“Ethical and ‘Green’ make-up is too often implied to be founded on ‘old wives’ tales’. To me this is part of the same discourse that drowned witches.” In the fourth part of her series SKIN(CARE/UNCARE) makeup artist Crystabel Riley waxes lyrical. 

Words and Beauty

A waxed apple works like much of late modernist skincare: wash off natural surface wax, find ‘other’ wax (Paraffin/Bees/Carnauba/Candelilla/Sugarcane) and coat surface with the purpose of holding in moisture: working towards an anti-wilting/pro-glow apple-taut surface-skin. (1)

In this scenario the discarded fruit wax itself has a higher nutritional content than its spray-painted pretenders. Fruit wax (as opposed to leaf – Carnauba or bush – Candellila waxes) seems to be the next frontier for beauty (2) and we are already seeing ‘green’ beauty brands featuring quince wax. (3)

In mainstream cosmetics we have paraffin wax (4), synthetic wax (5), microcrystalline wax (a trendier derivative of petroleum oil) (6) AND ‘uncared for’ bees’ wax from mainstream industrial apiaries. (7) I’ve chosen to avoid all products that contain these materials in my personal practice (and attempting to avoid them in my word count).

Two of the focal points of the vegan make-up movement is Carnauba and Candellia: plant derived waxes. Whether they are surrounded by petrochemicals, synthetic polymers or cleaner beauty ingredients, unfortunately the quality of these products and the extent of their effect on the environment is not determined by their veganism. 

This first came to my attention a few years ago at a meeting with fellow green practitioner Khandiz as she described her research findings for an installation that traced the ingredients of a lipstick. (8)  These apparently-etymologically-reassuring vegan waxes (Latin-roots) have been exposed as problematic in various ways, for example the famous 2017 Carnauba wax investigation by the German Television programme Markencheck found it being harvested in slave conditions. And still, in response to my questions about their wax sources, various suppliers remain mysterious.  I vow to keep busy-bodying (via the contact/enquires forms) until it becomes fashionable/normal to have information on product websites and Asterixes next to the word with more specifics on the journey of this ingredient from leaf *to face.

Whether they are surrounded by petrochemicals, synthetic polymers or cleaner beauty ingredients, unfortunately the quality of these products and the extent of their effect on the environment is not determined by their veganism.

I agree that the mainstream, Fordist plunder of animals and the teet-sucking, mascara-rabbit-eyeball situations: are disgusting. Moore and Kosut talk about the concept of engagement and disengagement from a vegan/ethical perspective with reference to bees. (9)

They cite disengagement from bees as an impossibility explaining that the bee workforce and mainstream agricultural practice are inextricable. Everyone has different reasons for engaging in ‘green consumerism’ but to buy vegan make-up, whilst eating a bacon sandwich and glugging on almond milk (10) ??? (11) The historical and political arena of make-up should be fiercely protected from symbolic green consumerism. Greenwashed (12). Veganwashed (13). Divided, ruled and confused, but so many people are trying to do the same thing; healthy planet Earth and healthy planet Face and being plundered by micro and macro capitalism. When something repulses us, we can choose to avoid it or to engage.  

I learnt about bees via my mother’s Nigerian storytelling tradition, passing on tales from her matrimonial Norfolk family. Long-dead Horace Riley (beekeeping grandfather) had to “tell the bees” when Julie Riley (great-grandmother) died. If one didn’t follow this tradition of old European folklore and “tell the bees” about important events then it was believed that they would die or flee. I do understand that one can engage with something without eating it. However there is a long standing symbiosis between humans and honey bees, that has been forgotten by the industrial honey industry and ‘non-animal’ polinator-reliant crops. For us consumers, once again, the answer is in the questions.

The longer the answer the better. I received a whole blog post from Kjaer Weis tracking this ingredient. I also received a whole pdf from Weleda; natural bark hives, equilibrium with varroa mite (normally chemical warfare), fair trade for villagers, no antibiotics. Forest protection programs intertwined. Public knowledge.

