Cruelty-free Cosmetics: What Does It Mean?

For most, the term cruelty-free seems pretty straightforward – it’s something without harm, and the word itself suggests the meaning. Without cruelty. Harmless.

But what about cruelty-free cosmetics? Can cosmetics even cause harm to anyone?

The realization that some of the cosmetics that I use daily could be harming animals didn’t come to me for a long time. After all, how could the hand cream that you use every night before bed be the reason for someone’s pain?

And yet it is not only possible but also very common.

Countless beauty and personal care products are tested on animals. Sometimes if the product itself was not tested on animals, some of its ingredients might have been.

Generally speaking, the brand is cruelty-free if it does not test on animals at any point during a product’s creation process and does not use any ingredients which were tested on animals.

And with today’s advancements in science, it’s not too much to expect from the big cosmetics companies to abstain from harming living creatures because animal testing is simply no longer necessary.

To understand why, read on below where I will explore the main the reasons why animal testing is still a thing, as well as possible alternatives.

First, why cosmetics are still tested on animals?

Although animals were already used for testing as early as the beginning of 19th century, the practice is still very much alive today.

Most cosmetic products are safe to use without being tested on animals, yet some companies choose to harm live beings for the sake of higher profit. Further below I’ve distinguished three points that reveal the main reasons why the animals are still being exploited for cosmetic testing:

  1. New Products

Staying relevant is the top priority for many brands – every year they launch different products made up of newly designed chemicals. Furthermore, the same companies then test these new components on animals to prove their safety to a customer. However, this practice is unnecessary because more than 20,000 ingredients are already proven to be safe to use – the wide selection of harmless components makes it possible to create innovative formulations without needing to harm animals.

  1. Laboratory Chemicals

Many companies use really nasty chemical ingredients in their products and therefore need to test them for side-effects. Even though governments usually don’t require these products to be tested on animals, some beauty companies do it as a safety measure for avoiding potential lawsuits because companies are legally responsible for ensuring that their product is safe to use. If manufacturers were willing to use natural, earth-based ingredients in their formulations, this practice would not be necessary anymore.

  1. Mandatory Animal Tests

All cosmetic products imported to China are required to be tested on animals by the government. The Chinese cosmetic industry is booming with more and more people wanting to buy expensive beauty products and, of course, most of the beauty companies want to take advantage of this vast market. Basically, companies that sell their products in China can’t be considered cruelty-free because they do test on animals and it was their own choice to sell there. You can read more about the Chinese animal testing law here.

What kind of tests are performed on animals?


Every year thousands of animals are used for testing cosmetics. These are rabbits, as well as guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, and mice. All of these animals are destined not only to suffer but, in the end, to die too. If an animal survives testing, it is killed afterward, typically by asphyxiation, neck-breaking or decapitation.

Even though cosmetics testing on animals is performed to show that the products are safe to use, quite often the results can be misleading. Different species can respond differently when they are exposed to the same chemical, meaning that the result might be inaccurate and not even do its job of proving safety for humans.

Do you want to know what kind of tests are usually performed? Here are three main groups of tests:

  • Skin and eye irritation tests. The chemical is directly applied on a shaved patch of skin or dripped into the eyes.
  • Force-feeding test. The chemical is repeatedly force-fed to an animal, the study can last weeks or even months.
  • “Lethal dose” tests. The chemical is forced fed in large amounts to an animal to determine the dose which causes death.

If you want to learn more about animal testing, Humane Society International has a detailed list of tests performed on animals.

Are there any alternatives?

People want to own beauty and personal care products that are safe to use. They want to be sure that the products they use won’t cause any harm to them, their family members and, of course, their own pets.

But is it possible without conducting tests on animals?

Sure it is.

Actually, there is not one, but a few different ways to create beauty and personal care products that are harmless – to you and to the animals.

First, thousands of ingredients have been already tested on animals and are proven to be safe for use. Companies could continue using these ingredients instead of adding new chemicals, or they could introduce more natural ingredients in their products that are both non-toxic and effective.

If companies still prefer to add newly designed chemicals to their formulations, there are more than 40 validated non-animal tests. The three main types of animal testing are in vitro, in silico and volunteering:

  • In vitro studies are conducted in test tubes using human cells or tissues. The test uses grown in laboratories cultures that mimic the structure and functions of human organs and organ systems.
  • In silico studies use sophisticated computer models of the human body to test new ingredients. These models have been constructed to replicate the biology of the human body and to predict its reaction to various chemical components.
  • Volunteer studies are safely applied to analyze a human body in two ways. A technique, called microdosing, measures how small doses of a new chemical act in a human body. Another method uses brain imaging machine which monitors how the human brain reacts to treatment.

All of these studies help to avoid the use of live animals in the testing of new products that come out daily. Every year more and more alternative testing methods are approved, and companies just do not have to stick with testing their products on animals. Today, we have the freedom of choosing cruelty-free brands and don’t have to accept tests on animals as the only viable option.

If you want to see all currently validated non-animal tests, check out this link.

Does Vegan Equal Cruelty-Free?

You could think that cruelty-free cosmetics are vegan, unfortunately, it’s not always a case.

Long story short, cruelty-free means that an item was not tested on animals, while vegan means that it does not contain any animal products or animal-derived ingredients such as beeswax, honey, collagen and etc. Basically, one term is used to describe the creative process of a product while the other one focuses on the composition of ingredients.

A product being vegan doesn’t automatically make it cruelty-free too.

How Can You Help?

Animal testing for cosmetics is banned in the EU, India, Israel, New Zealand, Turkey, UK, and South Korea. It is already quite impressive, but the final goal is to ban testing on animals all over the world.

The only way to help suffering animals is to boycott the production of the brands which still test on animals. The excellent example of how this helps is the cruelty-free cosmetics market in the US. Despite the fact that the US still permits animal testing, there are hundreds of cruelty-free brands – and there are able to stay cruelty-free because of you – the customer.

Stay harmless and spread the message!

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