There’s a lot of mis-information and confusion around the phrase “cruelty-free” and what it actually means.
I know when I became vegan and began researching animal testing, that I was totally overwhelmed by all of the information out there. While I knew how bad animal testing is, what I didn’t realise is just how many big cosmetic companies do still test on animals.
So I decided to write this guide as a one-stop-shop to everything cruelty-free, in an easy and digest-able format.
This guide will cover the definition of “cruelty-free”, what animal testing is (and why it’s so bad), the requirements for a brand to be cruelty-free, what to watch out for when brands say they’re “cruelty-free” but still test on animals, and how to actually shop cruelty-free with confidence.
What does “cruelty-free” mean?
To get us started, the most widely accepted definition of cruelty-free is:
Cruelty-Free = the product and its ingredients haven’t been tested on animals, and isn’t sold in places where animal testing is required by law
To summarise, a cruelty-free company doesn’t test on animals – under any circumstances.
It’s also important to note that cruelty-free only refers to the animal testing part of animal cruelty, which brings us onto my next point:
Side note: cruelty-free does not mean vegan
Many people think “cruelty-free” also means “vegan”, but in the world of beauty products, cruelty-free just means no animal testing has taken place.
If a product is labelled cruelty-free, it does not necessarily mean it’s vegan-friendly, and vice versa – a product can be “vegan” (contain no animal-derived ingredients like milk or beeswax), but still be tested on animals.
Now we’ve covered that important difference, let’s talk about animal testing:
So what actually is animal testing?
Animal testing is the practice of testing medication, cosmetics and other chemical-based products on animals, to establish whether the product and/or its ingredients are safe for human use. In the past, it’s often been a requirement for animal testing to have taken place before such products were allowed on the market.
New developments in the testing now mean animal testing isn’t the most accurate method of testing product safety, thanks to the invention of multiple technologically-advanced methods, including in-vitro testing and human skin models.
In addition to this, many animal toxicity tests aren’t even scientifically accurate because the genetic difference between humans and animals is quite big for research purposes.
There are also over 7,000 existing ingredients deemed “safe” that cosmetic companies can use to create and formulate their products. Because these ingredients have already been proven to be safe, they don’t need to be tested on animals.
Why do companies still test on animals?
Some companies still rely on the out-dated practice of animal testing because it’s often cheaper for them than the new methods mentioned above.
In other cases, companies themselves don’t test on animals, but either:
- contract a third-party to carry out animal testing on their behalf
- use ingredients suppliers who test new ingredients on animals
- submit their products to countries (e.g. China) where animal testing is mandatory, and is required so the products are deemed to be “safe” to sell in that particular market.
Which animals are used in tests?
The most common animals used in cosmetic toxicity tests are mice, rats, rabbits, guinea pigs and pigs. These animals often die from the experiments carried out on them.
For medical research, dogs are often used, with beagles being the most used breed because of their gentle nature.
Monkeys, macaques, baboons, chimpanzees and cats are also used in testing. These animals are more often that not used for disease-based testing, including AIDS and hepatitis.
But I thought animal testing was banned?
Animal testing has been banned in the European Union, Israel, Norway and India, and now Canada is also following suit.
There are often loopholes in these bans though. For example in the European Union, companies can still test their products or ingredients on animals – as long as they don’t do these tests or sell these products in the EU.
What’s the deal with China?
Companies wishing to sell products in stores in mainland China are required to submit their products to China’s health authorities so they can be tested to check if they’re “safe” or not.
These tests normally including animal testing, as the country’s laws require that the majority of beauty products sold there have to undergo animal testing before they can be deemed “safe” to be sold in stores.
Therefore, any brands selling in store in mainland China are NOT cruelty-free. This is important to note, as many large companies still sell in China while promoting themselves are cruelty-free.
There are a couple of exceptions that companies can use to bypass the animal-testing requirement:
- Companies can direct mail their products to Chinese customers, without the need for animal testing. This means a company can have a website that offers delivery/shipping to China from an overseas location (e.g. Europe or USA), and still be cruelty-free. If the company are selling their products in a store, they’re NOT cruelty-free, but if they just offer delivery to China, they can still qualify as cruelty-free.
