How To Make Sure You're Really Shopping "Cruelty-free"

You’ve probably heard the term “cruelty-free” mentioned in conversations about makeup and beauty products, but what does it really mean? Animal testing and cruelty-free products have a long and controversial history in the United States that continues today.


Animal testing in the United States dates back to 1938, when Congress required all American drug manufacturers to test new medicines on animals ensuring they’d be safe for people. Since then, everything from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals to food additives have been tested on animals. In the cosmetics industry, tests are usually performed on guinea pigs, mice, and rabbits. These tests include injections and forced inhalations of test substances, which are usually lethal for the animals involved.

The term “cruelty-free” refers to products that have not been tested on animals, but there’s a catch: there is no official, legal definition for the phrases “cruelty-free” OR “not tested on animals,” which means some companies aren’t being completely truthful about their animal testing practices.

Some products that claim they’re not tested on animals are only telling half the truth, where the finished product has not been tested on animals but the individual ingredients were. To truly be cruelty-free, no ingredient or step in creating the final product can be tested on animals. Other companies that tout their cruelty-free status are actually owned by larger parent brands that still test some of their products on animals. For example, no Tarte Cosmetics product is ever tested on animals, but its parent brand, Kose, does test some of its products on animals. This creates controversy—if a smaller brand that does not test on animals is owned by a larger brand that still performs animal tests, does it still count as cruelty-free? Some animal rights activists call for a boycott of all companies that animal test or that are owned by a parent corporation that animal tests. Others are willing to grant these smaller, daughter companies a cruelty-free status.

Some formerly cruelty-free companies have lost their cruelty-free status since moving into China. The market for cosmetics in China is estimated to reach $6.81 billion by 2025, which means many beauty brands are scrambling to introduce their products there. Expanding to China seems like a business no-brainer, but there is a major caveat: the Chinese government requires all US-based companies to test their products on animals before they can sell their products in China. Again, this generates controversy over the ethics of selling makeup in China—is expanding to this incredibly lucrative market worth losing cruelty-free status?

How do you know what to look for when shopping for cruelty-free products, especially with so many brands misleading consumers about their cruelty-free status? The good news is there are several independent animal rights organizations dedicated to verifying cruelty-free cosmetics. Organizations such as Leaping Bunny, Caring Consumer, and Choose Cruelty-Free have easy-to-spot logos signifying products that were not tested on animals. Online databases like Cruelty-Free Kitty also provide user-friendly lists of certified cruelty-free brands at all price points, from drugstore to luxury.

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What brands do you use and love that are cruelty free? We’d love to start a conversation in the comments!  

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