Is Your Makeup Really Cruelty-Free?

To be cruel is to ‘wilfully cause pain or suffering to others’.

When we test make-up on animals – rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats and mice – we knowingly put them in harm’s way. We wilfully cause pain to them because we don’t want that pain ourselves, and we have decided that we are deserving of safety and freedom from suffering in a way that others are not. 

It is estimated by the Humane Society that 100,000 to 200,000 animals suffer and die for the sake of cosmetics testing every year. When we pay for products that are tested on animals we pay for skin and eye irritation tests where chemicals are rubbed onto the shaved skin or dripped into the eyes of rabbits, without pain relief. We pay for animals to be force-fed test chemicals, so as to learn of the illnesses they can cause, and even the amount it takes for a substance to kill. These tests can lead to blindness, swelling, internal bleeding, organ damage and convulsions. When an animal is no longer seen as useful, if they have not slowly died from a purposeful ‘lethal dose’, they are killed, generally by neck-breaking, decapitation or asphyxiation. 

It is clear that animal testing is cruel. It is clear, when so many companies are successful without testing on animals, that this forced suffering is needless. ‘Animal testing free’ has become synonymous with ‘cruelty-free’ for this reason. This linguistic jump is irresponsible however, as it assumes the only cruelty involved in cosmetics production is animal testing.

Cruelty-free but not vegan

A product can be ‘cruelty-free’ yet have ingredients in it made from slaughtered or exploited animals. A few animal ingredients for example are:

Lanolin, which can be found in lip, eye, facial and hair products among other things. Lanolin is essentially wool grease. It is collected in the wool industry when sheep are shorn. Even with cruel shearing practices aside, the wool industry is a slaughter industry, as when sheep are around half way into their natural life span, their wool degrades in quality and so they are slaughtered and sold for mutton meat. Sheep are legally castrated and tail docked without pain relief, too.

Tallow, which is used in skin foundations, shampoos, moisturisers, lipsticks and more. Tallow is a likely purposefully ambiguous word which really means animal fat – which sounds less appealing. Tallow is made from the boiled carcasses of slaughtered sheep and cows, which the fatty product is then derived from.

Keratin, which is used in all sorts of hair products. It is a protein made from ground up horns, hooves, feathers and hairs of various animals. 

These ingredients are not cruelty-free. To advertise a product as cruelty-free because it is animal-testing free, without considering the ingredients inside it is deceptive. Cruelty-free labelling of non-vegan products, rather than more accurate ‘animal testing free’ labelling, allows consumers to stay unaware of a cruel reality, even when they would like to make a compassionate choice for animals. 

If you want products that do not directly exploit animals, vegan products are the way to go. There are many animal-derived ingredients in beauty products, so it’s best to look for vegan certifications or contact brands to learn more about what a product is made from. Just as there are many non-vegan products, there is a wonderful range of high performing, vegan, animal-testing free products available.

Environmental harm

Even when a product is vegan and free of animal-testing, the blanket statement of ‘cruelty-free’ allows us to stay inconsiderate of other ingredients that can cause harm – indirectly to animals, and directly to humans and the planet. 

A product can be free from animal-testing and it can be vegan, but it may contain palm oil. Palm oil is the leading cause of deforestation in Indonesia, and Indonesia’s endangered orangutan population has suffered greatly due to this mass habitat loss. Some organisations like WWF believe that supporting sustainably sourced palm oil is a positive, as it means alternative vegetable sources that would require potentially cause more deforestation may be used. Other organisations, such as the Orangutan Alliance believe palm oil free is the way to go. 

Is there child labour in your lipstick?

A product could also be palm oil-free, animal testing-free and vegan, but have child-labour mined mica in it. It’s all a little daunting, isn’t it? Mica adds the shimmer to many products like bronzers, eye shadows and lip glosses. Mica is a mineral which has been found to be mined by children regularly in the two Indian states which account for 25% of the world’s supply. Again, some call for a boycott of this product, while others work to find sources of the mineral which are mined for without child-labour, and with adult labour which is also fair. 


Read More – You Look Bloody Gorgeous: An Editorial on the Dark Truth of Animal Testing


Animal products are inherently not ours to use and take, and always include a level of animal exploitation, and almost always, slaughter. However, some ingredients are not inherently immoral (ingredients not coming from sentient beings), but the way we get them are. It’s important to look more into the products and ingredients we benefit from and make informed decisions based on fact. We can ask questions of brands, ask them to be more transparent about their supply chains. We can tell them what matters to us, so they know ethical sourcing is important to their consumers. 

Hidden cruelty

It’s great if a product is free from animal-testing. It’s great if a product is vegan. It’s great if a product is free from palm oil or has ethically sourced minerals or something else. But it’s important we consider what our words mean, and that we speak more accurately, rather than in vague blanket statements that can be misconstrued, leaving people supporting products they do not truly believe are ethical.

In a capitalist world that is set up primarily for profit, perfection and pure ‘cruelty-free’ living is practically impossible. That can be a difficult reality to grapple with, but it is important regardless, that we do our best and work to be as kind as possible. Being informed is the first step towards this! A willingness to learn and then do better is a wonderful thing. We can buy less and buy consciously and morally when we do. Our choices can empower and they can create a world closer to the cruelty-free one we all hope for.



For more on cruelty-free beauty, follow Vilda on Instagram

Header photo by Roberto Delgado, second photo by Raphael Lovaski via Unsplash

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Emma Håkansson

Emma Håkansson is the founder of Willow Creative Co, a hub for all things creative and conscious. Much of Willow’s work is based around creating content for ethical brands, and consulting on ethical practices and how brands can become more kind, in all aspects. Emma works with Animal Liberation Victoria, now particularly focussing on fashion and beauty based animal cruelty. Emma also works as a model and writer. You can follow Emma and Willow on Instagram: @hakamme @willowcreativeco

1 Comment
  1. Organisations engaged in the issue, such as Sumatran Orangutan Society, Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, Orangutan Republik, Orangutan Outreach, Orangutan Land Trust, Orangutan Foundation, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, Rainforest Alliance, WWF, Jane Goodall Institute and many more, do NOT support a blanket boycott of palm oil.
    Instead all call for consumers to demand deforestation-free sustainable palm oil.
    I’ve actually never heard of Orangutan Alliance either in the sphere of sustainability or orangutan conservation, so not sure where they are getting their information from.

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