing the bubbles and scents I crave. This shower gel is refreshing, floral and coconutty and leaves skin soft, clean and smelling of summer.
RMS (named after its founder, makeup artist Rose Marie Swift) is little known outside beauty-nerd circles, but those who love it really, really love it. It is too expensive, but its champagne-hued, balmy illuminator is the best if, like me, you favour subtle gleam over disco-ball spangle. Use fingertips to work into cheekbones, between the eyes and on the brow bones when all else has been applied. Every product in this small range is vegetarian, with five suitable for vegans, too.
This Cruelty Free International-approved tint (in a solid choice of rose-based shades) makes the perfect starter lipstick for those who fear bold colour. It is moist, sheer and shiny, but neither sticky nor too muted. It goes on easily, regardless of skill level or access to a mirror: I neatly applied the Blood Roses colour by gazing briefly into a knife.
With the exception of its hair conditioner and detangler (which contain honey) and its sunscreen (beeswax), Childs Farm is vegan-friendly. These are gentle products that I routinely give as presents to parents worried about their children’s skin. Time after time, they tell me these are the only lotions, creams and shampoos their kids with eczema or psoriasis can tolerate. The natural smells make them seem fun, not medicinal.
There is a lot to love in this 100% vegetarian natural skincare line (much of which is also vegan). I have chosen the cleanser because I’m amazed at how much I love it. Facial washes, often moisture-stripping and insufficiently cleansing, are high on my beauty hitlist, but this one can stay. Its soft, creamy formula grips dirt and comforts skin, while fruit enzymes leave my face feeling perkier.
If, like me, you are a sucker for a long, luxurious soak, but feel disappointed by how many posher bath products are bubble-free, try this. It contains sustainably harvested, top-quality Cornish sea salt and seaweed, plus environmentally friendly, detergent-free foaming agents that fill the bathroom with the most beautiful, natural orange scent. Everything from this lovely brand is vegetarian-friendly, but this in particular leaves my head clear and my skin soft.
Ilia Multi-stick, £30
Canadian organic makeup line Ilia was born out of founder Sasha Plavsic’s annoyance at the common belief that organic means less effective. Organic ingredients are used wherever possible, a dozen of its small range of products are vegan-friendly and the entire range is suitable for vegetarians. Just dab on cheeks as though marking a bingo card, then tap and rub to blend into a healthy flush. At Last is the perfect white-girl rose, while Cheek To Cheek looks glorious on dark tones (and has clear, vibrant pigment to avoid dullness and ashiness).
It seems as though every US beauty nerd is raving about Drunk Elephant; if this serum is anything to go by, they have a point. It is an antioxidant, anti-ageing serum that contains vitamin C (ascorbic acid), ferulic and hyaluronic acids and heaps of gentle oils from the likes of grape and pumpkin. It has a pleasant, moist, slippery formula – I’m able to pop it straight under sunblock, skipping moisturiser altogether – and it doesn’t leave behind any grease. It has made my skin brighter and smoother and I have already bought a top-up.
Photograph: Seb Winter for the Guardian
Soap Co black poppy and wild fig hand wash, £12 (£11 for refills)
This non-profit British brand employs a workforce that is 80% blind or disabled to produce a truly superior range of soaps and washes, packaged beautifully (including braille) and priced fairly. Staff are trained to increase their skill set and confidence, with a view to moving into the wider workplace, while those with more limited opportunities are given the security of long-term employment. This project is so much more than soap, but the products are exceptional.
My Trusty sunflower face and body oil, £9.00
Few people realise that the NHS has its own skincare range, never mind that it is available nationwide. My Trusty is a sunflower oil-based line developed by NHS scientists who were dissatisfied with the available skincare products for dry, dehydrated and scarred skin. All the products are clinically proven to help reduce the appearance of scars. Users also report significant benefits for dry, itchy and oily skin, and for those with acne, eczema, psoriasis and rosacea. I have chosen this face and body oil on the basis that it gives a good, smooth, ungreasy finish and plenty of skin-softening moisture, causes no irritation and (as with the entire line) contains no sulphates, parabens or artificial perfumes. It is also cracking value, with all the profit going back into the NHS.
