I’m A Casual Vegan (And So Can You!) Part Two: Toiletries, Cosmetics, And Fragrance



So, you’ve begun to veganize your wardrobe, quietly weeding out the leather and the wool and the alligator and all the other animal-derived stuff hanging from hangers and boxed in shoeboxes. That was pretty painless, and no one really noticed the transformation, so no one has tried raking you over the coals for your new-found code of ethics. (I still don’t know why people do that, but they do. It’s annoying.)

Phase 1: The Bedroom is complete, now you’re ready for Phase 2: The Bathroom.

Chances are, several products sitting in your shower and by your sink contain animal-based ingredients and/or were animal-tested in labs. If you’re only following the letter of vegan law (whatever that is), you’ll just need to ditch the former, but the spirit of that law is all about minimizing cruelty, so it seems like a good idea to toss the latter, too.

A quick heads-up before we begin: this round of changeouts may be more difficult than the first, but don’t worry, it’s totally doable. And as with the clothing switcheroo, you’ll probably be the only one to notice.

Vintage Ivory Soap adToiletries

The word “toiletries” means different things to different people, but to me, it’s the stuff I use to get clean, the products I use to rake off the muck and sweat and funk before I put on moisturizer and sunblock and fragrance to face the day.

Finding vegan toiletries is simple. That’s because (a) there are plenty of animal-free, cruelty-free products out there, and (b) you don’t really need that many. To me, part of being a vegan (or veganish) is reducing my consumption of stuff. I mean, we’ve all seen bathrooms packed with shampoos and conditioners and soaps and scrubs, each specialized to attack a different variety of filth. That kind of seems like a waste. Do people really feel that dirty? And what’s wrong with a little dirt anyway?

Perched on the rim of my bathtub, I have two products: a pumice stone (mostly for my left heel, which is always weirdly dry) and an oversized bottle of Dr. Bronner’s.

Dr. Bronner’s is perfect — at least for me. It’s great soap, it comes in big (recyclable) plastic bottles, and it’s available in a range of scents. (Peppermint is amazing on hot summer days, which we have plenty of in New Orleans. Even in spring and fall.) And not only is the stuff vegan, it’s also not tested on animals.

Dr. Bronner’s is a multi-use product that can accomplish what five of your current products do. I use it on my face, my body, I even use it as shampoo. (I know some of you just cringed at that sentence. Whether that’s due to the image of me in the shower or the thought of someone using soap on his hair, I apologize.) Read the bottle — seriously — and the company claims you can use it for other things, too.  All I know for certain is, I have a lot more room in the shower than I once did.

I admit, my ascetic approach to bathtime won’t work for everyone. People with more hair than me (i.e. many of you) will probably want dedicated shampoos and conditioners and other goop. My husband and my boyfriend certainly do. That’s fine, because there are loads of cruelty-free lines, all of which are easy to find, from Kiss My Face to The Body Shop. Here’s a short list of ten options to consider.

Many of the companies on that list also make things like toothpaste and mouthwash to finish the job of getting you clean. Personally, I’m a fan of Tom’s of Maine, but there are plenty of other brands to explore. And don’t forget about simple, vegan household products like baking soda, which was just fine for your grandfather’s teeth, thankyouverymuch.

Vintage Old Spice adCosmetics

Once you’re out of the shower and squeaky clean, it’s time to grab the cosmetics — the stuff that keeps you looking good all day. Think of cosmetics like thin, invisible armor you can wear beneath your clothes.

Vegan varieties of deodorant, hair gel, and such are a cinch to find, but pinning down animal-free, cruelty-free moisturizers is trickier. That’s because many people prefer products from well-known brands like Clinique, Lancome, Shiseido, and so on — presumably because their higher prices connote higher quality. Unfortunately, few if any of those companies state whether their products are vegan (i.e. free of animal products) or cruelty-free (i.e. don’t test on animals), and asking their PR reps for straight answers is an exercise in futility.

If you’re using a department store brand, assume it’s not vegan. Your moisturizer may not contain any animal-derived components, which is great, but if it’s sold in China (as most are, because China is a big market, and big companies love big markets), it’s tested on animals. Sadly, that’s a fact of Chinese law.

The good news is, China is beginning to change its policies, and as of this summer, some products sold there won’t have to be tested on animals at all.

