As more people are switching to cruelty-free cosmetics, Sascha Camilli discovers why your favourite makeup brushes might be hiding a deadly secret
If you wear makeup and care about animal rights and welfare, chances are that you are more than familiar with cruelty-free and vegan beauty products.
You probably know the relevant certifications in this field and check for them on the packaging when you’re shopping for cosmetics.
But one area that many cruelty-free beauty proponents (and even a few vegans) commonly overlook is makeup brushes.
These tools are used to apply everything from foundation and blush to eyeliner and shadow, and what people rarely realise is that they are commonly made from animal hair. The same goes for shaving brushes.
Sometimes brushes are synthetic, but more often, the makeup and shaving brushes found in commerce are made either from the hair of badgers, goats, or squirrels.
PETA Asia has investigated the badger hair industry in China by visiting multiple farms, and the resulting footage is anything but pretty.
The footage shows badgers caught in snares and other stressful, painful methods in their natural habitats – sometimes this is illegal, as badgers are a protected species.
PETA Asia’s investigator inquired about the ways in which factories obtain badger hair, and company representatives advised the investigator to lie to potential buyers by saying that the hair came from captive badgers, while most of it was caught in the wild.
Held in captivity for makeup brushes
The other option, also documented in the investigation, was for badgers to be bred in captivity.
This frequently used production method sees the animals live out their entire lifespans in tiny, cramped and often dirty cages, with no access to anything that is natural to them or makes their lives worth living.
As with any wild animal forced to live their entire life in captivity, badgers suffer greatly from being caged.
In nature, badgers are highly social animals who forage, dig, and create complicated burrow systems known as ‘setts’.
Some of the setts have been inhabited by generations of the same badger families for hundreds of years!
These animals also have designated areas for eating and giving birth, and toilet areas located outside the sett.
In the badger-hair industry, they are denied every opportunity to do any of that.
The extreme captivity drives these animals insane, causing them to pace back and forth or spin around in circles inside their cages – not uncommon behaviour for captive wild animals.
To obtain the hair for the brushes, workers kill the animals by hitting them in the head and then slit their throats.
Risk to public health
What makes badger hair brushes more worrying is the public-health risk from wild animals kept captive in cramped environments.
Covid-19 originated in a market where wild animals, dead and alive, were kept in close proximity, allowing for easy contamination and spread.
Outbreaks of the virus on fur farms around the world have called the fur trade even further into question than it already was, and the captivity of badgers is very similar to those circumstances.
The conditions in which animals are kept makes it easy for blood and other bodily fluids to mix, leading to an increased risk of pathogens flourishing.
Experts agree that keeping wild animals in captivity is a ticking bomb that can lead to more deadly viruses exploding around the world.
Vegan vs Cruelty-free
Luckily, in today’s market, avoiding animal-hair brushes should be simple.
As the term ‘vegan’ expands beyond food and becomes a common fixture in beauty, more brands are labelling products as vegan – and it’s the label to look for.
In the case of brushes, ‘cruelty-free’ may be misleading.
When used in the context of animal testing, ‘cruelty-free’ is a term to ensure that no such testing has taken place, but in the case of animal ingredients, some companies like to claim that theirs were produced without cruelty, which most vegans know is not possible.
As shown by the investigative footage, whenever animals are used for mass production, they inevitably suffer.
So those brushes (and any other products) are never truly cruelty-free unless the company can guarantee that they are vegan and free from any animal-derived ingredients.
Increasingly, retailers can offer that guarantee: after pressure from PETA and their international affiliates, companies like NARS, Morphe, Cult Beauty, and even L’Oréal Group and Procter & Gamble, banned the use of badger hair.
Companies offering shaving brushes, such as Executive Shaving, Wilkinson Sword, Floris London and Penhaligon’s have all stopped sourcing badger hair in favour of vegan brushes.
Synthetic makeup brushes
With animal-hair brushes off the table, is the only remaining option synthetics?
At the moment, it seems so – but there is a lot we can do to minimise their negative environmental impact.
Brands such as Nanshy and ELF, which specialise in eco-friendly, animal-free products, offer cruelty-free vegan makeup brushes.
Many of them choose to use materials that are kinder to the planet, such as bamboo handles or recycled plastic and aluminium.
It doesn’t change the fact that the bristles themselves are usually synthetic, so we should aim to prolong the lifespan of these tools for as long as we can.
The good news is that with the right care and proper storage, make-up brushes can last for years – so make your brushes a long-term commitment, not a throwaway product.
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