- The animal-testing law only applies to mainland China, not Hong Kong (HK has different laws, and doesn’t require animal testing on products). So companies can legally import products to Hong Kong without animal testing taking place, where an agent there can direct mail to consumers in the Chinese mainland for personal use (i.e. the products then can’t be sold in a store).
Mainly cruelty-free companies choose not to sell in or to China however, as a protest against the cruelty of animal testing.
Some popular brands that do sell in stores in mainland China, and that therefore have animal-testing carried out on their products, are L’Oreal, MAC Cosmetics, Estée Lauder, Benefit and Maybelline.
You can check our list of Brands To Avoid to see which companies are still having animal-testing carried out on their products.
If a company was truly committed to being cruelty-free, they could simply decline to sell to the Chinese market. By selling in mainland China, these companies are effectively expressing that making more money (the Chinese cosmetics market is booming at the moment) is more important to them than not causing harm to animals.
If all cosmetics companies decided not to sell in China, it would likely prompt a change to the animal-testing requirement.
So how are these big companies still proclaiming to be cruelty-free?
Companies can add “cruelty-free” to their product packaging even when they test on animals. We know, right!
This is because there’s no legal definition or regulation of the terms “cruelty-free” and “not tested on animals”. Literally any company can add these claims to their products.
In addition to this, some companies also use the phrases “our products are not tested on animals” or “finished product has not been tested on animals”. This often means the ingredients of the product have still been tested on animals.
It’s a bit of a minefield isn’t it!
How do I tell if a company is actually cruelty-free then?
To qualify as cruelty-free, there are a few requirements that the brand and its products must satisfy:
1 – The finished product is not tested on animals
Nowadays, most companies don’t test their finished products on animals themselves. But they may use third parties, or test their finished products when required by law (i.e. mainland China). To be cruelty-free, the brands finished products must not have been tested on animals.
2 – The products ingredients are not tested on animals
As mentioned earlier, some companies still use phrases like “our products are not tested on animals” or “finished product has not been tested on animals” on their packaging. This can sometimes mean that although the finished product hasn’t been tested on animals, the product’s ingredients have.
There are a few scenarios in which testing ingredients on animals takes place:
- Some companies test ingredients on animals themselves
- Some companies contract a third-party to test for them
- Some companies work with external ingredient suppliers to formulate their products. These ingredient suppliers, which, as you can probably guess, supply companies with raw ingredients, sometimes test new and existing ingredients on animals to make sure they’re “safe” for human use.
If a cosmetics company buys ingredients from a supplier that tests on animals, then the company is not cruelty-free. Similarly, if a company tests on animals itself, or uses a third party to test for them, then they are not cruelty-free.
Companies that don’t (or won’t) check whether their suppliers test on animals also can’t be considered cruelty-free.
3 – The company does not use third parties to test products or ingredients on animals
As already covered in requirements 1 & 2, in order to qualify as cruelty-free, companies can’t contract third parties to test their products and/or ingredients on their behalf.
Some brands say “we don’t test on animals”, so it’s important to make sure they clarify their policy, and make sure their products aren’t tested on animals by themselves OR anyone else.
4 – The company does not submit their product to markets where animal testing required by law
As mentioned earlier in this guide, any company that sells in store in mainland China is not cruelty-free.
Companies are often very sneaky and word their “no animal testing” policies by saying they themselves do not carry out animal testing. This is phrased carefully, to try and sidestep that by submitting their products to be sold in places like China, they are funding and enabling third parties (like China’s health authorities) to carry out animal testing.
Bonus – Is the brands parent company also cruelty-free?
Some brands that are cruelty-free are owned by parent companies that test on animals. This doesn’t affect the brands cruelty-free status, but it could be argued that profits made by the cruelty-free brand are also driving profits for the parent company, and therefore funding animal testing.
An example of this is bareMinerals. bareMinerals is 100% cruelty-free, but the brand is owned by parent-company Shiseido – Shiseido do test on animals and the company also owns other brands that test on animals.
This is very subjective, and I’ve labelled it as a ‘bonus’ rather than a requirement, as it depends on your personal beliefs and what you feel comfortable with.
Here at Stylishly Vegan, we promote all vegan & cruelty-free companies, regardless of its parent company, but do give more prominence to independent brands.
Our reasoning is that if a parent company sees one of it’s cruelty-free brands doing exceptionally well, it’s likely it will deduce that it’s profits would increase if all of it’s brands were also cruelty-free.
