What Does Cruelty-Free Mean?

Cruelty-free means that the products are not currently tested on animals.

This term is typically used for cosmetics as part of an effort to cater to those who are trying to be more conscious about animal treatment.

However, since there are no legal definitions for this term, there are some loopholes in how these terms are used. For example, a product can be called cruelty-free because the final product isn’t tested on animals, even if the ingredients themselves were.

As such, it’s important to have a better understanding of what cruelty-free actually means and how it applies to the skincare products you use. This is especially true if you’re seeking out options that will help you remain aligned with your personal ethics.

In this guide, we’ll go over the meaning of cruelty-free, relevant certifications, and how to identify products you can use. Keep reading or use the links below to learn more.

What Is Cruelty-Free Skincare?

Cruelty-free products in the skincare and cosmetics industry have not been tested on animals. It's an ethical approach to skincare that reflects the growing consumer demand for more humane and compassionate practices across the board. In recent years, the cruelty-free movement has inspired many brands to adopt ethical practices that take animal rights into consideration.

When a skincare product is labeled cruelty-free, it means no components of the product, from the ingredients to the final product itself, require animal testing.

What's animal testing? Many cosmetics manufacturers use animals to test product safety and skin reactions. However, while good for human safety, many of these tests put the animal at risk of illness, injury, or worse.

Cruelty-free testing is a crucial distinction for conscious consumers who seek to make informed decisions about the products they use. Supporting cruelty-free skincare brands is a powerful way to encourage the industry to continue moving towards a more ethical and environmentally responsible future.

Close up of a person wearing blue gloves using a dropper to put product on a disc for testing.

The History of “Cruelty-Free”

Now that we’ve answered “what does cruelty-free mean?”, let's dive into the background of this movement.

You can trace the history of the cruelty-free movement back more than a century, when public awareness of animal testing began to grow.

One such organization, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), or Cruelty-Free International, was founded in 1898 to challenge animal testing practices. In 1978, they introduced the Leaping Bunny logo, which became an internationally recognized symbol for cruelty-free products. This logo helped consumers easily identify and support ethical brands.

Early pioneers, like Henry Spira, a prominent animal rights activist, sought to expose the inhumane practices of animal experimentation in the cosmetic and skincare industry. This awareness led to the rise of various organizations and campaigns advocating for an end to animal testing.

During the 1990s, celebrities joined the fight against animal cruelty, greatly increasing awareness. This decade saw the introduction of alternative testing methods, such as in vitro testing and computer modeling. These innovative tests provided more humane options for product safety evaluations.

Graphic featuring a circle partially filled with text that reads, “42 countries have passed laws banning cosmetic animal testing. Source: Humane Society International”.

As public opinion shifted, a growing number of countries began to introduce legislation to ban or limit animal testing in cosmetics.

The European Union became a leader in this area, implementing a full ban on animal-tested cosmetics in 2013. This landmark decision further inspired other countries to enact similar legislation and helped solidify the importance of cruelty-free practices in the cosmetics and skincare industry.

Cruelty-Free vs. Vegan

Cruelty-free and vegan are terms that are often used in the skincare and cosmetics industry, and while they both promote ethical practices, they represent different aspects of product formulation and testing.

Cruelty-free products aren't currently tested on animals in their final form. It focuses on the ethical treatment of animals and ensuring that no harm is done to them during the testing of products.

Cruelty-free products may contain animal products like beeswax, honey, or lanolin. Additionally, because of the lack of legal restrictions, cruelty-free can be used for products where the raw ingredients themselves have been tested on animals in the past.

Vegan, on the other hand, pertains to the ingredients within a product. Vegan skincare and cosmetic products don't have any animal-derived ingredients. This means that they're free from substances like collagen, keratin, and other ingredients that are sourced from animals.

While vegan products prioritize the exclusion of animal-derived ingredients, they may not necessarily be cruelty-free if they have been tested on animals.

Cruelty-Free Certification

Cruelty-free certification is an essential aspect of ensuring that skincare and cosmetic products adhere to ethical standards and do not involve animal testing.

Two of the most prominent certifications in the industry are the Leaping Bunny program and PETA's Beauty Without Bunnies program, each providing a different approach to cruelty-free certification.

Leaping Bunny

Leaping Bunny is run by Cruelty-Free International and its partners, including the Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Alliance of Canada. This certification is widely recognized for its rigorous standards and thorough monitoring process.

To obtain the Leaping Bunny certification, a company must adhere to a strict set of criteria, which includes a supplier monitoring system, a fixed cut-off date for animal testing, and regular independent audits.

