Holland & Barrett currently stocks more than 900 natural, cruelty-free and vegan products, including those containing vegetable-derived alternatives for hyaluronic acid, squalane and collagen. We caught up with Jennifer Hirsch, AKA The Beauty Botanist to discuss all aspects of vegan beauty and what it means for your skin. 

Jennifer Hirsch

Jennifer Hirsch

When someone refers to 'vegan beauty', what exactly does it mean?

Vegan beauty refers to products made without any animal or animal-derived ingredients including, but not limited to, lanolin, beeswax, honey, collagen, keratin, milk and silk.

Why do you think more and more people are moving towards using vegan products on their skin?

There have always been vegans, but in 1944 a Brit gave them a name and defined what it was to be vegan. And for around 50 years after, veganism pottered along as the much derided cousin of more mainstream vegetarianism. And then Instagram happened.

Bizarrely, Google trends tracks the rise of Instagram and veganism and from 2012 they follow the same upward trajectory – so maybe Instagram and its hashtags are responsible for the blossoming of plant-based lifestyles. When it comes to vegan beauty, the demand for plant-derived, cruelty free ingredients was already driving innovation in the natural niche. As innovations with results equalling or exceeding conventional ingredients became available, consumers no longer had to sacrifice performance to make vegan choices, or their vegan values to get beauty and skincare products that delivered and were sensorial delights. And here we are with more choice than ever, with natural having gone mainstream and vegan pushing at the seams of ‘niche’.

In your experience what are the most popular vegan ingredients used in a typical beauty routine?

Oleus Squalene - Originally extracted from shark livers, a process which the sharks didn’t survive, squalane is commonly found in beauty. Today ingredients are extracted from sources as diverse as sugarcane, rice bran oil, olive oil and amaranth oil, such as in this Oleus Squalene. It’s chemistry is identical, so it’s every bit as effective as a hydrator, helps to reduce hydration loss, and is non-comedogenic.

Q&A Hyaluronic Acid Gel Cleanser - Traditionally, hyaluronic acid was animal-derived, from sources like cockerels’ combs. The vegan alternatives come from microbial fermentation of vegetable material, with identical chemistry that makes it just as effective as animal-derived sources. Like the hyaluronic acid used in this Q&A cleanser with gentle and smoothing cleansing agents that boost your skin’s moisturisation.

REN Ready Steady Glow Tonic - Our bodies produce lactic acid, but commercially it can be created by fermenting dairy products or meat. Identical variations suitable for vegans are produced by fermenting carbohydrates like sucrose or glucose found in beets, corn and cane sugar. REN use vegan-suitable, plant-derived lactic acid throughout their ranges, like in their Ready-Steady Glow Tonic.

Trilogy Bakuchiol+ Booster Treatment – Retinol is only found in animals, so at the moment (and we can hope even more alternatives will be found) it’s only possible to use animal-derived retinol from sources like fish liver oil. Bakuchiol is a vegan retinol alternative and the latest skin superstar, derived from Psoralea corylifolia, a plant with traditional uses in Ayurveda. With 4% bakuchiol, Trilogy’s super-oil also contains vegan identical hydrating squalane, as well as omega rich hemp and rosehip oils to help promote a more youthful complexion.

Coconut oil has been particularly popular lately, so what are your thoughts on this as a multiple use beauty item?

Coconut is what we botanists call a cosmopolitan plant: wherever the conditions are right, you find it thriving. The result is that cultures across the globe have used it on skins, in food and on hair for millennia – which strikes me as quite a reasonable recommendation of its efficacy. Lightweight in texture, it is rich in the same saturated fatty acids that are found in skin. These power its ability to create a protective layer on skin or hair, helping to trap moisture, soothe, smooth and leave a light reflecting glow.

Are there any ingredients/products people have used for years that are naturally vegan?

Absolutely – we evolved with and are adapted to use plants internally AND topically. We even share DNA with them – 24% with rice, for example. And because these ingredients are 100% plant derived, they’re entirely vegan:

Essential oils – Concentrated, hydrophobic liquids, essential oils contain volatile aroma compounds from plants. These oils are ‘essential’ in the sense that they carry the distinctive scent or essence of the plant they are distilled or pressed from. But they can also be powerfully active including antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic. Not to mention mood-altering fragrances. Lavender, chamomile, geranium, rose, sweet orange, tea tree, eucalyptus…the list goes on.

Seed oils -Pressed from seeds, kernels, nuts or fruits, plant oils work with the body’s natural barrier system the skin. By reducing water lost to evaporation and trapping moisture in the skin and on the hair, plant oils work with the body’s own oils to condition, keeping skin and hair supple and healthy-looking. They can contain potent chemistry that delivers great benefits. Like rosehip. The oil expressed from the tiny seeds held within each rosehip is rich in skin-essential omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, also known as linolenic and linoleic acids. Research shows that these are responsible for helping tissue regeneration. This is some of the same chemistry, the same essential fatty acids, that we build our cells from. This is what makes rosehip seed oil so effective at helping to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and scars. 

Hydrolat – a by-product of the steam distillation of plant parts (usually flowers) for essential oil, hydrolat contains enough traces of the essential oil to impart a delicate note. It provides hydration, which is critical to the optimal functioning of the skin as the body’s largest organ, and the result can be a visible difference in the overall condition of skin. Two of the most prized hydrolats are orange flower and rose – with delicate floral notes that are infused into everything from baking to skincare.

