Vegan Versus Cruelty-Free Beauty: What's The Difference On Your Labels?

mbg Editorial Assistant By Jamie Schneider
mbg Editorial Assistant
Jamie Schneider is the Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen with a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan. She's previously written for Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
Beauty Bottles

Image by Martí Sans / Stocksy

While decoding your ingredient labels, you might zero in on the more unfamiliar players (what is cetearyl alcohol, again?). But sometimes the more common phrases warrant some attention, as even the buzziest of catchwords can cause some confusion. The FDA doesn't regulate many commonly used terms (like natural and hypoallergenic), so it only makes sense there would be some unclear definitions among the clean beauty community. 

Let's start with the difference between "vegan" and "cruelty-free." The two might seem similar at first glance, but there are some details worth wrapping your head around. 

Vegan

Vegan beauty products don't contain any animal-derived ingredients. You may find many vegan brands are marketed as "cruelty-free" as well, but the stand-alone "vegan" refers only to the product's actual makeup. That said, just because it doesn't contain any animal ingredients doesn't mean the formula isn't tested on animals themselves. 

Let's talk ingredients for a moment: Sure, you may know that a collagen-infused product includes animal proteins, but there are a few common players you might not realize are animal-derived. Take honey, for example: This superstar ingredient is great for easing inflammation and controlling breakouts, but those committing to a vegan lifestyle may want to steer clear of the bee sap. Same goes for beeswax, as well as carmine—a red dye derived from beetles (yes, beetles) that gives your bold lipsticks their cherry pigment. Whereas lactic acid, which is commonly associated with dairy products, can actually be vegan if it's sourced from nondairy items (like sourdough and sauerkraut). We digress. 

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Cruelty-free.

Cruelty-free, on the other hand, refers to products that do not undergo animal testing. Those products may have animal-derived ingredients (like honey, beeswax, and the like), but the testing process itself doesn't include animals. 

But it's still important to mind the details, here: A product labeled "cruelty-free" might refer only to the finished product itself, not the accompanying ingredients. (Again, labels can be tricky.) A lot of animal testing may actually occur at the ingredient level, even though the packaged product itself is technically cruelty-free; that's why you might want to look for Leaping Bunny or PETA-certified products, which prohibit animal testing in any product development phase by the company or ingredient suppliers. 

The bottom line. 

While browsing for beauty, keep in mind that "vegan" and "cruelty-free" are not interchangeable, even if they are often seen side-by-side. That's not to say you can't have products free of animal testing and animal-derived ingredients—just make sure to seek both phrases on the label. Of course, just because a product is marketed as vegan or cruelty-free doesn't mean it's necessarily clean, either. After all, a synthetic formula that doesn't contain any animal products is technically vegan. As always, read up on your labels—hopefully, this distinction makes them a little easier to decode. 

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