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What Does Cruelty Free Mean?

5 mins

Rahul Bhatia

Cruelty-free products are not tested on animals. But, there are many interpretations on cruelty free meaning. Learn all the facts!

Cruelty-free” is a beauty buzzword that is often misused and misunderstood. However, understanding this term is vital to making ethical beauty choices. So what does cruelty-free mean? Here’s everything you need to know about cruelty-free beauty, why it’s important, and how to find the best products. 

What Does Cruelty-Free Mean?

Cruelty-free beauty products generally describe products that are not tested on animals. However, there is no single legal definition of “cruelty-free” that’s used across the board. Contrary to popular belief, beauty products in the United States do not need to be tested on animals in order to receive approval from the FDA. 

However, this is unfortunately still the legal standard in China. As a result, there are a number of different interpretations of “cruelty-free” used by beauty brands: 

  • The ingredients of the product have been tested on animals, but the final product has not. 
  • The brand hired a third party to conduct the testing. 
  • The brand relied on testing provided by an outside organization. 
  • The testing took place in a different country than the one the brand is actually based in. 
  • The brand only utilizes animal testing when it is required by law. 
  • At least one animal was killed or harmed for ingredients, but there was no actual testing performed. 

Clearly, these interpretations aren’t what many consumers would consider “cruelty-free.” Here are some additional variations that are generally considered to be “cruelty-free” and the most ethical beauty practices: 

  • The brand may rely on past animal tests from other organizations, but they have never conducted any such tests themselves or harmed animals in any way. 
  • Neither the ingredients nor the products have ever been tested on animals, and the brand has not harmed or killed any animals in the development of production processes.
  • The brand has received cruelty-free certification from a third-party organization. 

How Does Cruelty-Free Differ From Vegan, Natural, and Clean Beauty Products?

Many different terms are frequently used within the beauty industry to describe specific products and brands. 

However, it’s important to note that most of these terms don’t come with a legal or technical definition. Instead, it’s up to you to do your due diligence to ensure that these products are actually what they’re advertised as. 

You may see beauty products labeled as “vegan,” “natural,” or “clean.” Here’s what these different terms actually mean, how they differ from cruelty-free, and how to verify their legitimacy. 

Vegan Beauty

Vegan beauty products describe products that are not made with any animal ingredients. This includes both components taken directly from an animal as well as animal-derived ingredients. 

Some examples of animal-derived ingredients that are commonly used in beauty products include ingredients like:

  • Honey
  • Collagen
  • Eggs

Vegan is not the same as cruelty-free. However, many vegan brands are also cruelty-free to avoid inflicting any harm onto animals. Organizations including Vegan Action, Vegan Society, PETA, and the Vegetarian Society certify vegan beauty products, so look for these seals before buying. 

Natural Beauty

Natural beauty products describe products that are not made with any synthetic ingredients produced in a laboratory rather than in nature. Some examples of potentially problematic synthetic ingredients that may appear in your beauty products include things like phthalates, parabens, and silicones. 

However, it’s important to note that just because an ingredient is “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good for you. 

At the same time, just because an ingredient is “synthetic” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad for you. Instead, you need to consider the safety and effectiveness of each ingredient regardless of its origin. 

Clean Beauty

Clean beauty products describe products that do not contain any ingredients that have been shown to harm human health or are suspected of harming human health. Instead, clean beauty products contain ingredients that have been proven to be generally safe and non-toxic.

While clean beauty products may favor natural or vegan ingredients, that’s not necessarily the case. Additionally, these products may also be tested on animals unless stated otherwise. 

It’s up to you to determine your beauty product standards and evaluate different products to then meet these standards -- whether that means vegan, natural, clean, cruelty-free beauty, or all of the above. 

Why Should You Buy Cruelty-Free Beauty Products?

