What Does Cruelty-Free Truly Mean? Here is a Detailed Explanation


Cruelty-free. Not tested on animals. These are buzzwords in the beauty industry, similarly to sulfate-free, paraben-free or fragrance-free. And although we don’t always know what they exactly mean, these descriptors sound positive. We read them and think I want that.

Whether you are strictly cruelty-free when shopping for cosmetics or not, knowing what those words mean can be confusing. To each brand, cruelty-free can be something different. Even PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies program differs from Cruelty-Free International’s Leaping Bunny program. In fact, a brand can claim that its products are cruelty-free without providing any proof, and in some sad cases, even lie and get away with it.

This is why it is important for beauty companies to offer transparency. But from those that don’t, it is up to us to educate ourselves on what cruelty-free actually means. To simplify, there are three main tiers of cruelty-free status.

  1. First Tier: The brand does not test on animals, is not sold in Mainland China, and is either owned by a cruelty-free parent company or does not have a parent company (examples: LUSH, Dermalogica, and Summer Fridays).

  2. Second Tier: The brand does not test on animals, is not sold in Mainland China, but is owned by a parent company that is not cruelty-free (examples: Smashbox, Bare Minerals, Buxom).

  3. Third Tier: The brand does not test on animals but is sold in Mainland China (examples: OGX, MAC Cosmetics, Nars).

The first tier is what the most loyal cruelty-free shoppers stick to. In this tier the brand is 100% cruelty-free, is not owned by a company that tests on animals, and does not sell in Mainland China, where it is legally required that imported cosmetics are tested on animals. The brands in this category have cruelty-free inculcated in their DNAs to the extent that they can be considered as activists. Cruelty-free is no longer a concept but a culture, a principle. A major cruelty-free blog, Cruelty-free Kitty uses this tier to qualify a brand as cruelty-free in its extensive list of cruelty-free beauty brands. If you aren’t sure whether a brand is cruelty-free, this is where you should check. The first tier is aligned with Leaping Bunny, an internationally recognized organization that is highly reliable and selective with its approvals. For a brand to have a Leaping Bunny certification, it must agree to independent audits providing proofs that its claims of cruelty-free status are accurate.

Logos from Best to Worst via    Inside Space

Logos from Best to Worst via Inside Space

But cruelty-free means something different to everyone. Some shoppers consider a brand cruelty-free if the company isn’t doing the tests on animals itself. For example, Bare Minerals is a cruelty-free brand that does not sell in Mainland China, but its parent company, Shiseido, does test on animals. The same goes for other companies owned by Shiseido like Buxom and MD Formulations. The issue here is a matter of ethics. Shiseido owns cruelty-free companies; therefore, is making profits from cruelty-free buyers, and this shouldn’t sit well with you if you are loyal to cruelty-free.

Finally, the third tier is not cruelty-free at all if you ask most cruelty-free shoppers. Even if the products purchased in the US have never been tested on animals, by selling in Mainland China, the brand is allowing the Chinese government to test its products on animals. To clarify, this is only the case for products sold in China but not made in China. Consequently, a company which products are made in China can be cruelty-free so long as they are not sold to Chinese consumers. Any beauty brand exporting to Mainland China is agreeing to allowing the government to test its products on animals. This is the reason so many beauty brands are not cruelty-free. The Chinese market is huge, so it makes sense from a monetary standpoint and they can still have the cruelty-free label when sold, because they are not the ones doing the testing on animals but rather the Chinese government while they finance the process. Those in this boat can even be PETA-approved, because its methods of approval are not as exhaustive as Leaping Bunny’s. In fact, this is a loophole. To know if a brand allows its products to be tested on animals, you can often check its FAQ page, which will say something along the lines of: “we do not test our products on animals unless required by law.”

