Guide to Cruelty-Free Skincare & Cosmetics - The Dermatology Review
Close

Guide to Cruelty-Free Skincare & Cosmetics

Cruelty-free skincare and cosmetic products are not tested on animals.

In the past, it was believed that animal testing helped to prove safety and efficacy, but this is no longer true. Even if some products are not tested on animals, they may still contain chemicals that have been tested on animals at some point.

In many companies, animal testing is being phased out. This is not just because animal testing is cruel, but also because the scientific results are not as useful as previously believed.

Vegan cosmetics and skincare products are considered cruelty-free in most cases, as their components come from plants rather than animals. While it is rare, some vegan products are tested on animals, so they are not necessarily cruelty-free.
Ingredients derived from animals may not be easy to recognize since the names are obscure. Learning about the most common animal-derived chemicals can help you decipher labels and ingredients lists.

You can find cruelty-free products easily in many stores, especially online. It is also getting easier to find vegan products online and in stores. 

Healthier Skincare & Cosmetic Choices

Many people struggle with skin conditions off and on for their entire lives. Dry or scaly skin, acne, pimples, rosacea, eczema, and even autoimmune conditions like lupus can make your skin look unhealthy or feel uncomfortable.

You want your skin to be as bright and clear as possible, which means you want products that have been approved by a dermatologist and have few harsh chemicals in them. Ideally, skincare products that are cruelty-free and vegan will help you clear your skin, but you want to make sure that their claims are true.

In many cases, cruelty-free and vegan skincare products can be the best choices for over-the-counter options. Ask your dermatologist for recommendations to help you find good solutions.

You might be confused by the dozens of health claims made on the labels or advertising of some products. Labels include claims that the products are eco-friendly, green, organic, natural, or not tested on animals. We break down what all these mean below.

The Impact of Animal Testing & Animal Products

Scientists have used laboratory animals to study the effects of many chemicals for a long time. The reactions that animals have can help us understand how humans might interact with these chemicals in their environment.

These tests are regulated around the world by government agencies and watchdog groups, including the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). These groups use scientific research studies to approve certain products for health and safety, and to recall products that have failed these tests.

These agencies determine which types of testing are needed before a product is approved, keeping as many products as possible safe for human use. The regulations also reduce environmental harm and animal cruelty as much as possible.

Thanks to advances in technology, it is possible to have modern skincare and cosmetic products approved without being tested on animals. Many of these products use vegan ingredients, meaning the chemicals are derived from plants rather than animals. These products may make different health and safety manufacturing claims, and they can sometimes be approved by regulators without certain types of scientific data. 

What Does ‘Cruelty-Free’ Mean? Why Is It Important in Cosmetics or Skincare?

The term cruelty-free typically means that a product has not been directly tested on animals; therefore, there is no animal cruelty involved in the finished product. When you see this label, you can feel confident that the lipstick, concealer, lotion, cleanser, or other product you use has not been directly tested on animals in a laboratory setting.

However, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no restrictions on the use of these terms in product marketing. Therefore, claims like “not tested on animals” or “cruelty-free” are not part of the skincare product safety regulation process.

The FDA notes that these terms are most likely to apply to finished products, so the direct item you purchase has not been tested on animals. However, products that go into the finished item may have been tested on animals, especially if the product uses chemicals that have been used in skincare or cosmetics for a long time.

Many skincare companies have stopped testing on animals, which is a positive step. And many are seeking materials for their products that are ethically sourced, vegan, and eco-friendly. However, not every part of a cosmetic or skincare product will come from an ethical source.

The FDA does list several laws related to truth in advertising and listed ingredients in several products. Cosmetics, skincare, food, and household products’ packaging must be truthful, based on clear definitions of each of these categories.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates terms used in advertising to prevent false claims about health and safety. This includes some claims about cruelty-free products, vegan ingredients, and eco-friendly options or safety.

The FTC does not approve products for safety or for sale. As a result, they cannot guarantee that some companies will not falsely use terms like vegan, cruelty-free, or not tested on animals.

Animal Testing: Harmful to Animals & Humans

Although animal testing helped scientists understand the potential harms of chemicals early on in medical and product testing, there are many arguments for why using laboratory animals is no longer necessary or even valid. In fact, animal testing may lead to harm due to misleading evidence that is gathered during the process.

While mammals like rats, pigs, chimpanzees, or other animals have some similar biological processes to humans, they might not be similar enough to provide any useful evidence of the long-term benefit or harm of a product. This misleading information can cause harm to humans who use products like lotions, powders, or cosmetics over many years and develop chronic illnesses or even cancer.

According to an article published in 2015, about 115 million animals are used in scientific research all over the world. The article noted several reasons that maintaining animal testing practices for safety research was both cruel and inaccurate. 

  • There are differences in laboratory environments. Animals’ physiology and behaviors vary greatly in different laboratory settings. Many lab animals live in windowless rooms for their entire lives, which can change their mental health, stress levels, and even genetic expression.

    Animals living in their natural environment in their specific social groups exhibit certain behaviors, while the same animal living inside a lab with very different social groups is likely to have higher levels of stress hormones, greater damage to internal organs, changes in brain size and chemistry, and a shorter lifespan.

