Vegan vs Cruelty-Free: Exploring the Differences

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The terms “vegan” and “cruelty-free” are often used interchangeably, especially when it comes to cosmetics and beauty products. You pick up a vegan body wash, and you might assume that it fits in with a vegan lifestyle. By definition alone, they should be completely interchangeable.

However, the terms “vegan” and “cruelty-free” don’t always mean the same thing – it’s enough to confuse even the most seasoned herbivore.

Sometimes, a product that’s “accidentally vegan” isn’t “cruelty-free”. On the flip side, a product labeled “cruelty-free” might contain animal derivatives like beeswax, lanolin, or carmine.

No one would fault you for assuming a cruelty-free product would not include animal products. After all, how could an item that involves bits of dead animals possibly be labeled “cruelty-free”?

Apparently, in the world of marketing, there are no rules.

It can be a huge bummer – especially if you’re finding out that the vegan products you thought were cruelty-free (or vice versa) aren’t.

But don’t be discouraged!

Once you have a handle on the different terms used, it won’t be so scary to navigate the beauty aisle at the store. That way, you can purchase products with confidence that they are 100% in line with your values.

Let’s get a brief rundown of what each of these terms means in different context

Vegan vs. Cruelty-Free


When someone refers to a vegan lifestyle or a person who is vegan, it means they do everything in their means to avoid animal products and exploitation. The ultimate goal of a vegan lifestyle is to cause as little suffering as possible.

However, a “vegan” label on a product is not quite as expansive. When a product, such as foundation, glass cleaner, or perfume, has a “vegan” label, you can rest assured that it does not contain any animal ingredients.

The ingredient list is where the “vegan” label stops. While it probably sounds counterintuitive, a product that carries a “vegan” designation doesn’t mean it wasn’t tested on animals.

If you find a designated vegan product, search the packaging for an additional cruelty-free logo. Ensuring the product is free of any animal products is half the battle!


A label of “cruelty-free” means that the product you’re considering wasn’t tested on animals. This includes both the finished product, as well as any individual ingredients.

You and I both know why animal testing is seriously uncool, whether you’re vegan or not. During animal testing, innocent rabbits, mice, and rats are subjected to painful, and sometimes even lethal, irritation and toxicity tests.

A company testing mascara might rub it into the animal’s eyes or shaved skin to see if it causes a rash. A manufacturer that makes household cleaning products might force an animal to ingest an all-purpose cleaner, to find the lethal dosage of that product. These animals are subject to suffering for people’s own vanity and selfishness.

But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Organizations like Leaping Bunny have made it easy to spot cruelty-free products. PETA also offers a complete, up-to-date list of companies that do and do not test on animals. This way, you can pull the list up on your phone right in the supermarket aisle and find out if a particular manufacturer is designated cruelty-free.

Want to read more about the ins and outs of animal testing? Check out our full write-up here.

When you do spot a cruelty-free logo, or determine the company does not test on animals, you’re almost there! Next, take a quick scan of the ingredients, looking for common animal-based add-ins like beeswax or glycerin.

When you can check off both these criteria, stock up! That product is 100% vegan-friendly, animal-friendly, and appropriate for a plant-based home.


First and foremost, don’t beat yourself up if you realize that the products you thought were vegan-friendly turn out not to be. Even after years of veganism, I remember being completely confused when I realized my favorite “vegan” hair care line was tested on animals.

I’ve spoken with long-time vegans who were shocked when their “cruelty-free” makeup turned out to contain carmine – crushed up bugs! After all, who would think to read the ingredient list when the product is designated “cruelty-free”?

When you’re giving your makeup bag and cleaning cabinet a second look, it’s important to remember that veganism is not about perfection. When you initially purchased the offending product, you most likely did so with good intentions – you were doing your best to make an informed decision that was better for the animals.

Even with all the conveniences of the internet, as well as plant-based lifestyles going more mainstream, it is hard to make sure everything is 100% vegan all the time. Because there aren’t any central organizations defining certain terms, marketers can use all kinds of intentionally misleading buzzwords to convince you to buy their product.

Being hard on yourself isn’t going to un-buy those products that turned out to be non-vegan. The best thing you can do for yourself – and for the animals – is to learn from it, and use your newly acquired knowledge during your next shopping trip.

To avoid mistakes and mishaps in the future, take a two-pronged approach. To ensure the product itself doesn’t contain animal products, always do a thorough investigation of the ingredient list. If you’re unsure about a particular ingredient, don’t be afraid to research before you buy!

Here is a list of common offenders:​

​× Cochineal (aka Carmine)

× Beeswax

× Gelatin

× Lanolin

× Tallow

× Glycerin

× Keratin

When you’ve determined that the product itself is vegan, turn your research efforts to the company. Look for the manufacturer on PETA’s animal testing list, or look for the Leaping Bunny logo on the product’s packaging. You can also search for a particular manufacturer on Leaping Bunny’s website.

If your favorite products turn out not to be vegan and cruelty-free, don’t let it be in vain! Send a polite email to the company explaining the issue and why you’ll no longer be purchasing the product. Companies will only make vegan, cruelty-free alternatives when there is a demand for them, so be sure your voice is heard!


It’s easy to get tripped up on marketing buzzwords, but by doing thorough research before you buy, you’ll avoid any regret in the future.

Use the power of the internet to your advantage – take a deep-dive into the ingredient list of your favorite products, and don’t be afraid to contact the company with any questions or concerns you have about an individual product. As the consumer, you have a right to know what’s in your product, and how it’s made!

Allow today to be a new day – arm yourself with knowledge and ensure that your favorite cosmetics, cleaning products, and other household items are 100% vegan – and not just in the marketing sense of the word!

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