The most interesting advances in beauty are happening in the high street and budget sector, not on the high-end department store counters. These delicious-smelling washes, lotions and creams contain no microbeads, phthalates, mineral oils, sulphates or parabens, just gentle, plant-derived foaming agents and nut butters, all packaged in satisfyingly chubby pump bottles recycled from plastic milk cartons. The brand has pledged to give at least £150,000 to Water Aid by the end of next year. I use its hand washes almost exclusively, but this body wash, squirted with abandon into a bath, is my Sunday-night treat.
An eco-positive perfumer? I never thought I would see the day. But Clean Reserve is obsessed with making sustainable, animal-friendly fragrances that people want to wear. The attention to detail is extraordinary. The alcohol is derived from corn and carried in an aloe vera base to avoid drying or irritating the skin; all the fragrances come in recycled and recyclable packaging; and the manufacturing process is powered by solar energy. None of this is to the detriment of the perfumes. Citron fig is my favourite: bright and summery. As the day wears on, expect a warming ginger note, spicy cardamom (which stops it from being too daytime) and a cheerful spike of mint. Lovely.
Lush Ultrabland cleanser, £7.95
Lush does much more than boycott animal testing; it has been campaigning against it for decades. The company sources all of its (vegetarian-friendly) ingredients ethically, paying suppliers fairly for their environmentally sound ingredients (which are never tested on animals) and ensuring employees throughout the supply chain are working willingly and for fair pay. Its list of ethical, environmental and animal considerations is near-endless, so I will save space by saying this instead: Ultrabland is the best affordable cleanser on the high street. It removes all makeup quickly and gently (although you may need a separate eye makeup remover for heavy shadow and waterproof mascara). Massage in nightly and remove with a clean, hot facecloth. Your skin will look better in a month, if not sooner.
The vegan selection
Mavala Mini Nail Colour, £4.95
I had always loved these dinky nail polishes – then I discovered that they have been vegan for more than five decades. The appeal of Mavala lies in its understanding that while you might wish to own thousands of different shades of nail polish, you are unlikely to finish a big bottle of any of them. These tiny polishes come in every shade and finish, have a good brush and decent longevity, and contain exactly the right amount to leave me wanting more.
For years, this dry shampoo has featured in every stylist’s kitbag. They love it, because it gives great volume without causing scalps to itch, it doesn’t take excessive rubbing to work off the chalkiness and it smells natural and clean, rather than sweet and synthetic. The rest of the Klorane family, from a fragrant pomegranate shampoo to an excellent eye makeup remover, is vegan, too.
Le Labo Santal 33, £120
Le Labo is vegan across its large range of high-quality perfumes, lotions and candles, but whenever I visit the counter I rarely get past this beautiful, gender-neutral scent that smells of creamy sandalwood, powdery flowers and new leather shoes. If you happen to pass a tester, do give it a chance: the immediate hit is no match for what it becomes an hour or so later.
Finally, a tinted moisturiser with as much coverage as a foundation and as high an SPF as a sunblock. This hero product from the vegan brand has been raved about by practically every beauty editor and blogger this season – and with good reason. The exceptional base blends well, stays put and neither dries out nor oils up the skin. Even the dated packaging adds to its charm. It is with great relief that I hear new owner L’Oréal intends to keep IT’s ethical standards high.
Barry M Dazzle Dust, £4.59
It is gratifying to discover that one of Britain’s most iconic bargain brands has among the most transparent animal-welfare policies and simplest labelling systems. I wish luxury houses would deign to watch and learn. The 80% of Barry M products that are vegan are marked with a green badge, while the rest (vegetarian, but containing beeswax) are not. The company demands yearly written declarations from suppliers and works on animal welfare initiatives. It also makes the best budget glitter in the business and flogs it for less than a fiver. The endlessly cheering Dazzle Dust comes in an array of colours that change seasonally – I love Petrol Black, smudged over eyeliner (and covering any wobbles in the process).
Photograph: Packshot Factory/PR Company Handout
It may be seriously spendy, but this tube replaces two products. An elegant moisturiser and effective sunscreen in one, it goes straight over serum without greasiness, peeling or stinging, and provides an excellent base for foundation. One of my all-time favourite sunscreens, it is vegan and contains no parabens, should you happen to be concerned about them (broadly speaking, I’m not).
