Can Contraceptives be Vegan? Important Considerations for Vegan Patients

The Vegan Society defines veganism as “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. Since veganism extends beyond just a diet for avoiding animal products, awareness of medication ingredients is also a component of this lifestyle, and patients may be curious at to where their contraceptives fit in.

Potential Uncertainties in Contraceptives

Two inactive ingredients commonly found in hormonal contraceptives which could be considered problematic for vegans are lactose and magnesium stearate. Lactose can act as a filler, a diligent powder, or as an acid in medications and magnesium stearate acts as a lubricant during tablet processing and improves medication solubility. The source of these ingredients, and the status of whether they are vegan can be cloudy. Traditionally, lactose is derived from cow’s milk via bovine rennet extraction, but it can also be produced synthetically. Similarly, magnesium stearate is typically rendered from the fat of cows, pigs, and sheep, however it can now be produced from vegetable matter. Although these ingredients can be found on the medication label, their source is not stated.

Authors of The BMJ article, Why Can’t All Drugs Be Vegetarian? found that differentiation between vegetarian and non-vegetarian lactose was poor as materials involved and the process of manufacturing was often not available. Upon contacting manufactures of lactose-containing products, they found there was uncertainty as to whether medications were suitable for vegetarians or vegans. Because of this, the authors point to clearer labeling requirements as a necessity for understanding animal content in medications.

Patient Considerations

If a patient feels that their personal definition of veganism involves avoiding ingredients such as lactose in their hormonal contraceptives, there are alternatives contraceptive options such as condoms (look for non-latex brands such as Glyde and Sir Richard’s), IUDs, the Ortho Evra patch, vaginal rings, the implant, or the Depo-Provera injection. However, it is important to note that hormones themselves are also often derived from animals. Additionally, all products, even the ones made without animal-sourced ingredients, are tested on animal subjects before they can progress to human testing and make it to market.

So, can a patient use contraceptives and still be considered vegan? The Vegan Society recommends avoiding medications that contain animal products but also re-emphasizes the ‘as far as practical and possible’ portion of their definition for what it means to be vegan. Since all oral contraceptives currently available contain lactose, most would agree that taking them falls under that category as there is no practical way that they can be completely vegan. “Sometimes, you may have no alternative to taking prescribed medication. Looking after yourself and other people enables you to be an effective advocate for veganism,” says The Vegan Society.

The Pharmacist’s Role

Lastly, the Vegan Society also reminds patients to “open up a conversation with your pharmacist or doctor” in regard to discussing the intersection of medications and veganism, and providers need to be prepared to have these conversations too. Initiating dialogue with patients about their dietary and lifestyle preferences can help with understanding what contraceptive methods they feel most comfortable and confident using and fitting into their vegan lifestyle. Pharmacists are in an optimal position to discuss the options relevant to veganism with patients by being knowledgeable about animal testing as well as active and inactive ingredients and their sources. Being proactive and having these conversations could prevent patients from stopping or changing medications that they feel do not align with their lifestyle, while helping improve adherence and satisfaction.

References:

  1. Tatham , Kate, and Kinesh Patel. “Why Can’t All Drugs Be Vegetarian?” BMJ, vol. 348, 8 Feb. 2014, pp. 18–20., (link).
  2. McKie, Joshua, and Sue Gough . “Is There a Lactose-Free Oral Contraceptive?” UK Medicines Information, 3 Aug. 2016, (link).
  3. Fry, Samantha. “Is My Medication Vegan?” The Vegan Society, 13 Oct. 2017, (link).
  4. “List of Animal-Free Medications.” The Vegan Society, (link).
  5. “Definition of Veganism.” The Vegan Society, (link).
  6. Barclay, Eliza. “Is Your Medicine Vegan? Probably Not.” NPR, NPR, 15 Mar. 2013, (link).

About the Author

Niamh O’Grady, PharmD Candidate, is a pharmacy student in the Class of 2021 at the University of California San Francisco School of Pharmacy

Reviewed by Breanna Failla, PharmD Candidate and Brooke Griffin, PharmD, BCACP