For the last several decades, plant-based has been a huge buzz phrase in the world of natural skincare, and in the wellness community as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong – plants are incredible. They have extraordinary healing + medicinal benefits, which is why we use so many of them in our products!
Animal-based ingredients, on the other hand, also have powerful benefits. But unlike plant-based ingredients, they have unfortunately largely been left out, undervalued, and often vilified in the clean beauty industry.
Just as animal ingredients are a rich source of bioavailable nutrients in the diet (if you’re on the fence, check out the chart in this post that compares the nutrient density of beef liver to that of other foods), the same is true for the animal-based ingredients we use (or should be using) on our skin.
In this article, we’ll dig into the history of animal-based ingredients in skincare, the unique set of nutrients that animal-based ingredients contain (hint – they’re different from what you’ll find in plant-based ingredients), why animal-based ingredients are so compatible with our own biology, and the environmental benefits (yes, I said benefits!) of raising animals in a regenerative manner.
Let’s dive in!
Animal-based ingredients were revered by our ancestors.
Our ancestors ascribed to a nose-to-tail philosophy when it came to using animal products. Each part of the animal was used and valued. Doing so was a way of showing honor and respect for the lives of the animals that gave them life.
In addition to eating animal meat and organs, our ancestors used animal fats in cooking, candle-making and in medicinal salves.
Emu oil was commonly used by the Australian aborigines on skin that was inflamed, dry or sun burnt. Tallow has also been a common skincare staple of our ancestors for untold generations.
What is tallow, you ask? Tallow is a form of animal fat from ruminant animals (like cows or sheep) that has been rendered from the interior fat tissue (suet) of the animal after it has been processed. During the rendering process, the suet is gently heated, causing the pure oils to melt away from the rest of the tissue. Those pure oils then solidify to form tallow!
Along with the healthy fats in food, tallow fell out of fashion in the 50’s and 60’s during the advent of the low-fat movement pushed by the food industry in tandem with government recommendations.
Thankfully, healthy fats are back in style and tallow has been put back in its rightful place (one that it has maintained throughout history prior to the 1950’s) as a fat that is incredibly nourishing and good for us, internally and externally.
In a book of “recipes” for all facets of life, written by Dr. A.W. Chase, MD in 1866, ten formulations of salve are listed – eight of which contain tallow (in addition to other natural ingredients).
Additionally, the graphic below shows a tallow salve that was available on the market in 1985.
So although tallow may sound foreign or new to many of us, it’s an ingredients that has truly stood the test of time!
Animal-based ingredients contain a unique set of nutrients.
Plants and animals nourish our bodies in different ways on the inside, and the same is true of our exterior (a.k.a. the skin)!
Grass-fed Tallow, in particular, contains high concentrations of Vitamins A, D, E and K. These nutrients are not naturally found in anywhere near the same concentrations in plants – and certainly not in such a bioavailable form, given that they are paired so perfectly with their fat-soluble activators found in tallow.
These nutrients are key for skin health + healing – here’s why!
- Vitamin A – Encourages the production of collagen, elastin and healthy skin cells + strengthens tissue to keep skin firm, smooth and youthful while helping to heal skin issues from acne to aging.
- Vitamin D – Contributes to skin cell development, repair, metabolism and immune function + protects and rejuvenates skin by protecting against free radicals that cause premature aging.
- Vitamin E – Powerful antioxidant that repairs and reverses free radical damage + deeply hydrates and promotes healing in the skin’s appearance.
- Vitamin K – Plays an important role in skin tone, texture and overall health + soothes skin inflammation and irritations while helping to speed up the healing process.
Grass-fed tallow also contains Vitamin E (four times as much as grain-fed cows!), conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which is anti-inflammatory as well as palmitoleic acid which has natural antimicrobial properties.
Animal-based ingredients are compatible with our own biology.
In his book, Carnivore Code, Dr. Paul Saladino discusses the idea that plants and animals have different operating systems, and that our bodies are able to better utilize the nutrients found in animals because their operating system is recognized by our own. He writes, “Animals provide a much more compatible framework for human nutrition based on their similar design.”
Putting all thoughts and ideas about the carnivore diet aside, Saladino brings up an interesting point – especially in the context of tallow and its compatibility with our skin at a biochemical level.
Tallow is incredibly effective in improving the health of our skin cells due to the similar makeup it has to our skin. Our cell membranes are made up of mostly fatty acids, with at least 50% being saturated fats. Tallow is also made up of about 50% saturated fats, making it compatible with our cell biology and powerfully nourishing for our cell health.
Another indication of its positive impact on our skin is it’s similarity to sebum (the oily, waxy substance that moisturizes, lubricates and protects the skin).
Sebum even translates to “tallow” in Latin!
Raising animals the right way is good for the planet.
My argument on the importance of using animal-based ingredients in skincare wouldn’t be complete without addressing a common objection to anything animal-based: the environment.
This subject is big enough to fill an entire book (check out Sacred Cow) or documentary (Kiss the Ground is an amazing one), but I’ll do my best to provide a brief run-down!
Of the very small percentage of greenhouse gasses that beef cattle production is responsible for in the U.S. (about 2% according to the EPA – less than half the amount of plant agriculture), regenerative agriculture is rarely considered as part of the equation.
But there’s an important distinction that must be made between animals raised unnaturally in feedlots and animals raised outside on grass, as nature intended.
The former is bad for the animal, bad for the humans who consume/use it, and bad for the planet.
Well-raised animals are none of those things. In sharp contrast, when animals are raised according to regenerative agriculture practices (a style of farming that mimics the natural patterns of animals in the wild through rotational grazing), more carbon is sequestered into the soil than is released into the atmosphere – resulting in a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.
Hence the name, regenerative agriculture goes beyond sustainability in that it actually regenerates the health of the planet. Grazing animals outside has been proven to restore biodiversity in soil, allowing it to increase its carbon-carrying capacity.
Mono-crop agriculture (responsible for around 5% of greenhouse gasses) and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) serve the opposite purpose by damaging the soil and contributing to our planet’s greenhouse gas emissions.
In his popular Ted Talk How To Green The World’s Deserts and Reverse Climate Change (a must watch with nearly 4.5 million views!), Allen Savory, a world-renowned ecologist from Zimbabwe, discusses how animals are necessary for reversing climate change.
This talk from 2013 spearheaded much of the fast-growing regenerative agriculture movement that we’re seeing today, but there’s still so much work that needs to be done. We can all do our part in supporting this movement by purchasing meat from regenerative farms and by using skincare products that contain ingredients from well-raised animals.
Not all animal-based ingredients are created equal, and the unethical + unhealthful nature of factory farming is not something I can get behind. On the flip side, animal-based ingredients from well-raised animals have been used in skincare for thousands of years. They contain unique nutrients in a bioavailable form easily recognized by our own skin cells, making these animal fats an important part of any skincare routine.