What Is the Difference Between Vegan and Cruelty-Free?

A few weeks ago, I worked on a post about all the vegan brands sold at Sephora. It was an eye-opening task because I discovered that many brands I’d assumed were vegan (because they were labeled cruelty-free) were actually not.

Many great-looking lines that were both advertised and recommended by sales staff as cruelty-free didn’t list any ingredients. So naturally I started making calls to companies for more information.

I was very surprised to discover, first of all, that most customer service reps had no idea what I was talking about. No, really: I had to explain to them what “vegan” was and even then they had to check with someone above them because no one knew if their products were vegan. Turns out the vast majority of products labeled “cruelty-free” still contained animal ingredients. Sometimes, some products in a line were vegan, but definitely not all of them.

So, what is the difference between vegan and cruelty-free?

It’s actually pretty simple. Vegan means that a product contains no animal ingredients. For cosmetics this means things like tallow (animal fat), beeswax (obvious), lanolin (from sheep fur), etc. But it’s not just cosmetics. A lot of makeup brushes and false eyelashes also contain animal hair or fur. I once mistakenly bought a hair bush from Whole Foods that had bristles made from boar hair. Yeah. Who’d even think to check something like that?

So, when shopping for vegan products/cosmetics, you want to make sure that NOTHING is animal-derived. Very helpful here is that most lines that are entirely vegan will proudly say so. And some brands, like LUSH for example, which are not 100 percent vegan, will clearly mark the products that are. For other lines, you may have to just call and ask like I did since ingredients are usually not listed on cosmetics packaging.

Cruelty-free, in industry speak, means that the product is not tested on animals. I know it sounds insane, but a lot of companies still test things like shampoo, eye shadow, mascara, etc. on animals. It’s incredibly cruel and totally unacceptable. Thankfully, companies are waking up to consumer demands and many have stopped animal tests. Today, major brands like Herbal Essences, Urban Decay, and Wet N Wild refuse to test on animals. Most products that are cruelty-free will also proudly say so. You can usually find something on their packaging either in writing or they’ll display the cruelty-free bunny logo.

Cruelty-free logos

What I find the most confusing about the labels “cruelty-free” and “vegan” with regard to cosmetics is that using “cruelty-free” to describe products that also aren’t vegan is very misleading. Animals are not ingredients or products. And we know that things like tallow and lanolin didn’t just magically appear at the cosmetics factory; they came from animals who were exploited and abused. They came from cruelty. I understand that the phrase “cruelty-free” has historically been used by the industry to specifically refer to animal testing, but still. A product that’s truly cruelty-free should be vegan by definition. By the same token, some products that are accidentally vegan have been tested on animals. That’s equally not cool.

Bottom line: Do your research. Ask questions. Identify the brands that align with your values, and find the products you love. Slaying a lewk should never have to require slaying innocent animals.