    While some moves have been made to standardize lab environments internationally, these standards have not been formally put in place. Without standardization, the variation in effects on animals can drastically change test results.
  • Humans and animals develop different diseases. Even in studies on the toxicity of certain chemicals that go into skincare products or cosmetics, few are able to take into account how the chemicals will impact a human long term compared to a laboratory animal.

    Some lab animals like rats or mice are bred for gene expression for certain diseases like cancer, diabetes, or even Alzheimer’s at closer to human levels, but this still will not provide the same results as long-term human testing or observation.
  • Different animals have different physiology and genetics. It may seem obvious, but different animals have different genetic expressions, which can lead to different reactions to certain chemicals.

    For example, the difference between chimpanzees and laboratory rats can lead to vastly different test results for the same chemical, even in similar conditions. Neither result may reflect how the chemical affects a human being. 

Animal testing typically looks at direct, immediate harm caused by products that could irritate sensitive areas like the eyes or mouth; what harm could be caused by repeatedly ingesting large amounts of the product; or tests that specifically measure a potentially lethal dose. Again, since humans react to chemicals differently to most animals, these tests are considered cruel. They rarely provide very useful results.

Unfortunately, many laboratory animals are not protected under the United States Animal Welfare Act.

What Are Vegan Cosmetics & Skincare Products?

Vegan products are made from entirely non-animal products; there is no milk, no fat, and no honey in the products. Everything in the products come from a plant.

While vegan products are often associated with being cruelty-free since they do not involve using animals to manufacture a chemical, this does not mean that vegan products are not tested on animals. Since many of them are new, they may still be tested on animals for safety reasons before being approved.

Again, many types of animal testing are being phased out around the world. This means cruelty-free products overlap with vegan products much more often.

Animal products have been used in cosmetics, skincare, hair care, and for many other uses for thousands of years. While animal testing and long-term human use have proven that chemicals derived from animal sources are often safe, many researchers are finding that plant-based alternatives are at least as effective, if not more so. Plant-based chemicals might be less irritating for many people with otherwise sensitive skin, for example.

As scientists learn more, many companies are rushing to replace their old animal products with vegan versions because these alternatives do exist. In the future, they may become easier to access than animal products.

The Most Common Animal Ingredients in Your Skincare & Makeup

Even cruelty-free products may contain chemicals derived from animals. Unfortunately, many of these are not obtained through humane methods.

Here are some of the most common animal products that may be lurking in otherwise cruelty-free, but non-vegan, skincare products and cosmetics: 

  • Albumen: Typically derived from egg whites, this chemical is also found in muscles, blood, and milk. It is a coagulating agent. The eggs are not likely to be sourced from ethical farms.
  • Allantoin or alcloxa: Uric acid is found in most mammals, but it typically comes from cows. It is a common ingredient in lotions and creams. The chemical can come from plants. In vegan products, it may be listed as comfrey root extract.
  • Amino acids, animal fats, and oils: Found in dozens of cosmetics, vitamins, supplements, shampoos, and other hair care products, these have many uses, but they typically do not come from a fully cruelty-free source. Plant-based replacements include coconut oil, wheat germ oil, flaxseed oil, synthetics, and other options.
  • Beeswax and honeycomb: These are extremely common texturing and moisturizing compounds found in lipstick, lip gloss, lotions, eye creams, mascara, and other cosmetics. They are melted down from wax obtained from virgin bees. While harm is not necessarily done to the bees, there is mixed information on how safe these products are for long-term use on human skin.
  • Caprylic acid: Commonly found in soap and perfume, this is a liquid fatty acid found in cow’s or goat’s milk. The same chemical can come from palm or coconut oils, and a vegan product may list these ingredients instead of the chemical name.
  • Elastin: This is a protein found in ligaments and aortas, often derived from cows. While many skincare products promote elastin to tighten skin and reduce wrinkles, this chemical has no such effect when applied directly to the skin. Proteins from plant tissues are more effective.
  • Gel or gelatin: One of the oldest animal products in use, this comes from boiling the bones, tendons, ligaments, and skin of animals like horses, cows, and pigs in hot water. It is widely used in food and cosmetic products. Alternatives from plants include agar-agar, carrageenan, seaweeds, pectin, dextrin, cotton gum, and silica gel.
  • Keratin: A protein found in hair, nails, and hooves, this chemical typically comes from ground-up horns, feathers, hooves, or hair from several types of animals. It is often found in shampoos and hair rinses. Vegan replacements include soy protein, amla oil, or almond oil.
  • Lecithin: This waxy substance is an important part of the nerves and nervous tissue in animals, including humans. It is found in food and cosmetics products, including lipstick, eye cream, lotions and hand creams, soaps, and even some medicines. Alternatives include soybean lecithin.
  • “Natural” sources: Food and skincare products that have chemicals derived from natural sources are largely considered part of a positive step toward environmentally friendly and healthier products. However, this is not inherently true. Many of the natural sources are animal sources. Look instead for plant sources specifically.
  • Stearic acid: Found in candles, hairspray, conditioners, deodorants, and even chewing gum, this agent might be harsh on the skin or irritating to the eyes or mouth. It often comes from animals like pigs, sheep, and cows. Plant-based sources include vegetable fats, especially coconut.
  • Vitamin A: More skincare and cosmetics products are adding vitamins to their list of ingredients to keep your skin healthy for longer. Most sources of vitamin A come from fish, including sharks, eggs, or butter. It is easy to find plant-based alternatives, including carrots, lemongrass, and wheat grass. 

