Sorry if you’re squeamish, but you need to know the truth about shellac – it’s an ingredient made from bugs that goes in your food. Oh yes, food chemists have found a way to sneak these critters into your favorite candy and even fruit. So, is there any chance it’s cruelty-free or vegan?
Shellac is not cruelty-free because it methodically kills lac bugs and eggs during harvesting. Shellac is also not vegan because it is an animal byproduct that exploits the lac bug.
Depending on who you are – you might associate shellac with the home depo product or the nail polish brand. Either way, the name rings a bell because it’s a common additive in many things.
But there are a few catches. Firstly, shellac is hardly ever listed as an ingredient. (So good luck if you’re vegan!) Secondly, this little-known ingredient has garnered reports of dangerous working conditions and alarming chemicals being used before it makes its way to the end user.
So how can we detect it? And are there cruelty-free or vegan alternatives that we choose instead? We bring ethical options to you.
Is Shellac Cruelty-Free?
You need to kill about 100 00 lac bugs to produce about 1lb of shellac flakes.
So, no, shellac is not cruelty-free.
But why are we killing millions of bugs and stuffing them into things like our food and building materials, to begin with?
What makes the lac bug so unique?
What is Shellac?
Shellac is a byproduct of the lac bug. These critters secrete a lac resin to encase and protect their eggs and end up encasing themselves in the process. This lac secretion hardens on contact with air to form a reddish-orange color that is glossy and extremely tough.
The shellac product, as we know it, is basically refined lac resin that we collect by killing the lac, the bugs, and their eggs.
Lac bugs are also considered parasites. They feed off trees (their host) by draining them of all their sap until the trees die. This helps them make resin, which then kills coated parts of the tree.
To this day, farmers still consider lac bugs a pest and nuisance (understandable).
But is the new thing to kill these bugs for their resin in vengeance?
Ancient Indian and Chinese civilizations have been making shellac for thousands of years.
Its long and interesting history shows that shellac made its way along the silk road as far back as the 13th century. At this time, shellac was refined by hand in a much more intricate and slow process.
Modern-day harvesting for shellac is intense labor, and there are concerns about working conditions. The current shellac refining processes usually involve harsh chemicals or bleaches that are not good for the environment.
So, wait – how is it made?
How is Shellac Made?
There are over 300 different types of trees that host the lac beetles between India, Thailand, China, and Mexico.
Workers cut off tree branches covered by beetles to get the lac resin. Luckily, the branches also become a production byproduct, so at least it’s not wasteful.
Once the resin is scrapped off the branches, it’s ground down, sifted, and refined.
Unfortunately, refining shellac into a usable product means rinsing, drying, and mixing the resin pieces with a solvent, usually with ethyl alcohol, which isn’t great for the environment.
At this point, the shellac is bug-free, but the final stage is to bleach it so that its natural reddish color fades away and it becomes entirely transparent.
And that is how we coat fruit, candy, and medication.
But we’ve just spoken about some hectic chemical processes that are hard on people and the environment.
So, beyond the evident beetle cruelty – harvesting shellac is an issue for many reasons. Here’s what you need to consider.
Why is it Cruel to Harvest Shellac?
Historically, shellac was used for Ayurvedic treatments (the traditional ancient Indian medicinal system) and done in keeping with principles of non-harming.
We can assume this meant going to efforts to chip away lac resin around eggs and not killing lac beetles as far as possible.
This would have taken a long time as the lac resin's whole purpose is protecting future generations of lac bugs while they are in eggs. So, it would have taken long and yielded less lac resin. Talk about dedication to the cause!
This is not the case anymore.
So many lac insects are removed in the shellac harvesting process that producers have to artificially reintroduce female beetles to trees to ensure future crops.
Modern harvesting is more about being time and price efficient. Sometimes, at the cost of working conditions on shellac plantations too. There was a time when workers had to climb trees to access branches coated in resin.
There have also been reports of child labor.
Indian Shellac Industry and Child Labor
India is the world’s largest exporter of shellac – and they’ve been caught red-handed using child labor in the production process.
The Indian Government wanted to change this, and shellac was one of the industries listed in the 1986 Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation Act).
However, without correct planning or providing families with alternative earning opportunities – activities involving child labor are often forced underground when bans are enforced.
In 2010, an Anti-Slavery International report alleged that seven-year-olds were among some of the minors working 14-hour days for less than $1.
At the time of the report, India produced 18 000 metric tons of unrefined shellac each year.
Child labor is a huge issue to regulate in other industries, like mica. You can find out about mica’s ethics and sustainability here.
Even for adults, shellac is often a ‘cottage industry’ in India that is difficult to regulate. The work is often hazardous, without protective gear. Conditions can be unsanitary, with low pay and underrepresentation.