Examples of cruelty-free policies
A good example of a cruelty-free policy that’s clear and concise is The Body Shop. Recently acquired by Natura, the brand states it’s animal testing policy in the FAQs section of Natura’s website:
Does Natura Operate A Fixed Cut-Off Date Animal Testing Policy?
Yes, Natura operates a fixed cut-off date animal testing policy. Since January 11th, 2006, Natura has banned animal testing for all its finished products and new ingredients developed exclusively by or for Natura. For new ingredients provided by external suppliers, our fixed cut-off-date is March 11th, 2013.
Does The Policy Apply Across All Natura-Owned Brands, Including Aesop And The Body Shop?
Yes. The Body Shop was the first global beauty brand to fight against animal testing in cosmetics and was the first company to be certified with the Leaping Bunny logo in 1997. Aesop is a cruelty-free company listed by PETA and has never tested products or ingredients on animals since its inception in 1987. No animal testing has been conducted by its suppliers of ingredients since March 11th, 2009.
Does Natura, Or Their Subsidiary Brands, Sell Any Cosmetic Products In Regions Where Animal Testing Is Mandatory For Imported Cosmetics?
No. Natura and its subsidiary brands do not sell any cosmetic products in regions such as China where animal testing is mandatory for imported cosmetics. Natura, The Body Shop and Aesop are all cruelty-free companies that do not believe in animal testing. None of these companies will go into markets if our values and ethics are compromised in any way.
The policy addresses all 4 of the cruelty-free requirements mentioned earlier in this guide, including the bonus parent company consideration:
- Animal testing on finished products hasn’t been carried out since 2006
- Animal testing on Natura-exclusive ingredients hasn’t been carried out since 2006
- Animal testing on new ingredients supplied by third parties / suppliers hasn’t been carried out since 2013.
- The brand doesn’t sell it’s products where animal testing is required by law (e.g. China)
- Bonus! The brands parent company, Natura, is cruelty-free and doesn’t sell its products where animal testing is required by law.
Examples of FALSE cruelty-free policies
In contrast to The Body Shop’s clear cruelty-free policy, here are some examples of false “cruelty-free” policies from popular brands:
L’Oréal has developed a very rigorous safety evaluation procedure of its products, backed by Research. Well before the question of animal testing was raised by civil society or within a regulatory framework, L’Oréal has been committed to new methods of assessing safety that don’t involve animals. A true pioneer, L’Oréal has been reconstructing human skin models in laboratories to elaborate in vitro safety tests since 1979, as an alternative to animals. In 1989, L’Oréal completely ceased testing its products on animals, thus 14 years before the regulation required so. Today, L’Oréal no longer tests its ingredients on animals and no longer tolerates any exception to this rule.
Certain health authorities may nevertheless decide to conduct animal tests themselves for certain cosmetic products, as it is still the case in China. L’Oréal has been the most active company working alongside the Chinese authorities and scientists for over 10 years to have alternative testing methods recognized, and permit the cosmetic regulation to evolve towards a total and definite elimination of animal testing. Thanks to this, since 2014, certain products manufactured and sold in China like shampoo, body wash or certain make-up are no longer tested on animals.
The key sentence in L’Oreal’s policy is “Certain health authorities may nevertheless decide to conduct animal tests themselves for certain cosmetic products, as it is still the case in China.” This is worded to make it seem like China’s health authorities have decided of their own accord to test L’Oreal’s products on animals – the truth is that L’Oreal have submitted their products to be sold in China, and therefore are supporting the animal testing that’s required to be carried out on their products. If L’Oreal wanted Chinese health authorities to not test their products on animals, they could simply withdraw from the Chinese market.
Benefit does not test our products on animals.
Since 1989, the Perfumes & Cosmetics companies of LVMH group (including Benefit Cosmetics) have not performed any tests on animals for our products – this was implemented long before the 2013 official ban set by the European Union.
We are deeply committed to the elimination of animal testing. We’re playing a leading role in developing alternative methods through our support of the “Fund for Alternatives to Animal Testing” in the United States. We also actively participate in validation studies of new alternative tests in the framework of the European cosmetics association, Cosmetics Europe. We are one of only a few companies to have invested in creating our own internal department to test raw materials and ingredients to further ensure the quality of our products and the satisfaction of our customers, which is our top priority.
