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The Difference Between Cruelty-Free and Vegan Skincare: The Ultimate Guide

12 July 2018

It's clear that cruelty-free and vegan cosmetics are quickly growing in popularity. But what do those terms actually mean? What is the difference between them? And why do companies even bother to say a product is cruelty-free if it's also labelled vegan?

Good questions – and the answers are not as straight-forward as you might think..

'Cruelty-free' refers to animal testing, and 'vegan' to ingredients

The term 'cruelty-free' in the beauty industry refers most commonly to animal testing and not to ingredients. The term remains unregulated, so there is no official definition.

Ugh. Sound familiar?

(I previously wrote about the lack of definitions of terms such as 'natural' and 'organic').

The most commonly accepted definition is that neither the product nor its ingredients have been tested on animals by the manufacturer nor by a third party.

Certain certifications go further. For example, the Choose Cruelty-Free certification in Australia does not allow brands to have an animal-testing parent company. But this is not the international standard.

So, that's cruelty-free - what about vegan?

The term ‘vegan’ in the beauty industry often refers only to the ingredients, and not to animal testing. This seems like a contradiction: indeed, many vegans would consider that the label vegan by its very definition should mean the product is also cruelty-free.

Unfortunately, in the cosmetic industry the label usually refers purely to the ingredients. And strangely enough, products do exist which are labelled vegan but which are not cruelty-free. An example is a 'vegan' product sold in China, where animal testing is still mandatory for most categories of products.

why it is risky to assume vegan means cruelty free

How to tell which products are both cruelty-free and vegan

Look for products which say they are both cruelty-free and vegan. As always, read the ingredients to double-check and visit the company’s website or send them an email if you are unsure. You can always look for products with The Vegan Society trademark (these products are required to be cruelty-free). There is also a 'cruelty-free and vegan' version of the PETA logo.

Vegan society and PETA Logos

Not all products labelled 'cruelty-free' are actually cruelty-free

Brands can either deliberately or ignorantly make their products seem more animal-friendly than they really are. This is a complex topic with an article all of its own! Click here or on the image below to go have a read.

Not all products labelled 'vegan' are actually vegan

This example is less common but does exist. While researching products for Lumabelle I came across brands who confirmed their products were vegan, but who actually used carmine from red beetles to create red and pink make-up pigments. While you can't expect the average person to have any idea what carmine is, someone running a cosmetics company and claiming to be vegan should absolutely know. They should also be aware of the origin of all ingredients to ensure none are animal-sourced.

The unfortunate reality is that the term ‘vegan’ in the cosmetics industry commonly means: ‘this product doesn't contain any of the most obvious animal ingredients’. There still might be lesser known animal ingredients and there still might have been animal-testing.

Let me start by giving you a visual idea of the possibilities:

venn diagram showing the overlap of cruelty-free vegan and clean in the cosmetics industry

Not all vegan products are also cruelty-free [3 + 5]

As mentioned above, the term vegan in the beauty industry refers only to ingredients (except for certain vegan certifications). This means that some products are labelled as vegan but are tested on animals (i.e. they are not cruelty-free).

This was the case with a L’Oréal product which caused some anger in late 2017. Lots of consumers were mad that L’Oréal was labelling one of their products as vegan despite having been tested on animals. The product had been tested on animals in order to be sold in China, where animal testing is still mostly mandatory. But the L’Oréal product in question did not contain any animal-sourced ingredients and as such, their use of the vegan label was no different to many other examples in the industry:

According to the (US) FDA: The unrestricted use of these phrases by cosmetic companies is possible because there are no legal definitions for these terms. This means that although L'Oréal's 'vegan' label isn't true in the ethical sense of the can apply the label because the product doesn't contain any animal products. This can make it difficult for consumers to know what they are really buying.

Not all cruelty-free products are also vegan [1 + 4]

Demand for cruelty-free products continues to increase – and brands are listening. But while the number of cruelty-free products on the market is expanding, not all of these are vegan.

The Leaping Bunny certification for example only concerns itself with animal testing and does not consider the source of ingredients. So if you are searching for vegan products the Leaping Bunny symbol is not enough on its own.

Not all cruelty-free or vegan products have clean ingredients [1, 2 + 3]

There are lots of vegan products that have terrible ingredient lists. And again, many 'mainstream' products with bad ingredient lists are labelled cruelty-free or vegan due to rising consumer demand for more ethical products.

Sometimes an ingredient usually sourced from animals will be substituted with a synthetic ingredient of the same function. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the synthetic version is sometimes less 'clean'.

Not all products with clean ingredient lists are cruelty-free or vegan [4, 5 + 6]

In fact, the term 'natural' in the skincare industry generally implies use of non-synthetic ingredients. For this reason they quite often contain animal ingredients or by-products.

Many consumers assume that natural and organic cosmetics are the same as vegan cosmetics – and the other way round. Natural cosmetics contain plant material but also just a few substances of animal origin like bees wax. Since synthetic ingredients are not permitted, in a number of cases animal substances are a proven alternative. This is not so with vegan cosmetics, where no substances whatsoever of animal origin are used. However, synthetic ingredients are permitted....Thus, vegan cosmetics are not always synonymous with natural cosmetics, although natural and organic cosmetics can certainly be vegan!


Reading the ingredients list is not enough

Some ingredients can be either plant or animal sourced, or made synthetically, and often the label won’t specify. Here are some common examples which, while possible to derive from plant material, are often animal-sourced:

List of ingredients that can be both plant or animal sourced

If you want to make sure you’re getting a vegan product you might need to ask the company about the source of the ingredient. Some brands are really proactive in giving information on the source of ingredients. Pacifica for example will specify, wherever they use an ingredient which can in theory be sourced from animals, that it is plant-based.

'Accidentally vegan' cosmetics are not trustworthy

A lot of vegans rejoice at what they call 'accidental' vegan food. You know, packet of biscuits that coincidentally don't contain any butter or powdered milk..

..but these products aren't necessarily vegan. The same can be said of personal care products.


As just explained, many ingredients used in skincare and cosmetics can be sourced from both plants and animals, or made synthetically, and usually won't specify this (the INCI-label name for the ingredient is the same regardless of the source).

This means that brands have to consciously do an effort to ensure all the ingredients they source are actually vegan. Yes, the possibility exists that a product is accidentally vegan. But you simply can't be sure unless either the product contains no ingredients which could potentially be from animal origin, or unless the brand expressly states that the product is vegan (or has a vegan certification).

...judging a single product only according to the ingredients list and looking for alternatives can end up being an almost hopeless endeavour. For [this] reason, distinct labelling of final products is the easiest and surest way – and probably the only practicable way – of recognising vegan cosmetics.

Veganissimo A to Z – A Comprehensive Guide to Identifying and Avoiding Ingredients of Animal Origin in Everyday Products, by Reuben Proctor and Lars Thomsen

Want to be sure the product is cruelty-free, vegan AND clean? [7]

Hopefully this article helps make reading labels a little less overwhelming. But if it all seems too confusing or hard, rest assured that every single product for sale at Lumabelle ticks all three boxes: always cruelty free, totally vegan and with clean ingredients lists!

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