CRUELTY—FREE IS NOT FREE FROM CRUELTY — How To Tell If a Beauty Brand Is Actually Cruelty—Free
Updated: Feb 2
When we say "cruelty—free" what do we mean? What consumers typically understand and brands imply when talking about cruelty—free beauty, is that products are not tested on animals. This is generally understood as absence of animal cruelty. But cruelty—free claim is more complicated than this and it often comes with loopholes and lack of transparency. Sometimes this goes as far as brands using confusing language to intentionally mislead the consumer.
So let's dig in and see if cruelty—free is real or is it just a cruel joke some brands are playing on you.
Animal Testing Around The World
The laws on animal testing of cosmetic products vary significantly around the world.
The EU and 12 other countries ban animal testing, the US, Canada, and some ASEAN country neither ban nor require it, and China and Japan require it for certain types of cosmetic products.
Several other countries have animal testing bans currently in the works.
First things first, what is the status of animal testing of cosmetics around the world? Do we even need to worry about this issue today?
You will often hear cosmetic industry experts talking about how animal testing is almost never done nowadays and how all cosmetic ingredients were at some point in the past tested on animals. While it is true that the industry has come a long way in the last two decades moving away from animal testing, it is misleading to say that animal testing is rarely done today. Laws that mandate or ban animal testing vary significantly across the world for this statement to hold true. In addition, countries that implemented animal testing bans still have many loopholes around testing in specific circumstances (more on this below). So often things are not as black or white as we would like them to be.
Consumers often blame cosmetic brands for conducting animal testing. The truth is brands are almost never the ones who insist on doing this type of testing. If for nothing else, it is more expensive to test on live animals than to do in vitro safety tests. Hence, most brands would rather stay away from animal testing altogether. But when testing of new raw materials or finished products is required by the government or regulatory body, brands have to make a choice: 1. do the test and risk consumer backlash, or 2. not sell their products in countries that require such testing. This decision often comes down to the bottom line. Hence, the majority of big players tend to follow the money in favor of cruelty—free principles. Smaller brands who might not have presence in various international markets and don't need to worry about different regulations, as well as brands who are truly committed to cruelty—free ethics will often choose the latter option.
So let's take a look at the current laws around the world.
Animal Testing In The US
In the US, there are currently no laws on federal level preventing a company from conducting animal testing, just like there are no laws requiring that this testing is done. FDA has nothing against animal testing and leaves this decision to the manufacturers and brand owners:
“Animal testing by manufacturers seeking to market new products may be used to establish product safety.” FDA
EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) committed to end mammalian testing requirements by 2035. Hang in there, "only" 13 more years to go.
Eight US states, California, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Maine, Hawaii, Virginia, and Maryland are taking the matter into their own hands and leading the change by recently prohibiting sales of cosmetics tested on animals.
But unless you live in these states, in order to know whether a brand tests on animals or not, you will have to ask the brand directly or even better, look for brands with third party, cruelty—free certifications (more on this below).
Animal Testing In The European Union
Across the ocean, the EU is a step ahead. In 2013 the EU introduced a full ban on animal testing in cosmetics for all finished products and ingredients used in those products. However, this ban is not without a controversy, as there is a big loophole. Under the EU's chemical regulation — REACH, the safety certification of some cosmetic ingredients still requires that raw material suppliers use animal testing. REACH, founded in the EU in 2006, is an important safety initiative that ensures that companies prove their chemicals and ingredients are safe before they can put them on the market. It is a very admirable and robust initiative for restricting the use of the most hazardous substances and ensuring consumer safety, one that is lacking in the US. However, due to this practice of raw material animal testing, REACH has been labeled by PETA as the "largest animal testing program in the world". And in 2020 four cosmetic giants L'Oreal, Unilever, P&G, and Avon signed an open letter claiming ECHA (agency in charge of REACH) is undermining the EU animal testing ban. Ouch!
Animal Testing In China
If you think the EU law is a little iffy, let's hop over to China, where until recently animal testing of finished cosmetic products was mandatory for all imported cosmetics sold in stores in mainland China. Thanks to the pressure from global cosmetic giants looking to meet the consumers' demand for no animal testing, in 2019 China finally started to loosen this stance and it now allows "general cosmetics”—such as shampoo, body wash, lipstick, lotion, and makeup, to be sold without being tested on animals.
However, this comes with caveats as there is a long list of products that still require animal testing to be sold in stores in China. These include:
All products for children
Products using new ingredients (as defined by the Chinese regulations) during 3-year monitoring period
Products from companies that are already under supervision by authorities
”Special cosmetics" such as: hair dye, hair—loss products, hair perming products, whitening products, sunscreen
All cosmetics “claiming new efficacy” (whatever that means)
What this means is that any foreign company that wants to sell these products in physical stores in China has to pay for mandatory animal testing of their products. So even if these companies claim that they don't test on animals, they still pay for testing to be done by someone else, in this case by the Chinese government.
