Here’s What Cruelty-Free Actually Means (Plus 4 Other Animal-Testing Myths)

You buy only free-range eggs and grass-fed beef. You walk dogs at the local shelter and you even donated to a wildlife trust on behalf of a baby elephant last year. You care about animals, so you want to make the switch to cruelty-free cosmetics, too. But do you know what that actually means? Here are five beauty myths for the socially conscious, along with five need-to-know facts.

This State Just Became the First to Outlaw Beauty Products Tested on Animals

tiny hamster cruelty free beauty
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The Myth: ‘cruelty-free’ Means A Product Has never Been Tested On Animals

The truth: According to the FDA, “there are no legal definitions for these terms.” Brands can make pretty broad claims about their products without repercussions because there are currently no hard-and-fast mandates on animal testing in the United States (except in California, woot woot). And while the cruelty-free designation might be *technically* true for a final product, the reality is that most animal testing happens at the ingredient level. A lot of companies skirt the issue by getting their raw materials from third parties or outside labs who do test on animals.  

One way to be sure that mascara you’re eyeing hasn’t been swiped on a hamster’s lashes is if it’s certified through the Leaping Bunny Program. It’s the only internationally-recognized certification that guarantees no new animal testing went into the development of the product at any point. Per Leaping Bunny, the program requires that “no new animal testing be used in any phase of product development by the company, its laboratories, or ingredient suppliers.” It even has a handy-dandy guide to certified brands and their parent companies.

bunny eating grass cruelty free beauty
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The Myth: Animal Testing Is Required By Law

The truth: Nope, not in the United States. Neither the FDA nor the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has a law requiring that beauty products be tested on animals. The FDA website says that the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act “does not specifically require the use of animals in testing cosmetics for safety.” But almost every ingredient has been tested on animals in the past, and some brands that claim to be cruelty-free also sell in mainland China, which requires by law that all cosmetics be tested on animals.

sweet puppy cruelty free beauty
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The Myth: Products That Aren’t Tested On Animals Might Not Be Safe

The truth: Honey, it’s 2019. Science has advanced to the point where there are tons of reliable alternatives to animal testing, not to mention ingredients that are already known to be cosmetically safe. According to Cruelty Free International, alternative testing methods are often actually cheaper and more effective than animal testing, anyway. That includes cultures from lab-grown human and animal cells; donated and lab-grown human tissues; computer and mathematical models; and volunteer-based clinical trials. Go, science!

furry guinea pig cruelty free beauty
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The Myth: Cruelty-free And Vegan Are Basically The Same Thing

The truth: The terms “vegan” and “cruelty-free” are used interchangeably a lot, but they mean different things. “Vegan” means the cosmetic doesn’t contain any animal byproducts, such as honey, beeswax, lanolin, collagen, albumen, carmine, cholesterol or gelatin. But remember how the FDA doesn’t regulate the cruelty-free label? That goes for vegan, too. So items that were tested on animals can also be labeled “vegan.” (Yikes.) On the other hand, cruelty-free products can contain non-vegan ingredients as long as they weren’t tested on our furry friends. PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies program has a list of registered vegan, cruelty-free products.

cute cat cruelty free beauty
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The Myth: It’s Too Hard To Find Products That Are Actually Cruelty-free

The truth: While it’s a little more work than tossing your entire wish list into your cart, going cruelty-free just takes a little more research. Thankfully, companies like Leaping Bunny make it pretty easy. For starters, look for the Leaping Bunny logo on a brand’s packaging, ads or website. (That means the company has been certified cruelty-free, and has pledged to uphold the Leaping Bunny guidelines.) The program also has a comprehensive shopping guide and an app, so if you’re browsing the beauty aisles, you can double check a brand’s cruelty-free status. And FYI, any brand that sells its cosmetics in mainland China is automatically out. That’s because China’s National Institute for Food and Drug Control still requires animal-testing on all foreign, imported beauty products (although there are talks of changing that). And when you’re shopping around, don’t forget to look at a brand’s parent company, too. Many smaller cruelty-free labels are owned by larger companies that still test on animals.

The good news is that if you’ve made it your mission to go truly cruelty-free, organizations like Leaping Bunny, PETA and the Humane Society have already done the research for you, making the switch pretty easy to do.


Senior Food Editor

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City...