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What does Cruelty Free Mean?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Cruelty free is a label that has been adopted by many cosmetic manufacturers who wish to indicate that their products were made without the use of animal testing. It is a voluntary label, and not subject to external audit or inspection. Many consumers seek out cruelty free products because they feel that animals should not be exploited for cosmetic testing.

Animals have been used to test cosmetic products for centuries, in a variety of ways. Rabbits are perhaps most infamously used, because they have delicate eyes and membranes that are employed in the Draize test, a cosmetic test in which products are applied directly to the surface of the eye and the effects documented. However, a variety of other species are employed in animal testing, which cosmetic companies claim ensures the safety of their products.

This claim is under contention from the animal rights movement, which argues that there are cruelty free ways to test cosmetics to make sure that they are not harmful to humans. Extensive education campaigns by animal rights organizations made consumers aware of the extent of animal testing and encouraged consumers to think about the hidden price of their cosmetics. As a result, customer demand caused companies to think about and use alternative testing methods.

Many companies that market cruelty free products also incorporate environmentally sustainable practices, such as the use of recycled materials for their packaging, organic botanical ingredients, and other such measures. Others also refuse to use animal products in their cosmetics, making vegan body care items totally without the use of animals. Not all choose to do so, however, and it is often possible to find inexpensive cruelty free cosmetics and body care products.

Some animal welfare organizations publish lists of companies they have audited, endorsing their cruelty free claims. Many progressive companies seek out approval by a third party, to assure their customers that the products they sell are, in fact, manufactured responsibly. Others decline to respond to requests for inspection, raising questions about their corporate practices. A growing number of cosmetic companies, including international giants, are adopting cruelty free cosmetic testing standards thanks to increased demand.

Animal welfare groups suggest that, when possible, consumers should buy verified cruelty free products, because it encourages companies who have not been endorsed to seek endorsement, and it suggests that there is a market for such products. Market demand has a powerful influence on the types of products that are sold, and each individual purchaser can make a difference, voting with his or her pocketbook for a more animal-friendly lifestyle.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By fify — On Jun 22, 2011

There are some organizations and sites which actually have lists of all the brands that are cruelty free. I was so happy to find the list because it would have been so difficult to look up each and every brand that I use.

I checked for some brands for personal care for the family, including our two month old son and did see some familiar brands on the list, although most of them I have never heard of before. Burt's Bees, Nature's Gate, The Body Shop and Yves Rocher have cruelty free baby products. Alba, Arbonne, Caswell Massey, Dermalogica and Kiss My Face are some of the brands I already use and I'm happy to know that they are cruelty free.

I also checked some of the popular cosmetics brands and found out that Revlon, Physician's Formula and Almay are cruelty free. L'oreal is supposed to go cruelty-free in a couple of years but unfortunately still does testing on animals. But the good news is that there are some brands that I can get at the pharmacy that are completely cruelty free.

By SteamLouis — On Jun 21, 2011

@anon17544-- Actually, that has nothing to do with cruelty free. That's a "period after opening" symbol for products that have active ingredients in them that will at one point expire. That's why you will usually see an M in the can shape, which stands for months and the fact that the lid is open means expiration date after the product has been opened.

Most cruelty free products will actually say "cruelty free" or will have the leaping bunny symbol which is a logo that cruelty free companies apply for and receive after approval. It's internationally recognized as well and will always guarantee that the product was made without cruelty to animals.

A lot of cruelty free products are also natural, organic and vegan so you might see additional symbols on the back of those products. It might say "Vegan," "USDA Organic," and "Certified Natural." If you are just looking for cruelty free, then look for the leaping bunny or an actual statement saying "cruelty free" when you're shopping.

By burcinc — On Jun 18, 2011

I started using organic skin care products last year because I was worried about the chemicals and additives in regular products. These products were also cruelty free, although I was not very particular about checking.

I used to think that animal testing meant that they simply apply the finished product onto the animal's skin, to check for allergic reactions. That's why I've never really worried much about products which are tested on animals.

I am just now learning about what cruelty free really means. I really did not know that the testing entails so much mistreatment of animals and almost always leads to their death. I am an animal lover, I have many pets and even spend time with homeless pets and feed them. Yet I never knew that I am indirectly harming animals by buying products I use at home or that I use for myself.

I feel horrible, but I'm not going to ignore it any longer. I'm going to seek out cruelty free products from now on or use natural ingredients. Thanks for the information, it's an eye opener!

By anon17544 — On Sep 01, 2008

What do the symbols mean on the back of products that claim to be cruelty free? There is one that looks like a can with the top up for example.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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