What Is Shellac? Uses in the Beauty Industry and Environmental Concerns

Pile of glossy brown shellac flakes

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Shellac is a refined version of lac, a resin secreted by lac insects. Coveted for its binding abilities and glossy appearance, the material is present in a range of personal care products and cosmetics. Shellac is used to add shine to nail polish and hair spray, bind mascara, emulsify moisturizers, and protect fragrances from oxidation.

Today, commercial shellac comes from plantations in India and Thailand, which together produce 1,700 metric tons of the substance every year.

Shellac is controversial not only because it systematically kills lac bugs that get caught in the harvesting process but also because it's usually mixed with ethyl alcohol, which yields a nasty byproduct.

Here's everything you should know about the little-understood glazing agent and its environmental footprint.

Products That Contain Shellac

Known as a natural lacquer and binder, shellac can be found in the following beauty products: 

  • Hair spray
  • Hair color and bleaching
  • Eyeliner and mascara
  • Nail polish
  • Fragrance
  • Moisturizer

How Is Shellac Made?

Lac bugs and their red-orange resin covering tree branch

Katja Schulz / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Lac is secreted by female lac bugs, most commonly of the species Kerria lacca. The bugs are actually parasitical and can be hosted by more than 300 species of trees throughout India, Thailand, China, and Mexico. Among these trees are those in the pea family, Indian jujubes, soapberries, hibiscus species, and the Barbados nut. Today, about 90% of lac comes from palash (Butea monosperma), ber (Ziziphus mauritiana), and kusum (Schleichera) trees.

The lac bugs suck sap from the bark, knowingly feeding to death, while simultaneously laying up to 1,000 eggs over a five-week period. The sap undergoes a chemical transformation in their bodies so that when it's secreted, it hardens on contact with the air and creates a protective shell around the eggs. That hard shell is what's harvested to make shellac. 

Plantation workers cut off entire chunks of branches coated in the stuff—the branches are a product themselves, called sticklac—and send them to refineries to be scraped off, ground down, and screened to remove dead insects and wood debris.

After rinsing, drying, being melted into a liquid, and drying again, the amorphous substance is liquified using a solvent (usually ethyl alcohol).

Lac naturally has a red-orange tint that is somewhat removed during the refining process. Still, the final shellac product is not entirely clear and must be mixed with sodium hypochlorite—pure bleach—to remove residual color. The resulting white powder is preferred for cosmetics over the original red-orange lac. 

Environmental Impact

Up-close photo of lac bug resin on twigs

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The trees on which lac bugs most commonly feed grow profusely in Thailand and India. On the IUCN Red List, each is logged as a species of least concern.

As with any tree crop, environmental concerns spring from monoculture and trees' year-round reliance on water. The trees grown on lac plantations live for tens of years and can be slow-growing, unable to withstand the stress of a parasite for the first decade.

As for the bugs, they also occur profusely in these parts. Although they're perceived as pests when they degrade Indian jujube fruit crops, they're a key food source for moths. Moths are, of course, beneficial to bird populations and pollinator plants, but it doesn't seem as though either species is suffering. The average lac bug lives for about six months.

The environmental impact of lac manufacturing has been compared to that of silk. It's what happens after the lac is harvested that has the greatest effects.

The ethyl alcohol often used to liquify shellac is considered a volatile organic compound. VOCs are bad for the environment because they act as greenhouse gases, and the production of ethanol—in particular—has been linked to large-scale habitat destruction.

Is Shellac Vegan?

Traditional shellac is not considered vegan as it exploits lac bugs for their lacquer-like secretions.

However, the glossiness of shellac is sometimes replicated through chemical processes and still marketed as shellac even though it doesn't come from insects. For instance, the nail polish brand CND has patented a gel-polish hybrid called shellac that's inspired by the shine and resiliency of the natural resin but is instead made of solvents, monomers, and polymers.

Gloved hand holding freshly painted nails

Natalia POGODINA / Getty Images

Other vegan shellac alternatives are made from a corn protein called zein. Like shellac, zein can be used to create a glossy finish and even has the same moisturizing and encapsulation properties. Zein is believed to be more environmentally friendly because it's a byproduct of corn starch handling rather than a primary crop. 

Zein is naturally clear, odorless, and tasteless, so the end user doesn't need to employ any sort of chemical bleaching process. The plant-based glaze is becoming a common shellac alternative in food and furniture but not yet cosmetics.

Is Shellac Cruelty Free?

Shellac is also not considered cruelty free because the production of it inherently destroys insects and their eggs. According to PETA, almost 100,000 bugs die to produce a pound of shellac flakes. And we know from various studies that insects do feel pain.

It can be difficult to tell whether shellac is natural (i.e., animal-based) or synthetic because even products containing natural shellac can be labeled cruelty free. The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees cosmetics safety, does not define or regulate the term, and the Leaping Bunny Program points out that cruelty free doesn't always mean vegan. 

If a brand doesn't disclose whether its shellac is animal-based or synthetic, it's most likely animal-based and therefore not cruelty free.

Can Shellac Be Ethically Sourced?

Lac has been used as an ayurvedic herb for centuries. In ancient times, it was supposedly gathered from trees in the wild without exploiting or harming lac bug populations.

Today, some suppliers of ayurvedic herbs claim to sell shellac that's been harvested by Indigenous groups using primitive methods involving hearthstones and charcoal ovens rather than industrial machines. However, wild-harvested shellac is hard to find, and making sure Indigenous groups are treated and paid fairly is a whole other story.

Concerns Around Poor Working Conditions

Historically, there has been some concern surrounding worker conditions on shellac plantations. Even though lac bugs are given access to only about half of the tree (to prevent the whole tree from becoming too weak), plantation workers used to have to physically climb to reach the resin.

Today, there isn't much insight into the shellac industry beyond the occasional claim that it uses child labor. Shellac manufacturing was one of the 25 occupations where child labor was prohibited by India's Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986. However, a report from 2010 showed that shellac factories still employed underage workers more than 20 years after the ruling.

In the 2010 report, a Delhi factory was exposed for employing a 7-year-old to work 14 hours a day making a meager $.01 an hour. At the time of reporting, it estimated that 50,000 children were working illegally just in India's capital territory.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What are the benefits of shellac?

    Shellac is used so commonly for cosmetics, furniture finish, and food glaze because it's strong, versatile, and binding.

    In cosmetics, personal care products, and fragrances, it helps retain fragrance and keep oil and water from separating. In hair styling products, it holds by preventing the hair from absorbing moisture.

  • Is shellac sustainable?

    Many in the shellac industry say the product is sustainable because lac is a renewable resource and lac bugs—and their host trees—occur abundantly throughout Asia.

    However, the global demand for shellac is growing and, eventually, the plantations could be driven to expand into currently undeveloped areas, resulting in deforestation.

  • What other names does shellac go by?

    Shellac may be labeled as laccifer lacca, lac, resinous glaze, or confectioner's glaze.

  • Is shellac safe to use?

    The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel has assessed shellac and deemed it safe for use in beauty products at concentrations no greater than 6%.

View Article Sources
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