“Cruelty-Free” Explained: All You Need To Know

Campaigns against animal testing continue to build ground internationally. It feels like a new “cruelty-free” cosmetic or household product brand (or an existing company rebranding as “cruelty-free”) pops up every day.

The beauty industry is incredibly competitive. As the industry continues to grow, you may wonder what cruelty-free means when a product is labeled with the phrase?

What Does Cruelty-Free Actually Mean?

A cruelty-free brand does not test any of its products or ingredients on animals and does not commission third parties to do so. However, cruelty-free labeling is not legally regulated. As a result, it is common for brands to falsely claim that their products are “cruelty-free” when they don’t strictly meet the criteria.

Because there is no legal definition of the term “cruelty-free”, there are also disagreements of the exact threshold at which a brand should truly be considered cruelty-free.

Naturally, brands have a financial incentive to lean towards a more liberal interpretation of the term, especially given that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration states:

The unrestricted use of these phrases by cosmetic companies is possible because there are no legal definitions for these terms.


However, even those deeply involved in animal welfare advocacy have disagreements over what “cruelty-free” does or should mean. The most common points of contention arise from the hypotheticals such as:

  • Is a brand still cruelty-free if they use suppliers that test on animals?
  • Is a brand still cruelty-free if they sell their products in countries where animal testing is required by law?
  • Is a brand still cruelty-free if they don’t sell vegan products? (i.e., They use animal-derived ingredients)

The Cruelty-Free Ideal

CFI Certification Logo

The Cruelty-Free Ideal (CFI) is an objective metric against which a brand’s “cruelty-free” claims can be measured. A brand that meets the CFI can be considered to be genuinely cruelty-free.

The requirements for a brand or company to be CFI certified are:

  1. The brand does not test their finished products on animals,
  2. The brand does not test its ingredients on animals,
  3. The brand does not use suppliers that test on animals (and takes reasonable steps to verify this),
  4. The brand does not commission third parties to test on animals,
  5. The brand does not sell its products when required by law and/or in countries that require animal testing.

A complete list of brands that are currently CFI certified can be found here. Our list includes personal care products, vegan cosmetics, body care products, cruelty-free makeup, and more. Brands can apply to become CFI certified here.

The Issue With Parent Companies

Estee Lauder Parent Company Subsidiaries

The most common criticism of the CFI is that it does not take into account whether or not a brand’s parent company performs animal tests. Many people believe that if a parent company tests on animals, the child brand cannot be considered cruelty-free.

While that is by no means an unfair position, the CFI does not take this factor into account for the following reasons:

  1. Most cruelty-free brands (after being acquired by a parent company) increase the market-share of cruelty-free options in the market and maintain all other aspects of their CFI status,
  2. Purchasing cruelty-free products, but not other products of the parent company, sends the parent company the message that consumers want cruelty-free brands and products and that these brands are a valuable asset to invest in and grow,
  3. Taking the parent company status into account would limit cruelty-free brands solely to family/independently owned companies, of which there are comparatively few.

Regardless, all brands that are CFI certified on the EthicalAble website are clearly identified as owned by a non-cruelty-free company when that is the case.

Other Common Animal Testing Policy Certifications

Beyond the Cruelty-Free Ideal, there are several other popular standards for what exactly “cruelty-free” means, set by various non-profit organizations. These include:

Leaping Bunny’s Standard

Leaping Bunny Certification Logo

Leaping Bunny Certification is offered by two different organizations, the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC) for U.S. and Canada headquartered companies and Cruelty-Free International for companies based elsewhere. However, the two organizations are partnered, and their standards for certification are the same.

A brand with a Leaping Bunny Cruelty-Free Label means that the brand does not conduct or commission animal testing, does not purchase ingredients from suppliers that performed animal testing on those ingredients, and does not allow animal testing for cosmetics where animal testing is required by law.

The process for obtaining (and retaining) Leaping Bunny certification is stringent; companies need to provide extensive documentation (including proof that they monitor their suppliers) and be open to independent audits of their activities and processes.

Leaping Bunny does not require brands to not be owned by a parent company that tests on animals, as long as the brand can show they operate as a “stand-alone subsidiary” and continue to comply with Leaping Bunny standards.

Brands are not required to be 100% vegan to obtain Leaping Bunny certification.

PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies Standard

PETA Cruelty Free Certification Logo

A company certified PETA cruelty-free means that the company’s CEO certifies and verifies as part of PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies program that the brand and its suppliers do not engage in or commission any animal testing. They also commit to not doing so in the future.

Brands are also required to provide PETA with documentation backing up their claims.

However, there are some issues with PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies cruelty-free certification. The most significant concern with PETA’s standard is that they don’t audit companies that they certify and that certification is effectively “for life”; recertification is not required.