As a result, all Benefit products undergo very strict tolerance tests using non-animal methods during the development of each product to ensure quality and safety prior to market.
Some customers expressed concern regarding the situation in China. Our products are made in Europe and for imported cosmetics, the Chinese health authorities order some test on animals: they require companies to make their products available to be tested in state-certified laboratories for registration purposes only, as it is currently their only recognised method to demonstrate product safety .
We are hopeful that alternative testing methods will be adopted worldwide and we will see an end to animal testing.
The key sentence in Benefit’s policy is “Our products are made in Europe and for imported cosmetics, the Chinese health authorities order some test on animals: they require companies to make their products available to be tested in state-certified laboratories…”. Like L’Oreal, they’ve worded it extremely well, but the sentence means that they’ve submitted their products to the Chinese market, and are therefore allowing their products to be tested on animals.
M·A·C does not test on animals. We do not own any animal testing facilities and we never ask others to test on animals for us. While some governments conduct animal testing to prove safety before they will allow us to sell our products, M·A·C has never tested on animals and we continue to be a leader in the movement to end animal testing globally. To this end, we are proud to partner with IIVS (INSTITUTE FOR IN VITRO SCIENCES) to expand the use and acceptance of non-animal testing methods worldwide.
Which countries require animal testing?
China tests on animals as part of its safety assessment of cosmetic products. We love our fans and we never want to exclude them anywhere.
How does M·A·C test its products for safety and efficacy?
We use human volunteers and we conduct or commission in vitro testing.
Does M·A·C own any animal testing facilities?
No. We don’t own any animal testing facilities anywhere in the world.
The key sentence in MAC’s policy is “China tests on animals as part of its safety assessment of cosmetic products. We love our fans and we never want to exclude them anywhere.” MAC are saying they don’t want to “exclude” fans of their products that live in China, and use this as justification of allowing animal testing on their products.
If you’re not vegan, but want to become cruelty-free as a first step and are therefore solely interested in products not tested on animals, we recommend looking out for the following certification logos to check if they are indeed cruelty-free:
• Leaping Bunny by Cruelty Free International
• Cruelty-Free logo (Beauty Without Bunnies) by PETA
• Choose Cruelty-Free logo
These logos mean that the organisation (Leaping Bunny/Cruelty Free International, PETA, or Choose Cruelty-Free) have verified that the brand in question, and its products, are cruelty-free.
As a word of warning, there are often inconsistencies with PETA’s cruelty-free list, with some companies being listed as “cruelty-free” when they’ve not checked whether their suppliers test ingredients on animals. So it’s worth use PETA’s list as a starting point, but backing it up with other research – you can visit our Cruelty-Free Beauty Brand List for brands we’ve double-checked.
It’s also worth noting that some cruelty-free brands don’t submit their brand/products to these organisations for certification, so if in doubt, you can again check our Cruelty-Free Beauty Brand List, or you can contact the brand yourself with questions around their animal testing policies.
Shopping cruelty-free & vegan
If you’re vegan, you should also look for the logos above, but as mentioned at the beginning of this guide, a product with a “cruelty-free” accreditation/logo doesn’t also mean it’s vegan.
You should be looking out for the “Vegan & Cruelty-Free” label/accreditation on any products you’re interested in buying/using.
We’re working on a Vegan vs. Cruelty-Free: What’s the Difference? guide for more information around this difference, and which organisation logos you should be looking out for.
You can also check our Vegan Beauty Brand Directory for a list of 200+ vegan & cruelty-free brands.
Make the change now
Now you’ve decided to switch to cruelty-free products (or even better, vegan & cruelty-free products!), you might be wondering what to do with all your existing beauty products from non-cruelty-free brands!
My advice is not to chuck them away as that would be wasteful, but instead to slowly phase the products out. When a particular product runs out, just replace it with a cruelty-free version.
You can shop from our Vegan Beauty Brand Directory – all brands (over 200 of them!) featured are vegan & cruelty-free, and you can filter the list by category (bodycare, skincare, etc.) so you can easily find a replacement or dupe of the product you’ve finished.
If you’re still stuck and can’t find a replacement product anywhere, feel free to contact me, and I can try and find one for you!
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Remember, the more people that buy cruelty-free products, the more likely a worldwide animal testing ban is.