Plant Extracts – Plants contain lots of different chemistry that we take advantage of when we make beauty – plant or vegetal oils that moisturise and protect, essential oils that fragrance, and plant extracts that perform the widest scope of activities. Since they do so much, they’re often referred to as ‘actives’.

Some of the most potent activity a plant possesses is suspended in its cell walls. Extracts are created a solvent (like water or glycerine) is used to pull those active substances out of the plant material and into the solvent. Using words like ‘extract’ and ‘solvent’ makes it sound quite technical, but every time you make a cup of tea, you’re making an extract in your mug using hot water as your solvent. It’s that simple (well, in principle). But the activity can be profound, from boosting collagen and elastin production to soothing irritation to helping to regulate sebum production. All powered by plant, and all vegan.

Does going vegan with your skincare mean you have to spend a fortune?

No. Not at all. Nor will it prevent you from exploring other trends like single ingredient skincare or multimasking or double cleansing. In fact, going vegan can be as gradual and painless as you like. As you finish a conventional product, simply swap it for a vegan equivalent this spring. With more than 900 vegan beauty products across a spectrum of prices, Holland & Barrett has plenty for you to choose from and you don’t have to compromise on results either. There are brands that are entirely vegan, and some that have vegan ranges within their offering.

What are your top tips for having a vegan and minimal beauty routine for those who are seeking out a more natural look?

In principle, plant-based products can be integrated in any routine in the same way you would a conventional product. Whether your regime has 3 steps or 15, there’s a logic to the order. Cleansing is always first. You want to start applying your leave on products to a clean palette. Then tone and/or hydrate; if you’re doing both, tone first because it’s usually wiped on then hydrate because it’s usually misted on and wiping after would take some of that hydration with it.

Then comes the confusing and arguably most important bit: do you moisturise first then facial oil/serum/treat, or the reverse? There are different schools of thought from start with the most expensive to use the lightest texture. I’d start with the eye cream or other targeted treatment (pigment pen, spot treatment). These are very focused benefits, and you don’t want anything getting in between the product and its target. Then water based serum, oil based serum, facial oil, moisturiser and finally SPF product. The closer something is to the naked skin, the deeper it should penetrate and work. The farther out, the more occlusive and barrier-enhancing the texture and performance should be. So if you use a lightweight moisturiser, you might want to put facial oil on after it…honestly, aside from some common sense exceptions, it’s pretty much up to you to find what works for you.

The caveats to this are mineral oils. The occlusive nature of these means that while anything under them is going to be sealed in, anything applied on top is won’t penetrate and is therefore a waste of your time and money.

Ingredient lists on the back of products can be baffling- so which ingredients should people avoid if they want to go vegan with their skincare and makeup?

So, these are some of the obvious, only ever animal-derived ingredients to avoid:

Lanolin - This emollient is derived from sheep wool and is a common ingredient in lip products such as balms, sticks and glosses, as well as some hair products. 

Honey, royal jelly, propolis and beeswax – these are all produced by bees.

Silk – This is produced by the caterpillar of the silk moth when they spin their chrysalises to become moths. Unwinding the chrysalis is how silk is obtained, but it does mean the caterpillars perish.

Carmine - This red colorant, is derived from insects and often used in lipsticks, blushes and nail polish.

The more confusing are the ingredients that can be plant-derived or animal derived and are found all over beauty. They’re confusing because they have identical chemistry no matter the source, so ingredient listing looks the same. It’s a long list but includes: lactic acid, stearic acid, squalane, glycerine, hyaluronic acid, keratin and many, many other pieces of chemistry found in beauty.

What’s the easiest way to avoid these without becoming a forensic cosmetic scientist expert in ingredient labelling? Buy products that are vegan and spend all that extra time making a difference. If you’re unsure, speak to one of the store colleagues as they will be able to help you choose the right vegan skincare product for your skin. 

Does skin benefit more from plant-based products than animal-based ones?

As The Beauty Botanist, you’d have to expect me to say that plant-based skincare has amazing benefits for the skin. And it’s true. We evolved with plants. Our bodies are designed to consume them, to use and convert the nutrients and energy they provide. Our skin knows what to do with natural ingredients. They deliver great results, with millennia of proven efficacy. After all until relatively recently in our history, we only used naturally based skincare.

I can’t say it more plainly than this: we are designed to live with and benefit from plants. Alive or dead. Research has shown that something as simple as adding some plants to your front garden can have a measurable impact on wellbeing. Houseplants have been shown to not only improve your sense of wellbeing, but your productivity as well.

Thanks to the drive for natural, plant-derived, vegan and cruelty free beauty options, there are more plant-based options than ever before. The traditional ingredients have been joined by a blossoming of high tech, sophisticated actives that rival and even surpass their conventional synthetic or animal derived equivalents. It’s a fantastic time to be exploring vegan beauty.

H&B  are currently offering customers a limited H&B Clean & Conscious Beauty Edit, full of amazing vegan beauty products from the likes of Dr. Organic, Vitaskin, Clean Me and Oleus. The box, priced at £50, contains products worth over £113 and there are just 500 available and selling fast.


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