Urban Decay 24/7 eye pencil, £15.50
When L’Oréal acquired Urban Decay and attempted to take it into the Chinese market, where animal testing is a legal requirement, there was such uproar that the brand swiftly changed its mind. Animal welfare was a founding principle of this excellent brand. Click on any product on the Urban Decay website and you will see immediately whether it is vegan; gratifyingly, 32 of the 41 shades of these eye pencils (which are the smoothest, boldest, coolest and longest-lasting) are. More and more products are undergoing conversion.
Aesop post-poo drops, £20
There were so many worthy options from this all-vegan (with the exception of natural-bristled shaving brushes) Australian brand that I went for novelty and originality. Post-poo drops serve exactly the purpose one would imagine and they work brilliantly. Simply squeeze a couple of drops of this essential-oil blend into the toilet basin to deodorise the room and make it smell of orange zest. The stylish and weirdly covetable glass bottle raises so many eyebrows and smiles that I routinely bring one for dinner hosts instead of wine. Invariably, they love it and vow to replenish when empty (which takes months).
Nailberry L’Oxygéné nail polish, from £14.50
One of the coolest, most coveted luxury brands in nailcare is also vegan-friendly. Each of the 48 shades in Nailberry’s Peta‑certified L’Oxygéné range is long-wearing, halal-certified and free from alcohol, parabens, DBP, toluene, camphor, formaldehyde, xylene, ethyl tosylamide, triphenyl phosphate, animal derivatives and gluten. Highlights are Rouge, a perfect specimen of classic Hollywood red, and Viva La Vegan, a sludgy summer khaki that looks wonderful against denim and sandals. There are no duds here.
Without question the most-used body makeup in my kit, this adds realistic colour, camouflages veins, scars, signs of poor circulation and blotches, and creates the impression of smoother, silkier skin. It is not cheap, but a little goes a long way (and all but one of Vita Liberata’s products – the night moisture mask – are vegan-friendly). Indispensable for anyone keen to show some skin.
Real Techniques brushes, from £7.99
Vegan brushes must be made from synthetic, rather than natural, bristles. The affordable synthetics of yore, while fine for creams and lotions, were useless for powdered makeup. The game changed with this range of relatively inexpensive synthetics, which have a soft, plush texture and a lightness of touch, and are accompanied by a series of YouTube tutorials. I love the setting brush for under eyes and I’m rarely without the eye shade and blend duo, but others seem devoted to the Expert Face Brush.
It was hard to pick a favourite product from this brand’s entirely vegan line of hi-tech, racially inclusive complexion makeup (I like brands that pick a speciality and stick with it). However, since I have been using this since Christmas, it seemed only fair that it made the cut. It is a refreshing mist that locks down makeup (face or body) for the night, layering up for greater glow. It works brilliantly, looks great and, like everything from Cover FX, contains no parabens, fragrance, gluten, mineral oil or talc.
What would happen if you took away all the unnecessary skincare ingredients, leaving only those in proper concentrations that were proven to deliver results? And what if you scaled down packaging, making product names transparent and everything vegan-friendly? This was Brandon Truaxe’s thinking when he developed The Ordinary, an affordable skincare brand that has caused the biggest stir in beauty in at least 20 years. There are many commendable products, but I have chosen this anti-ageing serum, since it has a higher concentration of antioxidant vitamin C than many rivals costing five, 10 or even 20 times the price.
Vegan tattoo artist Kat Von D reportedly intends to transition her cruelty-free beauty line to vegan-friendly status by the end of the year. If you are impatient, though, this liner, adored for its durable wear and fine, sharp-tipped brush, is already good to go. The best vegan-friendly liner I have tried, it goes on opaquely and effortlessly, although I don’t support its claim to be waterproof.
This range is mostly vegetarian-friendly, while plenty of it – including this, the best product – is vegan. There is at least one shade for everyone: I dust Diffused Light, a red-reducing, skin-brightening yellow, all over my face (either over foundation or just concealer), and Radiant Light, a soft brown, on the cheeks, temples and wherever the sun would hit.
