The Difference Between Cruelty-Free and Vegan Products

By Angela Tague in Thinking Sustainably

Growing up in rural Iowa with chickens and pot-bellied pigs as pets helped me develop a deep love for animals at an early age. I remember being in my late teens when I first heard the words cruelty-free and vegan, which led the animal-lover in me to pay closer attention to the labels on my food and personal care products. Why? I wanted to make choices that were in the best interest of all creatures, from pets to farm animals.

Now as an adult, and vegetarian of twenty-one years, I'm acutely focused on purchasing products from cruelty-free brands and adding more vegan practices to my days to expand my dedication to animal welfare. But, what exactly does that mean?

Interpreting Product Labels

Head to your kitchen pantry or bathroom cupboard. If you look at the labeling on your favorite foods, cosmetics, and beauty products, you might see logos, claims, or wording that indicate that the items were created without the use of any animal-derived products (vegan) and if the products were tested without the use of animals (cruelty-free).

It can be confusing to know exactly what these mean and how they affect animals. If you're working toward a vegan lifestyle, or simply want to support businesses that refuse to allow their products to be tested on animals, read on.

row of cosmetic bottles on shelf

Understanding Cruelty-Free Claims

When you see the phrases "Not Tested on Animals" or "Cruelty-Free" on the packaging of your cosmetics or personal-care items, you should know that the definitions of those phrases vary by company. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not define or regulate these phrases.

Independent companies and manufacturers have started to create their own guidelines and regulations regarding the involvement of animals in product or ingredient testing. This includes the popular Leaping Bunny Program, noted with a small rabbit icon on product labels. This certification is backed by eight national animal protection groups that form the Coalition for Consumer Information (CICC).

The Leaping Bunny Program "requires that no new animal testing be used in any phase of product development by the company, its laboratories, or ingredient suppliers," so when you see their logo on a package, you know the product is cruelty-free. In lieu of live animals, computer models and tissue cultures can be used to analyze and determine the product's safety for human use.

Note that some manufacturers may claim that a finished product is cruelty-free, when in fact the base ingredients used to make the product were acquired from a company that engaged in animal testing. Or, a third-party provider may have used animals during the safety testing of a product, a phase of production that is often outsourced.

Tom's of Maine is proud to offer cruelty-free personal care products. The company is built on the belief that both humans and nature deserve our respect, which extends to animals too. They do not engage in animal testing and their products are naturally sourced. The only animal-derived ingredients used are beeswax and propolis from beehives.

girl with chicken

What Vegan Means on a Product Label

Since 1944, The Vegan Society has advocated for the abolishment of using animals for food, commodities, work, and hunting. The word "vegan" embodies a philosophy and way of living that protects animals from exploitation. When you see a product labeled vegan, it means that the manufacturer believes in excluding animal-based products from their goods.

This is a good time to note the difference between vegetarian and vegan products. Vegetarian items are made without animal flesh; however, animal by-products such as milk and honey are considered OK to use. Vegan products don't contain any animal flesh or by-products in their manufacturing, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group.

Like cruelty-free labeling, there isn't a neutral entity governing the term "vegan," so companies are defining this term themselves. As a savvy consumer, this leads me to scan ingredient lists to see if there's anything included that I don't agree with, personally, despite any product labeling that's present.

For example, a vegetarian shampoo may include animal-derived oils or proteins to create shine or strengthen the hair. A vegan shampoo will source ingredients from plants, such as jojoba, coconut, soybeans, olives, or castor for these purposes.

The Difference Between Cruelty-Free and Vegan

The bottom line here is learning how animals are treated and used in the manufacturing of consumable goods. Are they involved in the testing and making of products? Sometimes, yes. Now it's up to you to decide what types of products make sense for you and your family.

Remember these tips next time you're stocking the pantry:

  • Cruelty-free means that a finished product hasn't been tested on animals. It may contain animal-derived ingredients.
  • Vegan products don't contain animal flesh or by-products. Not all vegan products are cruelty-free and may have been tested on animals.
  • Products labeled both cruelty-free and vegan are most likely to not involve animals in any way.
  • The definitions of cruelty-free and vegan are not universally defined, allowing manufacturers to use them on their packaging as they see fit.
  • Read beyond logos and claims on products. Examine ingredient lists to decide what's best for you.
  • Reach out to manufacturers if you have questions about the production and formulation of their products.

Do you focus on purchasing from cruelty-free brands or buying vegan products? Why is this important to you? Tell us on Twitter!

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The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.


Why It's Good

Becoming aware of where our personal care products come from and how they're created is another step forward in living an environmentally conscious life. If you want to be more mindful of how animals are treated, understanding how they play a part in our food supply and consumable goods helps you make informed decisions each time you fill your shopping cart.