In short, this makes most brands who sell in mainland China stores not cruelty—free by default. Products sold online are exempt from this mandatory testing, so this can be one solution for brands who care about animal cruelty to still have presence in China.
Animal Testing In Other Countries Around the World
Around the world other countries are following the lead in passing the laws to limit or ban cosmetic animal testing. These include: India, Israel, Turkey, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Mexico, Guatemala, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan. Each country has its own set of laws, criteria, as well as testing exemptions and loopholes.
In Japan and other ASEAN countries animal testing is neither banned nor required, except for mandatory testing of quasi—drugs in Japan. Quasi—drugs include cosmetic categories such as: deodorants, depilatories, hair growth treatments, hair dyes, perms and straightening products, as well as medicated cosmetics, such as whitening products, anti—aging products and oily skin or acne treatment products.
Safety vs. Cruelty Conundrum
The situation with cruelty—free laws and claims is further complicated by delicate balance between animal cruelty and consumer's safety. Some important safety tests still don't have recognized and approved cruelty—free replacement methods.
Several companies and the EU are working on developing alternative in vitro methods.
Currently there are dozens of test methods available or in development, but the challenge of getting them approved and recognized by some government regulatory bodies remains.
All these different laws illustrate the great conundrum and debate on balance between consumer safety vs. animal cruelty. On one hand, majority of consumers and brands today are against animal testing and on the other, the hard truth is that some very important safety tests still don't have a cruelty—free alternative method that we can replace them with. This is especially relevant when any new ingredients are developed. In this case we all have to answer the uncomfortable question: would we rather not test them and risk consumer safety issues or test them on animals to ensure safety?
Several large beauty companies are actively working on developing alternative testing methods and their effort is thankfully sped up by the pressure consumers and animal advocacy groups are putting on them. The EU founded The European Partnership for Alternative Approaches to Animal Testing (EPAA), which according to their website:
"Aim to replace animal testing by innovative, non—animal testing methods, to reduce the number of animals used, and to refine procedures where no alternatives exist."
Some examples of alternative methods include in vitro tests on lab—grown reconstructed human skin like L'Oreal's Episkin. Currently there are dozens of non—animal tests available or in development. The challenge with all of them is getting them approved and accepted by the safety regulating government institutions around the world and especially in China.
What "cruelty—free" claim means legally depends on where in the world you are.
In the US it means nothing, as it has no legal definition or regulation.
In the EU, as of recently, "cruelty—free" claim is not permitted and it is considered misleading.
So what does it mean to claim "cruelty—free" and what do the laws say when it comes to these claims?
In the US claims like “cruelty—free” and “not tested on animals” have no legal definition or regulation. So don’t be fooled by claims on a label or in an Instagram ad stating that a product isn't tested on animals. According to FDA:
"Some cosmetic companies promote their products with claims "cruelty—free" or "no animal testing". The unrestricted use of these phrases is possible because there are no legal definitions for these terms. Some companies may apply such claims solely to their finished products. However, these companies may rely on raw material suppliers or contract laboratories to perform any animal testing necessary to substantiate product or ingredient safety."
This means that companies can use these claims any way they want. Hence, in the US, you should only trust official, third party certifications, like Leaping Bunny, to know if a brand tests on animals.
In the EU, since animal testing of cosmetic products and ingredients was fully banned in 2013, claiming "cruelty—free" or "not tested on animals" is not permitted. This is because making such claims is considered as misleading to consumers, since none of the products on the market now are allowed to be tested on animals anyway. Hence, such claims are against the principle of truthful marketing claims, which is often enforced in the EU. Some countries, like Germany and Denmark, are enforcing this with fines and some others have a more relaxed approach, so it depends on the country. But in general, the EU brands tend to stay away from making such claims.
Cruelty—Free Certifications and Their Meaning
By now it is clear that, at least in the US, when it comes to "cruelty—free" claims you can only trust third party certifications. Currently, there are three official certifications, each with a different set of criteria, summarized below:
PETA Cruelty Free
Choose Cruelty Free
Out of the three, PETA Cruelty Free is the most loosely defined certification. So even though I love the work PETA does to end animal cruelty in general, I do not place a lot of value in PETA's certification. The guidelines are too loose without checkpoints in place to ensure certification credibility. It is almost the same as brands claiming cruelty—free on their own.