The bad news is, the new rules don’t apply to imported products. Companies that ship to China will still have to conduct tests on animals, which likely means the company that makes your moisturizer, which means we’re back at Square One.

The better news in all of this — perhaps the best, important-est bit of news to be found in this entire post — is that most of the cosmetics on today’s shelves are pretty worthless. So basically, a $10 eye cream from Walgreens is just as effective as some $400-an-ounce junk from Saks. Which is to say, neither does anything at all, but at least with the cheap stuff, you’ll spend less on snake oil.

In practical terms, that means that you should be able to switch from your current brand (if it’s not cruelty-free) to something a bit kinder, without sacrificing effectiveness, because neither is truly effective. Accept that products like these are just pricey, gooey, safety blankets, and you’ll discover plenty of options. Be on the lookout for the “leaping bunny” label, which is kind of like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for cruelty-free products, as determined by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics.

The sole caveat to consider in your cosmetic recalibration is that there is one important product that you do need, not just for good skin, but for your long-term health: sunblock. Thankfully, there are plenty on the market, and plenty of those are vegan and cruelty-free.

Personally, I like Jack Black’s Double-Duty Face Moisturizer with SPF 20. When I switched from my previous moisturizer (Strivectin, FWIW), I had a hard time finding an equivalent that felt heavy enough to seem substantial, but light enough to sink into my skin. Jack Black did the trick. Plus, it’s cheap and contains sunblock. And as with soap, it’s the only cosmetic I really use, which makes my suitcase that much lighter when I travel. Win-win.

Centaur massage cologneFRAGRANCE

Of all the lotions and potions found in the bathroom, fragrance presents the biggest challenge to the budding vegan — again, because of China.

That’s because most of the better-known brands sell in China, from upper-crust Chanel to drugstore-friendly Coty. So it doesn’t matter where you buy, it’s doesn’t matter if you go high or low: you’re usually damned if you do, damned if you don’t. (You can search PETA’s list of cruelty-free companies here, though it’s not comprehensive. When in doubt, assume the worst.)

Complicating matters is the fact that fragrance doesn’t really do anything, scientifically speaking. Its effect is largely emotional. With moisturizers, it’s easy to say, “Oh, it’s all the same, just buy whatever you like, and you’ll get the same effect”. But fragrance has one job: to smell a particular way. When you’re very attached to a particular perfume or cologne or eau de toilette — either because you love it or your partner loves it or you have some deep-seated fondness/nostalgia for it — picking up and moving on isn’t so easy.

Translation: you may have to find a new signature scent. If you don’t wear fragrance at all, consider yourself lucky, because this is not a simple task.

Basically, you have two options — well, three, technically speaking:

1. Select from smaller and niche lines. Major fragrance brands can’t afford to avoid China. On their websites, they may claim to support “alternative testing” and insist that their suppliers provide “ethically sourced” materials. But that and a couple of bucks will get you a vegan brownie from Whole Foods.

Companies like Caswell-MasseyCrabtree & Evelyn, and Trish McEvoy, on the other hand, are small enough to make do without Chinese distribution, but big enough to be found in many shopping malls. For those who enjoy smaller, niche lines, the best of the cruelty-free bunch is undoubtedly Le Labo. The boutiques alone are amazing, and some of the scents are out of this world.

2. Choose an essential oil. Generally speaking, essential oils aren’t high-end products. Most aren’t even made to be worn as-is. They’re more often used for aromatherapy and other specific occasions, rather than everyday scents. As a result, the companies that make them tend to have more limited distribution, so they don’t have to worry about China or its regulations.

By far, my favorite company for oils is Enfleurage, though technically speaking, they do carry a couple of animal-based products like ambergris. (NB: even though ambergris is found in the vomit of whales and doesn’t require killing them, strict vegans might avoid it. The casual vegan won’t mind a bit.) The company’s range is amazing, and like nearly all essential oils, they’re inexpensive. Buy several, then experiment with making your own blends

3. Ditch fragrance altogether. This is in keeping with the reduction in consumption trend mentioned above, which to me goes hand in hand with veganism. On the downside, you might feel naked walking around fragrance-free, especially if you’ve been a scent-user your entire life. On the upside, you’ll save plenty of cash. If you choose this route, consider weaning yourself off fragrance by using a scented, animal-friendly shower gel, deodorant, or talc, all of which are easier to find than cruelty-free perfume.

Next, the big one: going vegan in the kitchen…

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