The reality of ‘cruelty-free’ beauty

The term ‘cruelty-free’ is often thrown around in relation to a variety of modern cosmetic and beauty products, and we see it everywhere within the marketing of certain brands. But what does ‘cruelty-free’ really mean?


There is currently no standardised definition for the term, no specific laws regarding its use as a label, and no one regulatory body controlling or governing its use. So, brands that call themselves ‘cruelty-free’ are not necessarily breaking the law if, in fact, they aren’t.

Animal testing is carried out to determine the safety of a cosmetic or beauty product for human use, and is usually done on rabbits, mice, guinea pigs and rats. It typically involves skin and eye irritation tests; delivering doses to animals over days and weeks to look for associated hazards such as cancer or birth defects; and ‘lethal dose’ tests in which animals are forced to swallow ingredients or products to determine what quantity would be fatal for a human. At the end of these tests, the animals involved are usually killed without any form of pain relief. A large percentage of animals used for cosmetics tests in the United States are not included in the official statistics and are not protected under the Animal Welfare Act.

Shockingly, it is reported that 88% of the current top 50 beauty brands are not cruelty-free, and most brands will not display their full animal testing policies publicly.

In 2009, the European Union banned the testing of ingredients and finished cosmetic products on animals, before a further law, passed in 2013, banned the marketing of cosmetic products and ingredients within the European Union which had been tested on animals anywhere in the world.

However, before 2021 it was mandatory for any cosmetics sold in-store in China to have undergone testing on animals, including international products that had not been made in China. This had a massive impact on corporations’ stances towards animal testing, especially considering the Chinese beauty market is predicted to reach $100 billion by 2023 (according to Euromonitor).

So, as a result, many companies will use loopholes in order to market their products to both the massive Chinese market as well as an increasingly welfare-focused Western market. As a result, you have to be especially attentive to the wording companies use to deceive consumers.


These are some of the many loopholes you may see major brands using:

1) Some brands publish claims that they do not test on animals. However, this choice of wording allows them to hire a third party to test their products and ingredients on animals for them instead.

For example, Nivea released a statement in which they admit that “animal testing is mandated by law” in China, and therefore “in this case, the tests are conducted by local institutions authorised by the state not by the companies selling the product.”


2) Brands will use an unofficial bunny logo, trying to masquerade as an official cruelty-free label.

Official logos include Cruelty Free International’s Leaping Bunny, and the one endorsed by PETA’s Global Beauty without Bunnies programme.


3) Companies will claim that “this product was not tested on animals”, when it was the ingredients that were tested.

For example, TRESemmé released a statement claiming “We do not test our actual products on animals (any testing is undertaken on individual ingredients).”


4) Companies will claim that they do not test on animals, except when required by law.

For example, a statement by Neutrogena reads “Neutrogena doesn’t conduct animal testing of our cosmetic products anywhere in world,” which seems to adhere to most people’s idea of a ‘cruelty-free’ product, if it weren’t for the added addendum: “except in the rare situation where governments or laws require it.”


5) Brands will claim that they are ‘against animal testing’ – not that they themselves do not test on animals.

Therefore, the overall ambiguity surrounding the definition of the word ‘cruelty-free’ gives corporations the opportunity to use it without consequences or accusations of deception, should they be caught out.


Thankfully, there are a lot of modern brands that are genuinely cruelty-free: more than 5,600 brands have PETA certification, which means that animal testing was not used during any stage of the production process. The advancement of modern technology has given rise to a large number of non-animal alternatives, such as human cell-based tests and computer models, which can be more accurate in terms of human responses, as well as faster and more cost-effective.

So, be especially careful and do your research around products to ensure that they are, in fact, truly cruelty-free. Contact major brands if you are unsure as to their stances – ask detailed and specific questions to stop them being able to use their words to twist the truth and mislead their consumers. There are plenty of alternatives in an ever-growing beauty and cosmetics marketplace, with many actively striving to make cruelty-free beauty a reality.


Featured image: Raphael Lovaski on Unsplash

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