Evidently, shellac is not cruelty-free for the beetles or the people. But it’s technically not made from the lac bugs themselves.
So, could we consider it vegan?
Is Shellac Vegan?
There are often things that are cruelty-free but not vegan – like ethically harvested beeswax.
But can something ever be vegan if it isn’t cruelty-free?
We’re up for the debate – but we say no! The definition of veganism is avoiding all animal byproducts, not just in diet but also in lifestyle.
Shellac is an animal byproduct.
Plus, industrialization has made it an ill-gotten gain that causes unnecessary death to insects. So, there’s no way this ingredient could be considered vegan.
Refining shellac includes sifting to remove bugs and lac eggs from the final product. Yet, Shefexil, a shellac promotion council, estimates that 25% of shellac is made of insect debris.
Insect debris means the parts of lac bugs and their eggs that couldn’t be sifted out.
This means shellac can’t be considered vegetarian, either!
Should vegans have a moral concern about insects? Well, speciesism aside, studies have proven that insects feel pain.
And we saw that the shellac farming process does mess with the lac beetle life cycle to such an extent that female beetles are artificially reintroduced to trees for future yields. This is in addition to the human suffering already covered.
If you’re vegan for the environment – it doesn’t get any better.
The Environmental Impact of Harvesting Shellac
Because it’s a renewable resource, shellac could be considered less harmful to the environment than other ingredients that are petrochemical-based (or nonrenewable).
However, monoculture is always an environmental worry. Most of the trees used for shellac farming have decades-long lifespans in natural settings, but introducing this parasitic insect can interfere with the trees’ growth.
But if demands for shellac increase, it could become a crop that requires more land, causing potential deforestation.
What’s more concerning for sustainability is the chemical processing to refine shellac.
Liquifying shellac uses ethyl alcohol which causes large-scale habitat destruction and acts as a greenhouse gas—a double whammy.
Now that we've terrified you into never wanting to use shellac again – how can you avoid it if it’s hardly listed as an ingredient?
Where Will You Find Shellac?
Are you worried that you may have accidentally nibbled on something with shellac, swiped it over your nails, or had it in your cleaning supplies?
We can help you be more discerning the next time you shop.
Shellac is commonly found in the following products:
Yes, that’s a lot of things that are impossible to avoid. But there are key ways to recognize shellac when it's used.
What is Shellac Used for in Food?
What Products Use Shellac?
Shellac may go under the name E904, ‘confectioner’s glaze, or ‘resinous glaze.’ Sometimes it's labeled as ‘orange shellac’ or ‘lemon shellac,’ which could be assumed to be plant-based but no… that’s more to do with its color.
Shellac is often in nail polish, mascara, lipstick, shampoos, and hairsprays.
Household products like wood varnishes, furniture polish, glue, tapes, paper coatings, and aluminum foil coatings can contain shellac. This ingredient could also be lurking in paints and printing inks.
Shellac is used to coat pills and tablets in the pharmaceutical industry. It’s sometimes a component in agricultural grade fertilizer where it’s prized as a slow-release coating for nutrients that soil needs.
So if you see one of these items and shellac is not listed as an ingredient – your best bet is always to reach out to the manufacturer before buying.
Are There Beetles in Shellac Nails?
For all the nail lovers out there that are obsessed with the nail care brand Shellac? Do you need to stop using that too? Is that filled with, um, Beetlejuice?
Shellac manufacturer CND states that they took inspiration from shellac as an ingredient but created a synthetic alternative in their gel polish.
YES! It’s safe!
This is intended to give the benefits of shellac, like its hard, shiny surface, with no bugs.
However, CND Shellac is owned by Revlon and doesn’t share any animal-testing policies.
In this case, a plant-based ingredients list might not mean cruelty-free.
So, what are your ethical options?
What Are Ethical Alternatives to Shellac?
If you want to avoid shellac, here are some ways to start:
What could replace shellac in products that need a hard or shiny coating?
Zein is a corn-based alternative to shellac. It’s vegan and has many other benefits like; being more cost-effective, clean label, all-natural, Kosher, and Halaal.
This all helps with its cosmetics, food, and biomedical applications. It’s free from gluten, lactose, sugar, and GMOs, with many applications, including agriculture and pharmaceuticals.
Zein also has a better shelf life and higher humidity resistance than shellac.
We have shellac to thank for the preservation of masterpieces in both Asia and Europe. And when shellac is made by hand using age-old techniques, there is more respect for the lac beetles and the environment.
However, the industrialization of shellac exploits not just insects but people and communities too. It’s a pity that the handcraft and ancient knowledge used in shellac eons ago have been abandoned for mass production.
If those techniques were still revered and the artisans involved were fairly paid – this conversation would be very different.
Finding alternative income for the people working in the shellac is essential as we ask brands to move towards vegan, cruelty-free alternatives that are out there.