There are many more chemicals derived from animals that are common in skincare, cosmetics, hair care, household cleaners, food, and more. It’s becoming increasingly easy to find vegan alternatives, as more people understand that harm to animals doesn’t just come from laboratory testing, but also from how animals are raised, fed, and slaughtered.

Outside Resources for Finding Cruelty-Free Cosmetics & Skincare Products

While many chemicals have been tested on animals at some point in the past, there is now enough long-term use by humans to understand how safe a product truly is. There are thousands of cosmetic and skincare chemicals that we know are safe to use, even over decades. There are also over 50 tests on product safety that do not involve animal harm, and many more being developed.

There are several resources available to help you find trusted cruelty-free brands. Here are some of the leading sites: 

  • Cruelty Free International: This nonprofit organization allows you to browse categories, including skincare and cosmetics. The group receives no government or lottery funding, and it is not endorsed by a specific cosmetic or skincare company. Information provided on the site comes from knowledgeable consumers who report the products they like the most.
  • The Humane Society: This is another nonprofit organization invested in the health and safety of animals, from pets to wildlife to laboratory animals. The group receives funding from individual donors and some organizations, but it is not sponsored by specific cosmetics or household product companies. Their page on how to find cruelty-free products online points you toward specific labels and how to find them on websites like Amazon.
  • Cruelty-Free Kitty: This small organization started as a blog to help readers navigate the world of cruelty-free products. Now, they have several pages of information to help you sort out which brands at your local drug store are truly cruelty-free. When you know which labels you can trust, you can go right for those items rather than endlessly reading labels or hoping the marketing is accurate.
  • PETA: Although notorious for their animal rights protestors, this famous nonprofit organization does a lot of good for animal welfare, spreading information about cruelty-free and vegan products. They have a page dedicated to cruelty-free and vegan cosmetics and skincare products, which are affordable and easy to find.

Outside Sources for the Best Vegan Skincare & Cosmetics

Many vegan products are also cruelty-free. Websites recommending either cruelty-free or vegan products typically list products that are both.

Here are some solid sources for vegan skincare and cosmetics: 

  • The Good Trade: Their page titled “Upgrade Your Beauty Routine With These 15 Vegan-Friendly & Cruelty-Free Makeup Brands“ lists several options that you can order online or find in stores. Started in Los Angeles, The Good Trade focuses on finding the best products for sustainability and creating a community around conscious living.
  • Glamour: Beauty magazines like Glamour routinely round up the most beloved cosmetics and skincare options for different lists, including vegan options for those seeking to lessen their environmental impact and avoid animal cruelty. Their article, “The Vegan Makeup, Skincare, and Haircare Our Beauty Editors Love,” can help you find recognizable brands.
  • Ethical Elephant: This is a guide to cruelty-free and vegan products for all needs. Their page “Cruelty-Free & Vegan Makeup – Affordable Drugstore Brands (2020)“ can help you find the best and most affordable vegan cosmetics and skincare at your local store.
  • The Tasty Vegan: Founded as a blog to help vegans get the best possible nutrition, this site now guides anyone living a vegan lifestyle to find brands for any use, including skincare and cosmetics. Their page “Vegan Makeup Brands” makes direct recommendations. PETA: This nonprofit keeps an up-to-date list of vegan companies that do not test on animals, merging the best of both ethical worlds. You can scan this list to look up the companies and order directly from them.

References:
Common Skin Diseases and Conditions. (March 29, 2017). Medical News Today.
RE: Public Comment on Green Guides – Organic Roundtable, Project No. P954501. (November 2016). Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Safety Testing: Science, Medicine, and Animals. (2004). National Research Council.
“Cruelty Free”/“Not Tested on Animals.” (August 2020). United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Cosmetics Labeling Guide. (August 2020). The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Green Guides. Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The Flaws and Human Harms of Animal Experimentation. (October 2015). Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics.
Cosmetics Testing FAQ. The Humane Society of the United States.
A 30-Second Explanation on the Difference Between Vegan and Cruelty-Free Products. (August 2020). BuzzFeed.
Why You Should Care About Vegan Beauty. (February 2019). The New York Times.
Animal-Derived Ingredients List. PETA.
Vegan Companies that Don’t Test on Animals. MediaPeta.
What Does Cruelty-Free Skincare Mean? (April 2019). Kate Somerville.
12 Cruelty-Free Skincare Brands We Love. (July 2020). VegOut.
A Beginner’s Guide to Vegan and Cruelty-Free Makeup and Skin Care. (July 2019). SELF.
Vegan Skincare: What Does Ethical & Natural Really Mean? (January 2021). Plant Based News.