Is your skincare really cruelty-free?

Many skincare brands are proud to claim they don’t test on animals. But what other factors should we consider when choosing a cruelty-free product?

Is Your Skincare Really Cruelty-Free?
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Is Your Skincare Really Cruelty-Free?

Now more than ever, every dollar we spend has an impact. Choosing to buy from small, local, sustainable or inclusive brands all reflect our morals and values. That's why many of us choose to purchase cruelty-free skincare. But aside from looking for the ionic Leaping Bunny logo, what does cruelty-free really encompass?

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One simple statement often comes to mind when thinking about cruelty-free skincare: ‘Not tested on animals.’ While it is a monumental step for the cosmetics world to edge away from the travesty of animal testing, there are many other ways these brands could be negatively impacting the animals and the planet. So, what else do we need to look out for when considering a truly cruelty free brand?

Cruelty-free labelling

When looking for a cruelty-free product, many of us search for those little bunny logo’s, signifying that no adorable fluffy being had to try on our lipstick before us. What often slips our minds is that only three of these bunny labels are officially recognised, Leaping Bunny, PETA and Choose Cruelty-Free. Although, these labels weren’t created equal. Each has a different level of requirements when classing a brand or product as cruelty-free.

Factors considered for each of these brands include:

Leaping Bunny:

  • The brand does not test on animals.
  • The suppliers do not test on animals.
  • The products are not sold in mainland China.


  • The brand does not test on animals.
  • The suppliers do not test on animals.
  • The products can be sold in China if made in China; this means there may be some level of animal testing involved.

Choose Cruelty-Free:

  • The brand does not test on animals.
  • The suppliers do not test on animals.
  • The products are not sold in mainland China.
  • The brand’s parent company must also be cruelty-free.

Any other label outside of these recognised three can be considered fake. However, this doesn’t mean that the brand isn’t cruelty-free. As cruelty-free is an unregulated term, any brand can put a claim like this on their products. In cases such as this, it’s essential we do our own research.

Does the brand sell in mainland China?

Animal testing claims often come with an asterisk. Despite some brands not testing their products on animals, they may still pay for or allow for third party animal testing. This is often the case for brands that made a move into the mainland Chinese market where animal testing for cosmetics is required by law, even if the products and ingredients have already been deemed completely safe.

There is a glimmer of hope for this situation. From January 1st 2021, China lifted animal testing regulations for some imported cosmetics.

Products classified as ‘ordinary cosmetics’ can now bypass animal testing laws in China if they obtain a GMP Certification and provide a safety assessment. Unfortunately, change does take time, and not all brands are keen on the paperwork involved, so it may be a while before brands pursue the cruelty-free route to mainland China.

It’s also good to keep in mind that overseas brands that sell and ship directly to customers in China via their website have never been obliged to carry out animal testing. Products formulated in China but not sold in China are also not required to participate in animal testing.

Have the individual ingredients been tested on animals?

It makes sense to think that because a brand or product is not tested on animals, the ingredients involved are cruelty-free. However, a brand may be able to slap a ‘not animal tested’ label on the finished product even if they rely on ingredient suppliers and labs that test on animals.

Some companies also use raw ingredients that were once tested on animals back when they were first introduced. These brands can then label their products as cruelty-free if the ingredients are no longer subject to animal testing.

Have animals or animal byproducts been used?

It may shock you to know that cruelty-free products aren’t always vegan and may even include animal products and byproducts. Skincare brands are free to use ingredients like shark derived squalene into your moisturiser and still obtain a recognised cruelty-free logo. Common skincare ingredients derived from animals often include:

  • Collagen
  • Keratin
  • Carmine
  • Squalene
  • Lactose
  • Snail Mucin
  • Lanolin
  • Elastin
  • Biotin
  • Honey
  • Beeswax
  • Royal Jelly

To ensure that animals aren’t harmed in either the formulation or testing stage of your skincare products, look out for brands that are both cruelty-free and vegan.

Does the product contain palm oil?

We may be used to avoiding palm oil in our food, but this disastrous ingredient is in a broad range of products. Palm oil and its derivatives are a significant cause of deforestation and are also commonly used in skincare. Just as skincare can be considered cruelty-free and still contain animal products, the same goes for ingredients that cause harm to wildlife.

Technically vegan, palm oil is one of the world’s most widely traded vegetable oils. Still, to make room for oil palm tree plantations, farmers often bulldoze and burn away large sections of rainforest, subsequently destroying animal habitats and adding to the mix of climate change. Due to these unsustainable practices, palm oil is now the leading cause of orangutan extinction.

Looking out for palm oil in your skincare products can be tricky; this ultimately harmful ingredient hides under the guise of over 200 different names, including:

  • Palm oil
  • Vegetable oil/ Vegetable Fat
  • Palm Kernel or Palm Kernel Oil
  • Palmate
  • Glyceryl
  • Stearic Acid
  • Palmitic Acid
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate/ Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

The Orangutan Alliance has provideda complete list of alternative palm oil names. However, some of these ingredients can also be derived from other plants. If you suspect that a skincare product may contain palm oil, it is best to contact the brand directly.

What about the product’s afterlife?

Just because a product is not tested on animals doesn’t always mean animals won’t be harmed somewhere in the process. This is especially true for the afterlife of a product. Chances are every tub and tube of skincare you’ve used still exists on the planet, either rotting away in landfills over 1000 years or being washed away into the oceans. Spoiler alert neither is good for the environment or our wildlife.

While this issue - like many others in this list - isn’t exclusive to skincare, we can’t deny that the products we buy have an impact on our planet. As consumers, it is our responsibility to ensure we reduce our plastic waste by opting for more sustainable packaging where appropriate, trying our best to reduce our overall consumption and reuse the products and packaging we own. But the blame doesn’t solely fall on us. By choosing to purchase from skincare brands with recycling or refill initiatives, we can reduce the amount of waste that pollutes the Earth and ultimately kills millions of animals per year.

The bottom line

With all these factors in mind, your next skincare restock could turn into a full-blown brand investigation. Which brands sell to China? Have they used ingredients that have been tested on animals? Are the products vegan, or do they contain palm oil? And which brands opt for recycling schemes or use sustainable packaging? Finding a skincare brand that ticks all of these boxes may be a difficult task. In the end, what we prioritise in our skincare is entirely individual, but imagine how much better you’d feel in your skin knowing it was not cared for at the expense of other life.

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