Leaping Bunny takes cruelty—free a few steps further than PETA. It is considered the gold standard in cruelty—free for personal care and household product companies. It is more difficult to get this certification which makes it more trustworthy and meaningful. Because of this, you will find that fewer beauty brands have this certification. But for those that do, you can feel good about buying their products.
If a brand claims "cruelty—free" or "not tested on animals" but they don’t have one of the third party certifications mentioned above, then that brand is not transparent or might be even lying to the consumers.
Why? Because the process for getting cruelty—free certified is easy and affordable, if in fact, a brand doesn’t test on animals. Getting certified is free and licensing the logo for use on packaging, ads, and website is only a few hundred dollars, as a one time fee. Hence, for North American brands especially, there is no excuse to claim cruelty—free without certification.
“Certifications matter, because anyone can claim to be cruelty—free, but without proof, it’s a meaningless statement.” Jane Iredale
Cruelty—Free Is Not Free Of Cruelty
Cruelty—free laws and certifications ban only testing on live animals, but do not ban tests on animal parts.
Cruelty—free brands are often owned by parent company who is not cruelty—free
Use of unethical animal—derived ingredients is allowed under cruelty—free certifications and laws
Cruelty—free only tells us about testing on animals, but does not take into account cruelty towards people, workers, and environment.
So let's assume that a US brand wants to be responsible and transparent and they get one of the cruelty—free certifications. Does that mean their products are completely free of cruelty? Well, not exactly. Besides legal loopholes described above, there are several other issues with cruelty—free claim.
Cruelty—Free Bans Only Testing on Live Animals
Many tests allowed under cruelty—free certifications and laws only ban testing on live animals, but do not ban in vitro methods on animal parts.
One example is the very often used eye irritancy safety test — BCOP (bovine cornea opacity permeability test), done on cornea from cow eyes obtained from the meat industry. This test was originally developed to replace the Draize test, where chemicals were dropped directly into the eyes of live bunnies. Upcycling parts from the food industry that would otherwise be thrown out is obviously much better than doing tests on live animals. But are these tests (or more importantly, the meat industry as a whole) actually cruelty—free? Things are not as black and white as we want them to be and the issue of balance between safety and animal testing is real.
"PETA accepts BCOP test (done on cow's eyes) as an interim test for eye irritation until non—animal models are developed and validated." PETA
BCOP eye irritancy test conducted on cow's retina (Image credit: DOI: 10.1093/bmb/ldv002)
Cruelty—Free Brands Can Have Parent Company That Tests on Animals
This is usually the case with big, international cosmetic companies like Unilever, Revlon, L'Oreal, etc. who own some cruelty—free brands, usually through acquisition, but allow animal testing for their other brands. Some examples include:
Aveda — owned by Estée Lauder
BareMinerals — owned by Shiseido
Bite Beauty — owned by Kendo which is owned by LVMH
Dermalogica — owned by Unilever
Drunk Elephant — owned by Shiseido
Kylie Cosmetics — 51% owned by Coty
IT Cosmetics — owned by L’Oréal
Unethical Animal—Derived Ingredients Are Allowed
Both law and cruelty—free certifications allow use of unethical animal—derived ingredients. These ingredients, while not tested on animals, are made from or by animals that are killed or handled inhumanly. Beeswax and cochineal red dye, made out of crushed bugs, are some examples. To read more about this issue, check out my other post Why You Cannot Claim Cruelty—Free and Use Beeswax.
PETA addresses this issue with their certification Cruelty free and Vegan, which restricts use of animal—derived ingredients.
Cruelty—Free Only Applies to Animal Testing
This is my biggest beef with cruelty—free claims. Preventing animal cruelty is obviously important but what about other forms of cruelty, such as cruelty towards people or the environment?
Why is it accepted that cruelty—free certifications and laws don't tell us anything about child labor, inhumane working conditions, exploitive worker practices, or lack of fair trade in the supply chain? And what about environmental cruelty: carbon footprint, deforestation, water usage, or toxic waste disposal practices of cosmetic companies and suppliers? Shouldn’t all this fall under the “cruelty—free” label?
One example is the issue of child labor in mica mining in India. Mica is a mineral widely used in cosmetics to impart shimmer and sparkle in color cosmetics, as well as glow and illuminating effect in skincare. However, natural mica comes with a dark secret, as it is estimated that up to 22,000 children are involved in mica mining in just two Indian states. Last year, Rhianna's Fenty Beauty came under fire for allegations of using mica derived from child labor.
Can a brand truly be “cruelty—free” if they are benefiting from cruel practices in their supply chain, such as child labor? Today, legally this is possible, but ethically in my opinion, it is worth a boycott.