When browsing labels on cosmetics products, you’re bound to see the same ingredients over and over again. One of them is lanolin.
As with squalane, formulators use lanolin in beauty products to supplement the skin’s natural functions — in the case of lanolin, those functions are moisturization and protection. Lanolin is a popular emollient in personal care products of all varieties, from lipsticks to baby bum balms, because it softens and soothes skin while locking in moisture — a particularly helpful property when facing harsh winter air. It’s even been lauded as a “winter skin wonder” (1).
Sadly, like many other natural ingredients that sound too good to be true, lanolin also has a dark side.
Lanolin is a waxy substance derived mainly from the wool of sheep. The sheep’s sebaceous glands produce this “wool wax” to help shed water and keep the sheep dry (9). It’s extracted by putting the wool through a centrifuge machine that separates the oil from other chemicals and debris.
That means we get lanolin from wool, which we can get by giving the sheep a haircut. How bad could it be, right? Unfortunately it’s not that simple.
Lanolin is used in an array of products like pharmaceuticals, leather, textiles, baby and men’s care products, bio-lubricants, and nearly all types of cosmetics marketed to women. While pharmaceutical-grade lanolin is the lion’s share of the market today, the growing demand for natural and organic ingredients in personal care products is driving lanolin market growth, which is expected to be worth more than $450 million USD by 2024 (6, 7).
In beauty products, specifically, lanolin gives lipsticks heavy gloss and high-shine. Formulations like these are about 5-10% lanolin by weight. Lanolin may also appear in cosmetics as modified versions of lanolin oil. Lanfrax, for instance, is the trade name of a lanolin oil compound that has polyethylene glycol attached to it to make it more water-soluble. Accounting for these modified versions of lanolin, lanolin and its derivatives may account for approximately 15-25% of the weight of a given lipstick (8).
So, though the production of lanolin seems innocent enough because the process happens after the sheep are shorn, and seems like it should be a natural byproduct of the wool industry, lanolin is a major industry of its own. The only way to sustain the accelerating levels of lanolin production is by being inextricably linked to mass-produced wool, which is a slaughter industry with inhumane practices. Because the lanolin industry relies directly on mass-produced wool, lanolin also supports cruelty.
CRUELTY-FREE VS. MASS-PRODUCED LANOLIN
Before getting deeper into why you should say no to lanolin, it’s important to point out that “cruelty-free” wool has emerged in opposition to the mass-produced wool industry. These efforts have come predominantly from the apparel industry, with the H&M group banding with the Textile Exchange in 2014 to initiate the development of the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) (2).
However, despite these efforts, the line between “ethical”/“humane” and mass-produced wool (and, thus, lanolin) is blurry due to a continued lack of cohesive international standards and difficulty relating to traceability.
Currently, the only way for consumers to identify ethically-produced lanolin is to seek out trusted brands with a commitment to mulesed-free wool, or which use lanolin created as a byproduct of RWS production.
As with anything where exploitation for profit is concerned, sheep are treated horribly in the mass-produced wool (and lanolin) industry.
Though sheep can live up to 17 years, most mass-farmed sheep are slaughtered before they reach six years old. The majority of sheep slaughtered each year are lambs. Sheep are routinely transported long distances (sometimes for more than ten hours without rest) for slaughter, and can suffer heatstroke, heart attacks, dehydration, overcrowding, and stress-related conditions along the way. Sheep are also commonly stunned with an electric current before slaughter, which — when performed incorrectly — can allow the sheep to regain consciousness while having their throat cut or bleeding to death.
It’s not just the act of the slaughter that is inhumane. Before slaughter, industrial-farmed sheep often live a cruel life. Just weeks after birth, lambs' ears are punched, their tails are chopped off, and males are castrated without anesthetic. According to Australian Law Reform Chairman, M.D. Kirby, Australian sheep (which produces 80% of the world’s wool) suffer over 50 million operations a year that would constitute cruelty if performed on dogs or cats.
Where wool and lanolin are concerned, Merino sheep suffer particular horrors. This prized breed is specifically bred to have wrinkly skin in order to produce more wool. This can lead to death from heat exhaustion during hot months, and the deep wrinkles collect urine and moisture that attracts flies. The flies lay eggs in the folds of skin, and the hatched maggots feed on the living sheep. To prevent this parasitic infection known as "flystrike," sheep are mulesed. Mulesing is a practice during which farmers cut chunks of skin and flesh from an unanesthetized sheep. Mulesing may kill more sheep than it saves but the mutilation continues.
The brutalization doesn’t stop there. As sheep age, they naturally grind their teeth. To reduce tooth loss and extend the sheep's productive life, a battery-operated grinder or disc cutter is used to wear down the teeth near the level of the gums. This painful procedure causes the teeth to bleed profusely.
Even the practice of shearing isn’t always innocent. Many shearers are paid hourly, and work quickly without regard for the welfare of the animals, and many animals are injured every year in the process. Plus, shearing is done in the spring, just before sheep naturally shed their winter coats. An estimated one million Australian sheep die every year from exposure to the cold after premature shearing. (3)
BUT DO SHEEP DIE IN THE PRODUCTION OF LANOLIN, SPECIFICALLY?
Technically-speaking, sheep do not die as a direct result of lanolin production because it is obtained from their wool. However, as sheep age, their wool production gradually slows (just as humans lose density in eyelashes, eyebrows, and hair). When they can no longer meet the farmer’s wool demands, they are sent to slaughter for consumption (4). Sheep bred for wool (and vis-à-vis lanolin) are almost always killed for meat (5).
In this way, the demand for mass-produced lanolin perpetuates cruelty and eventual death of sheep. Is it hypothetically possible to find lanolin from small farmers who lovingly care for their sheep, or from RWS producers who follow ethical practices? Yes. But the sad truth is that the vast majority of the lanolin you’ll find in products on shelves is not obtained that way.
By contrast, plant-based waxes and emollients do not cause harm to animals, directly or indirectly. For us, the risk of harm is not worth the benefits when perfectly suitable, cruelty-free, vegan alternatives exist.