With this, some shoppers don’t blame the brands but rather the Chinese government. Chinese law requires mandatory animal testing on all cosmetics that are manufactured outside of China. However, this law does not apply to brands selling to Chinese consumers online. This is only the case for imported products being physically sold in stores. And with the recent increase in protesting and the growing demand to end animal testing, some changes have been made. A few months ago, China announced that post-market testing for finished imported and domestically produced cosmetics will not include animal tests. And although this news was highly celebrated and shows potential, it, unfortunately, does not mean animal testing is over. “China recently released for the first time its post-market testing plan, and it reveals that no animal tests are listed for routine post-market surveillance. However, in the case of non-routine tests, eg: a consumer complaint about a product, unless/until authorities accept modern non-animal eye/skin irritation tests and invest in local infrastructure to use such tests, animal testing could still be the default. Pre-market cosmetic animal testing in China for foreign imports and special-use products, remains unchanged.” Humane Society International via Twitter.

via    Live Eco

I know. This is a lot to take in, but there is even more. Recent events actually led me to write this article, because I wanted to clear something many find confusing.

A couple of weeks ago, Wet n Wild was caught secretly selling in Mainland China. Wet n Wild is one of the most accessible and affordable cruelty-free brands in the US, so this was a major shock. It has boasted about its cruelty-free status for years, so when its products were spotted on Chinese shelves there were a lot of rumors spreading. There were speculations that the products were counterfeits. Some thought it was an export mistake. And when asked, Wet n Wild initially responded by claiming it did not sell in China.

Copyright OpenLetr

Copyright OpenLetr

This created a storm of debate, and well, anger from the cruelty-free beauty community. Once the Chinese Wet n Wild’s displays were confirmed as legitimate Cruelty-Free Kitty posted a story with the facts. And as the news broke, Wet n Wild did not just remain silent on the subject, but also deleted negative comments on its feeds which created even more concerns. Had Wet n Wild been misleading its customers? Well, its team eventually released this statement:

Wet n Wild does not test on animals. Wet n Wild is a global brand for beauty lovers, inclusive of all ages, ethnicities, skin colors, ideologies, and economic statuses. Cruelty-free has and will remain a key pillar of our brand. In 2018, Watsons began offering our products to beauty enthusiasts in China via a pilot program with 30 stores. Wet n Wild products sold in China are domestically manufactured in China, and as such do not require animal testing.

Since 2014, China no longer requires animal testing for domestic non-special use cosmetics. Wet n Wild products were able to enter the Chinese market maintaining our commitment to providing customers cruelty-free, high-quality, on-trend products they can feel good about buying and wearing. As a trusted leader in cruelty-free beauty, we will continue working closely with the Chinese government, and all governments, to adhere to our strict guidelines for cruelty-free beauty globally.
— Stefano Curti, Global President

Although appreciated by some, the statement was dismantled by others. Wet n Wild states that as its products are made in China, they do not require animal testing. Unfortunately, this is not entirely true. Anytime a brand, domestic or not, sells in China, there is a risk for the products to be tested on animals. In this case, the pre-market testing risk is removed, but if a Chinese consumer has a reaction to a Wet n Wild product it can be pulled from the shelves and tested on animals. And even with this fact, PETA supports Wet n Wild as a cruelty-free brand which further indicates that PETA’s approval process is not as strict as it could be.

This entire situation was extremely disappointing to cruelty-free beauty consumers. It was misleading and proved that Wet n Wild was not transparent about its practices. Due to this news, many shoppers will no longer support Wet n Wild, myself included, and it has been removed from Cruelty-Free Kitty’s cruelty-free list. But there is no need to fret, there are many other affordable cruelty-free brands like Pacifica, E.L.F, and Milani.

Copyright OpenLetr

Copyright OpenLetr

As you can see, cruelty-free is not as simple of a label as it seems. And ultimately, it is up to you to determine what it means to you and your buying habits. I personally stick with tier two cruelty-free status, because that is how I feel about it, but you may feel differently and that is perfectly fine. It is up to you to do the research on the brands you’re interested in. And if you are unsure about any brand’s current status, Cruelty-Free Kitty updates its list regularly and is an accurate and informative resource for all things cruelty-free.

Now, vegan beauty is another story. Make sure to leave us a comment letting us know if you’d like a similar post about vegan statuses and what it means for a brand to claim their products as vegan.

Cover photo copyright OpenLetr