Sleek Blush, £4.99
Sleek is a cruelty-free brand that has pledged not to sell in China until the country changes its laws on animal testing. This is China’s loss, because Sleek’s makeup is among the best ever sold on the high street. Its forte is eyeshadow (peerless colour payoff in its price bracket) and blusher, the latter being vegan. The shade choice is good, but Rose Gold is particularly flattering on everyone and is the spit of Nars’s Orgasm.
I don’t know why I was surprised to learn that Britain’s most popular tanning brand is vegan, but then I’m someone on whom self-tan usually disappears without a trace. This gradual tanning lotion is a notable exception. It gives good moisture, an instant bronze tint and a deeper, but still realistic, tan in just a couple of applications. My advice is to spend extra cash on the brand’s mitt: you get a much smoother, more even application and no orange palms.
I have been waiting years for this excellent, all-vegan, bargain brand to launch in the UK, having feverishly stocked up whenever in the US. All the palettes are great and the primers are a dead ringer for premium brands; but this palette for pale skin – containing bronzer, highlighter and two cheek colours – is cleverly curated and more restrained than comparable products on the high street.
Pixi Glow Tonic, £18
About 50 products in Pixi’s relatively small makeup and skincare line are vegan, including Caroline Hirons’ excellent Double Cleanse and this, its best bargain (the bottle is around two and a half times bigger than most). It is a liquid exfoliant (ie the only kind of skin toner worth a damn), containing alpha hydroxy acid to deflake and brighten dull skin and soften the appearance of fine lines. After a proper cleanse, saturate a cotton pad with Glow Tonic and sweep all over the face.
Sam Farmer teen skincare, from £4.49
As a father of teenagers, Sam Farmer was horrified at the sexualised branding, gender stereotyping and cynical marketing of toiletries aimed at young people. Instead of writing a furious letter, he retrained as a cosmetic scientist and made his own range. My sons and all my friends’ teens love this range for its fair prices, cool, minimal packaging and fresh, unobtrusive fragrances. Every product in the lineup is free of animal ingredients, which, given that almost half of vegans are aged 15 to 34, seems commercially smart as well as ethical.
Illamasqua is one of the largest cruelty-free brands, but fans may not realise that more than 90 of its products are vegan, too. It was hard to pick a favourite – Beyond Powder, one of the best highlighters I have used, came close – but in the end I plumped for this glow-giving primer, which, as well as providing a smooth, long-lasting base for foundation, looks wonderful when worn with a little concealer and powder. It is perfect for dull or sallow complexions.
My colleagues rave about vegan brand Niod, but I have had limited success with many of its skincare products. The exception is this, which works a treat. The unorthodox idea is not to tackle symptoms of skin ageing directly, but rather to keep skin in a heightened state of self-repair. You mix together the serum and “activator”, then apply straight after cleansing. I have found it particularly effective on visible pores around the nose and chin, on uneven texture and in brightening dullness, but others report all manner of skin-improving capabilities. There is now a more concentrated (5%) version, but it costs a small fortune; you will probably find this one sufficient.
Another high street brand that hides nothing from its consumers. The website lists every product it makes and explains clearly which are vegan, which are vegetarian and which are cruelty‑free. This, its best, is vegan-friendly (and racially inclusive). Just dab the liquid directly from the wand on to dark circles and blemishes, then tap with your middle finger to blend. You will find it behaves much like luxury concealers at five times the price.
I was determined to hate this face oil. It is exorbitantly priced and its marketing is based on the kind of “no chemicals, no toxins” message that I find enraging. But, oh, it is so lovely on the skin (even spotty types). Just one six-drop application of this 22-oil, vegan-friendly blend before bed (after any anti-ageing serums and before or instead of cream) revives and moisturises the complexion and imparts visible glow by morning. It is beautiful, if way too expensive.
Vegan lipstick is hard to find, because ingredients such as beeswax, lanolin, cholesterol and collagen are so often used to add comfort, slip, moisture and plumpness. Here, though, is a wonderful example of how it can be done. The formula is silky, comfy and long-lasting. The shades (I recommend Worth, a vintage-looking red) are every bit as cool and bold as those of the department store luxury brands. The packaging makes it a beautiful gift, too.
