Deconstructing Cruelty-Free Jargon: An Introduction to Some Basic Vocab

Have you ever had an argument with someone during which they accused you of quibbling over semantics?  Well, my professional life is rife with just such debates, and words and their meanings are important to me.  So, I thought I’d post a brief primer on some of the more confusing terms bandied about in the cruelty-free beauty world.

I am by no means an expert on any of this, so I’ll be including links to blogs and other websites on which I rely to stay current.


Cruelty-free: At it’s simplest, this phrase indicates that a brand’s products were not tested on animals. Of course, nothing is ever simple.  It’s my understanding that there isn’t much in the way of regulation of the use of this phrase in and of itself.  Sometimes companies use it when their final products weren’t tested on animals, but their individual ingredients may have been.  Sometimes companies use it when they don’t do the animal-testing themselves, but they pay a 3rd party to do it for them.  Sometimes, the phrase is followed by the tricky “except where required by law”, e.g., China requires products sold in China to be tested on animals, so if a product is being sold in the Chinese market, the brand is conducting animal testing.  Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that products made in China are required to be tested, if they’re made there, but not sold there, than the law doesn’t apply.

My go-to is to look for whether brands have invested the time (and $) to obtain cruelty-free certification:

For more on this sort of labeling, check out this fabulous tutorial by Suzi of Cruelty-Free Kitty 🙂

Also, just because a company doesn’t have this label, doesn’t automatically mean it’s a no go, since sometimes a company won’t want/be able to spend the time and $ to get the certification.  You can also check out the websites like Logical Harmony and Cruelty-Free Kitty (see my Blog Roll), where tireless bloggers are working to keep us current on who’s who and what’s what in the world of cruelty-free beauty.

Vegan: Indicates that a item does not contain any animal products or animal byproducts.  Some of these are more obvious, honey, bee’s wax… others you might be surprised by… carmine (a red dye, aka cochcineal, cochcineal extract, etc.) can come from insect scales, lanolin can come from sheep’s wool… the list goes on.

As with cruelty-free status, there do appear to be some vegan certifications available that have associated logos you can look for.  My perception is that, at least for beauty products, you see these less frequently than the cruelty-free certifications.  But, again, that doesn’t mean the product isn’t vegan.  Your best bet is to get to know your ingredients!  Logical Harmony has an extremely helpful listing of the animal-based ingredients that tend to pop up in beauty (and household) products.

Organic: Scientifically speaking, all this means is that you’re talking about a carbon-based life form.  In the food- and beauty-marketing world, my understanding is that it indicates that products were produced using only vegetable- or animal-derived fertilizers and pesticides, no synthetic chemicals included.  Practically-speaking, this is a ‘self-regulated’ industry, but you can look for certified-organic labeling.  My perception is that this tends to be a more meaningful designation than ‘green’ or ‘all-natural’… more on that later.

For more on these types of products, a couple of resoures I use are Green Beauty Team and Organic Bunny.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, while oftentimes a brand that offers one of these designations may offer the others,  these terms are not necessarily mutually inclusive.

  • Just because a brand is cruelty-free, doesn’t mean that all their products are vegan. Happily, brands like Milani are leading the way with labeling which of their products are vegan right on their website.
  • Just because a brand has vegan products, doesn’t mean they are cruelty-free… lots of products are ‘accidentally vegan’, meaning they don’t happen to contain animal products.
  • Just because a product is vegan, doesn’t mean it’s good for you or contains healthful ingredients.
  • Just because a product is ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it’s good for you.  There are lots of things that occur in nature that are toxic… neurotoxic scorpions, venomous snakes, poisonous funghi, that’s right, I’m looking at you!

As is often the case in life, once you start asking questions, the only thing that happens is you find out about a whole other set of questions you hadn’t even thought of!  So, what’s a consumer to do?  I mean, we have jobs!  Hopefully, this post has provided a little bit of initial guidance and I encourage those of you who are interested to continue to check back with the sites on my blogroll and the others I’ve listed above, all of which are great resources!

For more on my own views on these sorts of topics, check out my posts on Why I Went Cruelty-Free and apps for Cruely-Free Shopping 🙂




2 replies to “Deconstructing Cruelty-Free Jargon: An Introduction to Some Basic Vocab

  1. HiI I tried to leave this comment a while ago but I deleted it somehow. Just wanted to say THANKS for this post. Love the definitions and the symbols. It inspired me to learn more. Keep up the good work here!

    Liked by 1 person

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