Furthermore, in some cases, PETA approves brands that sell their products in mainland China and does not always disclose the parent company of certain brands (such as Tarte, Smashbox, and Aveda).

Products That Claim Not to Be Tested on Animals

Some brands claim that their products are “not tested on animals” and include this phrase on their packaging and labeling.

No Animal Testing Example Labeling

However, like the phrase “cruelty-free”, claims relating to testing on laboratory animals are not legally regulated in the USA. While it may be immoral for a brand to claim that their products are “not tested on animals” when they actually are, it isn’t illegal. If making the claim will lead to greater profits, some companies will mislead their customers in this way.

The most common ways that companies mislead their customers into thinking their products are cruelty-free by claiming that they “don’t test on animals” include:

  1. While some companies may claim that they don’t test their products on animals, this doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t commission third parties to do so on their behalf;
  2. A brand may claim their products are not tested on animals, but they may still test the ingredients they use in the product on animals or purchase from suppliers that do so on their behalf;
  3. Some brands sell their products where animal-testing is required by law, and may allow regulators in those countries to test products on animals to allow them to enter the market.

It is also worth noting that many ingredients used in cosmetic products were tested on animals in the past when it was more acceptable. In many cases this is unavoidable, but companies may still claim to be “cruelty-free” because they have never directly tested ingredients or products on animals, despite this testing having occurred in the past.

Examples Of “Cruelty-Free” Brands

Several exemplar companies that we consider some of the best examples of truly cruelty-free, CFI certified, ethical brands include:


Pacifica vegan product line

Pacifica is a cosmetic company that sells a variety of makeup, personal care, skincare, and beauty products. They are 100% vegan and cruelty-free and are not owned by a parent company that tests on animals. Furthermore, Pacifica is certified by PETA does not sell its products in countries where animal testing is required by law.

Umberto Giannini

Umberto Giannini is a brand that develops high-quality hair-care products based on natural ingredients sold in many countries around the globe. Like Pacifica, they are 100% vegan, cruelty-free, and not owned by an animal-testing parent company. Additionally, Umberto Giannini is a “Certified B Corp,” which means they meet objective standards for environmental and social protection.

Alpyn Beauty

Alpyn Beauty is a brand that sells 100% cruelty-free skincare products that use natural wildcraft ingredients harvested in Wyoming, USA. Like the brands mentioned above, Alpyn does not test its products or ingredients on animals and does not allow its suppliers or third parties to do so.

Benefits of Cruelty-Free Cosmetics

Another critical angle that helps explain what it means to be “cruelty-free” is looking at the benefits of cruelty-free brands and products.

First, the obvious: Cruelty-free products are not tested on animals. By choosing to buy cruelty-free, you are choosing to condemn brands that engage in the burning, drugging, and poisoning of innocent and defenseless creatures. Furthermore, by “voting with your money,” you are sending a message to companies that animal testing is not, or should not, be something they engage in.

Typically, cruelty-free products are healthier. Traditional cosmetics are often filled with harsh and toxic chemicals. In contrast, cruelty-free and vegan brands usually use natural ingredients less likely to lead to adverse reactions.

Natural Ingredients Labeling Example

Because the choice of cruelty-free cosmetics is more limited, switching to cruelty-free can also make you a more selective, minimalist, and conscious consumer. Many of those who purchase only cruelty-free cosmetics often find themselves buying less over time, which is a net positive for the environment (and your wallet).

This leads into the fact that cruelty-free cosmetic brands often have other “ethical” or philanthropic campaigns on top of their policies of not testing on animals. You will find many CFI-certified brands that use sustainable packaging or give a portion of their profits to charities like PETA.

For instance, Lumene is planning to use 80% recyclable plastic in all of its products over the next 3 years and have removed microplastics from all of their exfoliation products.

Why Aren’t All Brands Cruelty-Free?

While there has been a significant increase in ensuring all cosmetics are cruelty-free over the past two decades, mainly due to the protestations of concerned consumers, we are not there yet. Many brands still choose to pursue profits over the welfare of animals, even though alternative methods exist and are just as effective.

The most common excuses these brands to defend themselves include:

  1. Brands wanting to use “new” ingredients, instead of using any of the thousands of pre-existing ingredients that are proven to work and be safe,
  2. Reliable alternatives to animal testing can be expensive or hard to source, and acceptance of other options is still developing internationally; despite the fact that animal testing is not required for ingredient or product safety,
  3. Brands want to sell their cosmetics in a foreign country where animal testing is required by law.

Or, to summarise the above: The reason why not all brands are cruelty-free is that the brands that are not cruelty-free make a conscious choice to pursue profit at the cost of animal suffering.

Thankfully, as conscientious consumers, we can challenge these companies, refuse to buy their products, and force them to change. Choose Cruelty-Free. 

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