All this stuff (ethics/sustainability/consciousness) often seems like it’s about getting on one’s highest horse. But it’s actually just about knowing a bit more; moving away from 80s/90s generation teen-high-school dramas where the nerds were uncool and the cool people were stupid has and is morphing into a new generation of passionate topic-focused cyber-boffins. (14)

I personally like learning the details (gory or lovely) of the stuff I’m putting on people’s faces. Marketers gather knowledge on human activities, where possible from birth, via parental posts. All just so they know a bit more.  So it’s OK for us beauty consumers to track and find out the true ‘beauty’ of our purchases. A shift in the space of public knowledge from the formulators to the teenagers at parties and glamorous grannies, drag activists who know exactly what’s on their faces and how it engages with the world.


1. The strip-cleanse theory seems to gradually have become outdated. I always favour oil/balm cleansers (De Mamiel or Crude) using the power of heat/steam/water/cloth to cleanse, even for acne prone skin.
2. Trivedi, P, Nguyen, N, Linn Hykkerud, A, Häggman, H, Martinussen, I, Jaakola, L & Karppinen, K. 2019. MINI REVIEW Developmental and Environmental Regulation of Cuticular Wax Biosynthesis in Fleshy Fruits. Frontiers in Plant Science. 10. 10.3389/fpls.2019.00431.
3. Dr. Hauschka, a leader in careful skincare formulation uses quince wax in their Eye Crayon Duo.
4. Paraffin Wax is a derivative of crude oil, adding value to the petrochemical industry. It does not contain the beneficial properties (anti-antioxidant, anti-bacterial, leneloic/olielic acids, vitamins E and A) of cold pressed or cold extracted natural oils and waxes. Instead it contains hydrocarbons which are biologically inactive (we hope… still testing), so although it moisturises in the short-term, it cannot deliver improved long-term moisturising like that of natural alternatives. This is why lips treated with petroleum derived products seem to need continued treatment.
5. Synthetic Wax is not a derivative of drilling. It is formulated in labs.
6. Microcrystalline wax, not to be confused with mircocrylatine cellulose which is derived from wood.
7. Swapped in the hives for fake honey, and very stacked hives means workers work extra hard. Bleached wax pesticide contamination via pollen, antibiotics and chemicals. Bees vulnerable to mites. Citation: The Vegan Beekeeper.
8. Khandis’s installation later went up in the Content Beauty shop window.
9. Moore, L J & Kosut, M. 2013. Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee. New York. New York University Press.
10. Brittain C, Kremen C, Garber A, Klein A-M. 2014. ‘Pollination and Plant Resources Change the Nutritional Quality of Almonds for Human Health.’ PLoS ONE 9(2): e90082. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0090082
11. New Scientist. (2018) ‘Living on the Veg. 10 Things you thought were Vegan but aren’t’ Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23731623-100-living-on-the-veg-10-things-you-thought-were-vegan-but-arent/
12. Greenwash: Deceptive claims for strategic sustainability. Kahraman, A, Kazançoğlu, İ. Understanding consumers’ purchase intentions toward natural‐claimed products: A qualitative research in personal care products. Bus Strat Env. 2019; 1– 16. https://doi.org/10.1002/bse.2312
13. Veganwash, fairly diffuse term. Many vegans consider Items such as sweatshop ‘vegan trainers’ to fit this category or vegan make-up brands owned by larger pro animal testing beauty conglomerates or even the smaller, trendy ‘vegan’ and ‘cruelty-free’ make-up brands with glittery products containing polyethylene terephthalate (standard cosmetic glitter).   
14. Imagined options for teenagers: GCSE Food Tech Foodgrade Topical Selfcare/Skincare GCSE Chemistry Make-up Formulation. GCSE Biology How our skin talks to us.
Photography Thomas Cooksey
Beauty Crystabel Riley
Hair Anna Chapman at Julian Watson using Session Kit
Styling Vincent levy
Model Aminat at Troy Agency
Beauty Assistance Madeleine Feeney
Styling Assistance Lily Austin