What does cruelty free mean?

Cruelty-free is defined as something that is “developed without inhumane testing on animals.” But beyond this definition, the practice of this can look different from company to company. More on that soon.


Over the last century, testing products (largely cosmetics) on animals rose and fell as a regular practice. According to the Humane Society, in the mid-1900s when the FDA began requiring a certain level of safety in products, it became popular to test those products on animals. This became the standard. By the late 1900s, Europe began developing alternative testing methods that did not require animals and set up an organization to validate these methods. In the early 2000s, the US followed suit. California was the first state to pass a law stating that companies must have their testing methods validated by the ICCVAM. The movement then became international and the desire for “cruelty-free” products was in higher demand.

The idea behind cruelty-free is that a product has not been tested on animals. These include eye and skin tests that are painful and inhumane. The term “cruelty-free” can also be confused with vegan, but the two are very different. The first has to do with the use of a product on an animal, while the second deals with animal products and byproducts. Just because something is cruelty-free does not mean it is vegan and just because something is vegan does not mean it is cruelty-free.


It is very easy to see the words “cruelty-free” or an accompanying picture on packaging and assume you can put your mind at ease about this product or brand. The thing is, companies can use that term while meeting only minimal requirements or finding loopholes.

  • The final product may not have been tested on animals, but the ingredients were or vice versa.
  • A third party may have tested the product on animals.
  • The company may have sent the product out of the country to another (such as China) where animal testing is required.
  • The supplier of the ingredients may have tested them on animals.
  • The brand that owns the company could be the one doing the testing. 

While the use of the term “cruelty-free” can be easy to use and common to see on products, it is not always true. Cruelty-Free International and Cruelty-Free Kitty both keep a log of fully cruelty-free brands you can feel confident using.

Where the Movement is Headed

The goal of the cruelty-free movement is to eliminate the testing of products on animals. This inhumane practice was widespread around the world. But, thanks to institutions like Cruelty-Free International, the FDA, and the Humane Society, we are starting to make a change. You can do your part. Don’t believe everything the packaging says and do some research before picking a product up off the shelf. If we are in this together, no more creatures will need to suffer.

Text by Sharayah Hooper
Photo by Emma Pollard from Pexels