The Leaping Bunny logo on a product assures consumers that the product and its ingredients have not been tested on animals at any stage of development.


PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has a cruelty-free certificate program called Beauty Without Bunnies.

Companies seeking PETA's cruelty-free certification must complete a questionnaire detailing their animal testing policies and provide signed assurances that they do not conduct, commission, or pay for animal tests. PETA's cruelty-free logo, featuring a rabbit, indicates that the product is free from animal testing.

While PETA's certification process may be less rigorous than the Leaping Bunny program, it still plays a vital role in raising awareness and promoting cruelty-free practices within the environmentally friendly cosmetics and skincare industry.

Graphic showing 16 bottlers filled in out of 100 with text that reads, “16% of people said animal-welfare was important to them when buying personal care products. Source: Statista”.

Why Is Buying Cruelty-Free Important?

Here are some of the main reasons people use cruelty-free products:

  • Consumer awareness and influence: When consumers demand cruelty-free products, they create a ripple effect in the industry, encouraging more companies to adopt ethical practices and make a positive change. This collective influence can ultimately help shift the industry towards a more compassionate and responsible future.
  • Alternative testing methods: Cruelty-free products promote the development and use of alternative testing methods, such as in vitro testing and computer modeling. These alternatives are often more accurate, efficient, and cost-effective than animal testing, resulting in safer and more reliable products for consumers.
  • Environmental impact: Animal testing can contribute to environmental problems, such as habitat destruction and pollution from the disposal of animal carcasses and laboratory waste. By supporting cruelty-free brands, you help reduce these environmental issues and promote a more sustainable beauty industry.
  • Health-conscious choice: Cruelty-free products often contain fewer harmful chemicals and synthetic ingredients, as many ethical brands are also committed to using natural and organic ingredients. This can lead to a lower risk of skin irritation, allergic reactions, and other potential skin health concerns.

If you want to help protect animal rights and foster a more ethical beauty industry, it’s important to consider what’s going into the creation of the products you use. One way to do that is by using cruelty-free skincare products.

Check out our Sun Science resources to help you learn more about reading product labels and using skincare and cosmetics that are better for the world around us.

Graphic with text that reads, “Interest in trying vegan beauty and personal care products by generation:” and a gray bar labeled as “28% of Millennials” and a blue bar labeled as “32% of Gen Z”.

How to Identify Cruelty-Free Products

Identifying cruelty-free products can be simplified by knowing what to look for on the packaging. Here are some key indicators that can help you determine if a product is cruelty-free:

  • Certification logos: Look for certification logos from recognized cruelty-free organizations, such as the Leaping Bunny logo (a leaping rabbit) or PETA's Beauty Without Bunnies logo (a rabbit's face). These logos indicate that the product has met specific cruelty-free criteria set by these organizations.
  • Cruelty-free statements: Some cruelty-free brands may not have a certification but still indicate their cruelty-free status through statements on their packaging. Phrases like "not tested on animals," "against animal testing," or "cruelty-free" can be helpful in identifying such products. However, be cautious, as these statements may not be independently verified.
  • Check the brand's website: Do you want to investigate a product's cruelty-free status? Head over to the brand's website for details. Ethical brands usually provide clear information about their cruelty-free practices and any certifications they hold.
  • Consult cruelty-free databases: Several organizations maintain updated lists or searchable databases of cruelty-free brands, such as Cruelty-Free International's Leaping Bunny Approved Brands List or PETA's searchable database. These resources can help you verify if a brand is cruelty-free.
  • Mobile apps: There are also mobile apps, like Cruelty Cutter or Bunny Free, that allow you to scan a product's barcode or search for a brand to determine its cruelty-free status.

Look out for misleading packaging. It's essential to do your research to ensure that a product is genuinely cruelty-free. By being vigilant and informed, you can make ethical choices and support cruelty-free brands that prioritize animal welfare.

Revamp Your Skincare with Cruelty-Free Treatments

Choosing cruelty-free skincare treatments and products is an important step toward promoting ethical practices and animal welfare in the beauty industry. By opting for cruelty-free products, you support the development of alternative testing methods, contribute to a more sustainable environment, and make health-conscious choices for your skin.

When revamping your skincare routine, consider trying Colorescience's vegan sunscreen.

Colorescience is committed to offering all-natural sunscreen that’s 100% cruelty-free. Our mineral-based sunscreens not only protect your skin but also uphold ethical standards. By incorporating cruelty-free options like Colorescience into your daily routine, you can make a positive impact on both your skin and the world around you.