You may well be used to reading the word ‘lanolin’ on various non-vegan cosmetics and toiletries, especially any product that is applied directly to your skin. But what some people are not yet aware of is the many other ways that this particular animal-based ingredient creeps into food and even dietary supplements, including that magical but mysterious hormone that we call Vitamin D.
Considering all the fuss around Vitamin D recommendations (which are of particular concern for our friends living in cooler climates where it’s difficult to self-generate enough Vitamin D through appropriate sun exposure), we thought it was important to try to clear up some of the confusion. Hopefully the information presented here will help to demystify the issue and demonstrate that adequate levels of vitamin D are perfectly obtainable without sacrificing one’s principles.
As anyone who has practiced veganism for a considerable amount of time is no doubt aware, our material culture is saturated with animal-derived products. For new vegans, this can seem daunting, but with a little research you can make informed choices aligned with your ethics. This is not simply a quest for personal purity (though for many of us that is a perfectly valid aspiration), it’s about understanding the extent to which our daily actions indirectly contribute to animal suffering, and doing the best we can to diminish our part in their exploitation.
What is Lanolin?
Lanolin is a waxy substance derived from sheep’s wool, and is sometimes referred to as wool wax, wool grease and, less frequently, wool fat.
In nature, the lanolin that sheep secrete makes their wool water-resistant and protects their coats from the environment. Lanolin is a byproduct of wool farming (an inherently cruel industry) and is gathered after the sheep has been shorn. The fleece is cleaned through a process called scouring, in which it is submerged in a hot detergent solution. The lanolin is then collected from the solution by high-speed centrifugation.
How is Lanolin used?
The human uses of lanolin are very similar to the sheep’s. It is used as an emollient in cosmetics, skin care, hair care, toiletries, and personal care products. It is also a common ingredient in medicine, especially dermatological agents. And it can also be used as a food additive, e.g. as a base for chewing gum, which is often simply referred to as ‘gum base’.
Derivatives of lanolin include Aliphatic Alcohols, Cholesterin, Isopropyl Lanolate, Laneth, Lanogene, Lanolin Alcohols, Lanosterols, Sterols, and Triterpene Alcohols.
Because of its ubiquity, lanolin and its derivatives may initially seem hard to avoid. However, there are many vegan options available for toiletries and personal care products from online vegan stores and health food stores.
Note: The consumer should also be aware that “cruelty-free” does not necessarily mean “free of animal products,” so it’s still important to read the label. Items that proclaim themselves “cruelty-free” generally refer to animal testing, but do not refer to the exclusion of animal ingredients..
Lanolin and Vitamin D
One of the medicinal uses of lanolin is in the manufacture of Vitamin D. The body uses this vitamin to assist in calcium absorption, and low levels of D are also associated with a higher rate of cancer. There are two forms of vitamin D; D2 (ergocalciferol), which is found in plants, and D3 (cholecalciferol), which the bodies of animals (including ours) make when the skin is exposed to sunlight.
According to some sources, D2 from plants does not fulfill our bodies’ requirements, making D3 essential for optimum health (one of many good reasons to engage in responsible sunbathing). However, thankfully for those living in colder climates, newer research has demonstrated that “smaller, sustained doses” of D2 are just as acceptable.
Vegan Registered Dietitian Brenda Davis provides a comprehensive yet easy-to-read explanation of Vitamin D, including a discussion of the differences between D2 and D3. Her conclusion is simple:
“… vegans who seek out vitamin D2 in order to avoid animal products may need to consume greater amounts to get the same benefit as what is provided by vitamin D3.”
(Read Davis’ article for more specifics about recommended doses.).
Vitamin D Supplements – Vegan or Not?
A number of common foods are enriched with vitamin D without specifying which form of the vitamin they contain or how it was derived. And, as opaque as this may already seem, some companies that manufacture and distribute vitamin D supplements have demonstrably confused ideas of what the term vegan actually means. Garden of Life’s website, for example, very proudly declares that their company embraces the mission of the Vegan Society, while explaining on the very same webpage that their D3 “has been synthesized from animal cholesterol, primarily lanolin.”
Note: There is another brand with a very similar name that actually IS vegan. Source of Life Garden™ Vitamin D3 is, in fact, vegan, as verified by their customer support staff.
This unfortunately does not appear to be an isolated incident. Vegan RD Jack Norris has identified at least two other companies that may have provided misleading information about their products. Megafoods has claimed that their Vitamin D supplements are vegan, but it appears that they have since abrogated the claim. LifeGive Sun D is advertised by UpayaNaturals and Alive Raw as vegan D3, but provides no information regarding its manufacture and has not responded to our inquiries.
The Vegetarian Resource Group looked into this issue further, interviewing scientists and biotech experts to ascertain whether synthesized D3 must necessarily be derived from animal ingredients. They found that an alternative does indeed exist. In the early nineties, Amoco BioProducts of Illinois produced a “mutant yeast-derived provitamin D3” which is most commonly used in poultry feed because it “ameliorates the effects of leg bone deformation while maintaining weight gain during the rearing process.” In case you missed it: the vegan D3 is manufactured to support industrial animal farming. It is not commonly used in human products, and one of VRG’s sources surmises that this is likely because lanolin is so readily available that there is no incentive to adopt alternative methods. This is another reason for vegans to contact companies and let them know we’re seeking plant-based options...
Vegan Sources of Vitamin D3
We can now proudly report that since VRG’s inquiry, you can now find vegan Vitamin D3 supplements that are genuinely vegan! Vitashine has clarified prior research demonstrating that D3 can be derived from lichen. They offer a candid explanation of their supplements here. Also, as mentioned above, Source of Life Garden™ Vitamin D3 is vegan, though it is important not to confuse this product with the non-vegan product from Garden of Life.
Obviously there’s a lot of partial information or simple misinformation that can obstruct our responsible judgment. But we can gladly conclude that you can get all the Vitamin D you need on a vegan diet.
Let’s sum up:
- Vitamin D2 is always vegan, and recent research has shown it can be just as effective as nonvegan forms of D3.
- Most D3 supplements are not vegan, but Vitashine now offers a truly vegan D3 supplement developed from lichen.
- You can also hang out under the sun to meet your daily requirements. The time you need to spend outside varies based on location and skin tone. Read this article for more information about responsible sunbathing.
- Products fortified with Vitamin D may or may not be using the lanolin derivative. In these cases, it’s best to follow up with the manufacturer before making a purchase.