There is something hugely satisfying about a one-hit sheet mask. This one, from the mostly-vegan Starskin portfolio, is among my favourites. There is no scrimping on ingredients here: the mask positively drenches the face in reviving serum, which leaves skin brighter, perkier and healthier-looking (in fact, you will probably have enough gunk left in the sachet for tomorrow). Wonderful as a hangover cure or an in-flight treatment.
Infuse My. colour wash, £13.95
I’m hugely impressed with these colour-refreshing shampoos. Simply, they work. Copper brightens red hair beautifully, while Platinum strips brassiness from blond and grey hair and brightens any white and silver; the Gold shade glosses my hair like nothing else. All five options are vegan and none contains sulphates, silicones, parabens or toxic dyes.
I give huge props to Superdrug for making its entire B. skincare and makeup line vegan-friendly, particularly this makeup remover, which is one of the few of its kind not to make me break out after several days’ continued use. It swipes away heavy foundation and mascara in seconds, making it an ideal first step before a deeper cleanse with a balm or oil (there is no substitute, long-term). It is also brilliant for quick makeup changes, correcting smudges and errors and, dare I say it, when you are too tired and emotional for a thorough night-time routine. Keep next to your bed with the Alka-Seltzer.
I was put off slightly by this cruelty-free brand’s teenybopper packaging, but with perseverance I have found some corking products. Everyone raves about the superior lengthening capabilities of Better Than Sex mascara, but my personal favourite is Brow Quickie, a fibre-filled brow gel in a perfect, suits-everyone taupe that thickens and holds brows in place better than anything else I have tried. It is only one of the 50 or so vegan products in the Too Faced portfolio.
Kypris Moonlight Catalyst, £60.50
My issue with many of the natural, organic skincare brands I see is that, while they are often lovely in terms of smell and texture, they don’t seem to do much for their high price tag. Kypris is an exception. Vegan, organic, sustainably and locally sourced, devoid of any petrol-industry byproducts and synthetic ingredients, its kinder beauty credentials are flawless. The products themselves are just as impressive. This, my favourite, is a night-time serum that uses pumpkin enzymes to gobble away dead skin and calm irritation. It gives great glow and leaves skin exceptionally soft and smooth. It is also very good on spotty or upset-looking skin. It is expensive, yes, but comes in a larger bottle than most in its category.
There is an assumption in beauty that spotty skin must be hardy enough to withstand chemical torture in the name of treatment, but this is simply not true. Pai skincare (certified by the Soil Association and the Vegan Society) is unusual in its understanding that oily, congested skin can be as sensitive and easily upset as any other type. This mask is a great example of how it is possible to get kind and hardcore in one tube. Smooth all over just-cleansed skin (I take it right under the eyes, but not over the eyelids), leave for 10 minutes, then buff off with a hot facecloth.
Another entry for this new but influential, eco-friendly, vegan brand. It is the best budget foundation I have ever used. Yes, there is a six-week waiting list and, yes, there are few bricks-and-mortar stores allowing you to try before you buy, but, at a little over a fiver, how much can one complain? Besides, distribution and stock problems are likely to vanish soon: Estée Lauder has just invested in The Ordinary’s parent company, Deciem.
There are lots of vegan products within this natural-ingredient-based, animal-friendly brand and I was delighted to find this old favourite among them. It is a waterproof, racially inclusive coverup that is brilliant for hiding birth marks, dark circles, melasma and scars, and any blemishes on menopausal skin prone to hot flashes. It blends well with fingers or a buffing brush and is so concentrated the little tube lasts for ages.
Rahua shampoo and conditioner, £30 each
On paper, Rahua looks like the kind of brand I avoid. It is expensive and comes with a too-familiar marketing message: beauty professionals get out of the rat race and discover charity work, which takes them to the Brazilian rainforest, where they notice that women have exceptionally soft, glossy hair and discover a native wonder oil, rahua. I have heard 100 variations on this theme, but two things set Rahua apart: activism and product efficacy. Everything is vegan and sustainable, and the brand has reinvigorated the local trade of rahua oil. Every organic, natural and petrochemical-, silicone- and sulphate-free product is lovely, but the original shampoo and conditioner are the holy grail for dry, thick, previously unmanageable hair.