Understandably, you might be hesitant to replace all of your current beauty products with cruelty-free alternatives. However, it will definitely be worth your while. Here are some reasons why you should buy cruelty-free beauty products: 

Better for You

In many cases, cruelty-free beauty products are better for you. This is because cruelty-free brands often prioritize creating more natural and less harmful formulas for your skin, hair, and health. 

As a result, you’re likely to have better results from using beauty products that are labeled as “cruelty-free” as an indirect benefit.

Better for Animals

Cruelty-free beauty products are better for animals. Animal testing often involves harming or even killing innocent animals. When you buy cruelty-free products, you can have the peace of mind that your decisions as a consumer won’t have a negative effect on animals like mice, rabbits, hamsters, and other animals used in labs. 

Better for Your Wallet

Many people assume that cruelty-free beauty products must come with a higher price tag -- but that’s definitely not the case. 

In fact, there are cruelty-free brands out there that are more affordable than many brands out there that do use animal testing. At the same time, people assume that expensive or luxury brands use better ingredients and testing methods, but that’s not always the case. 

How To Tell if a Beauty Product Is Really Cruelty-Free?

Since there’s no legal definition of a “cruelty-free” beauty product, you must rely on third-party certifications. In the United States, there are two organizations that certify beauty products as being cruelty-free: PETA and the Leaping Bunny


PETA requires brands to complete a questionnaire before signing a statement of assurance certifying that they do not conduct or commission any animal testing, nor will they do so in the future. To then use the PETA logo on products, brands must pay a one-time licensing fee of $100. 

Leaping Bunny

The Leaping Bunny takes a similar but more active approach to certifying cruelty-free beauty brands and products. In addition to a certification, brands are also required to allow independent audits of their business practices to ensure that they comply with the cruelty-free agreement. 

So if you want reassurance that a brand or product is 100% cruelty-free, you need to look for the Leaping Bunny logo or use their application to check products before you buy them. 

Where and How To Buy Cruelty-Free Beauty Products?

Now that you know how to identify cruelty-free beauty products, you need to know where to find them! Many people assume that cruelty-free beauty products are hard to find simply because they’ve never actually looked for them before. The good news is that there is a wide range of cruelty-free brands and products out there that can be bought in many different locations. 


Perhaps the most obvious place to buy cruelty-free beauty products is the stores where you already buy your beauty products. Cruelty-free beauty products can be found anywhere from drugstores to high-end beauty stores. However, it’s up to you to research the products before you buy them to ensure that they meet your standards -- and this can be difficult to do when you’re physically in the store. 


Another place where you can buy cruelty-free beauty products is online. Purchasing these products online gives you easier access to more information that you can use to make your purchasing decision. 

For instance, you can check all of the ingredients and the certifications of the brand before you buy. You can also check customer reviews to make sure that the product works as promised. 

With no shortage of cruelty-free products and brands out there, it can be hard to find the best ones in such a cluttered online marketplace. 

WOW goes beyond cruelty-free beauty and is also certified as a vegan-friendly beauty brand that uses 100% natural ingredients with no harsh chemicals involved. 

This Himalayan-born company is also women-made and women-powered -- all while loving and saving animals. WOW also gets bonus points for using eco-friendly packaging for an overall ethical -- yet effective -- approach to beauty. 

The Rundown on Cruelty-Free Beauty

As you can see, while there may be many “interpretations'' of cruelty-free beauty, it’s up to you to find the brands and the products that meet your standards. Certifications can help, but diligent research is the best way to find ethical beauty brands that support the earth and its creatures rather than cause harm. 


"Cruelty-Free"/"Not Tested on Animals" | FDA

10 Reasons to Go Cruelty-Free | Ethical Bunny

Which Cruelty-Free Logo Can We Trust in 2021? | Ethical Elephant

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Rahul Bhatia

Rahul is the published author of "Heads Or Tails" and Quora writer with over 1.6 million views. He is a keen observer who enjoys the simple joys of life. He strongly believes true beauty is not how beautiful your face is but how beautiful your heart is.

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