Lab notes
Understanding Cruelty Free Claims On Skincare Products

Understanding Cruelty Free Claims On Skincare Products

We asked a regulatory expert to shed some light on the cruelty free claim, and what it really means.

What Does ‘Cruelty-Free’ Mean In Beauty? 

‘Cruelty-free’ is a claim made by many cosmetic and skincare brands. It is one of the most appealing claims for beauty products as we expect an ethical beauty brand to promote animal welfare.

The claim ‘cruelty-free’ implies that brands are going to extra lengths to ensure that there is no cruelty to animals, in order to assess the safety of their products. In some cases it makes people question, if a brand doesn’t claim ‘cruelty free’ then does that mean they test on animals? 

What Is The Current UK/EU Regulation On Animal Testing For Beauty Products?

It’s important to know that it is already existing EU & UK cosmetic law to not test on animals, and that there have been provisions on banning animal testing since 2003 with a full ban being imposed from 2013. One of the common criteria points for claims used in relation to cosmetics products, is that brands cannot convey the idea that a product has a specific benefit when this benefit is merely compliance with minimum legal requirements. Some argue that because there is EU and UK law against animal testing for cosmetics, that cruelty-free claims should not be permitted.

With this in mind, if there is existing EU and UK law that bans cosmetic testing on animals, does the claim ‘cruelty-free’ actually make the product more ethical?

Which Cruelty-Free Certifications Exist In Beauty?

There are several certifications recognised in the industry, the largest of which being PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies programme and Cruelty Free International’s Leaping Bunny programme. These go beyond compliance and strive to further protect animal welfare across the entire cosmetic supply chain.


PETA stands for ‘People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’. The organisation was founded in America but is now internationally recognised as the largest animal rights organisation in the world. The certification is free and no audit is required, but in order to use the ‘Beauty without Bunnies’ logos for both ‘cruelty-free’ and ‘cruelty-free and vegan’ on the packaging, the applicant is required to pay a one-off license fee.

To be accredited by PETA, the brand must sign a declaration, pledging that its organisation and its suppliers do not conduct, commission, pay for, or allow any tests on animals anywhere in the world. This pledge applies to the brand’s ingredients and formulations, as well as current products and future product developments. The appeal of having a PETA logo is that once the pledge is signed, PETA will add the qualifying companies to a cruelty-free brand list online – providing better brand visibility to conscious beauty consumers.  

PETA offers two options of certification: “animal test-free” and “animal test-free and vegan”. Both certifications include the pledge to not test on animals, however the “animal test-free and vegan” additionally verifies the entire product line is free of animal-derived ingredients, such as honey, beeswax, or carmine.

Cruelty Free International

Cruelty Free International is also an internationally recognised organisation and their certified products can be identified by their Leaping Bunny trademark. To obtain certification and remain certified, members must adhere to the strict Leaping Bunny criteria. Neither the brand nor its suppliers may conduct, commission or be party to animal testing for any raw material or ingredient used in their products. To evidence this, the brand’s raw material suppliers must complete declarations for every material, listing all component ingredients within that material, with details on the last animal test date for any purpose (if ever tested).

Leaping Bunny is not limited to only reviewing animal testing for ingredients solely used in cosmetics. The words ‘for any purpose’ widens the scope into other industries or purposes, that is wider that the EU & UK cosmetics legislation. Therefore, if any ingredient has been tested on animals for any other purpose, then the testing date must be declared. 

Examples of ‘other purposes’ would include ‘Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals’ (REACH) legislation, implemented by the European Commission and European Chemical Agency (ECHA), which aims to ensure a high level of protection of human health and the environment from effects of hazardous chemicals. To obtain understanding on the possible hazards of chemicals, sometimes animal tests are performed, however, ECHA states that this is a last resort. Late 2020, Cruelty Free International, PETA and hundreds of cosmetic companies joined together to urge EU officials to uphold the cosmetic animal testing ban in an open letter to the European Commission, calling for new animal testing to be stopped and for ECHA to accept non-animal testing methods. 

A brand applying for Leaping Bunny certification must set a fixed cut-off date (FCOD) for any animal testing that may have been historically performed. Unfortunately, many ingredients would have been tested on animal prior to the cosmetic animal testing ban (even water!) so a FCOD provides a practical way to move away from animal testing. By implementing a FCOD, this allows brands to use ingredients as long as any animal tests were performed prior to this date. The FCOD that is recommended by Cruelty Free International is 11th March 2013 as this is in line with the EU cosmetic testing ban.

To ensure continued compliance to the Leaping Bunny criteria, brands must monitor their suppliers and request the raw material declarations be updated annually to ensure no animal testing has taken place in the last 12 months. Leaping Bunny brands are independently audited within the first year of certification and every three years following.

Which Cruelty Free Certification Is The Strictest? 

When it comes to your own cosmetic products and understanding the differences between the cruelty-free claims, Cruelty Free International’s Leaping Bunny logo provides the most confidence due to its strict criteria throughout the supply chain and verification process.

Unlike Cruelty Free International, most other non-animal testing schemes simply provide a declaration simply stating that their products are not tested on animals. Such declarations rarely account for both the final products, raw materials and their component ingredients and are often not verified in any way – so consumers must be mindful that not all bunny logos cover the same criteria!

Animal Testing Policy In China

Outside of the EU & UK there is an evolving landscape when it comes to cosmetic animal testing, with more countries worldwide adopting animal testing bans. Many countries are in the process of phasing out animal testing, including China, who have a well-known history of mandatory animal testing for cosmetics that are intended to be sold on the Chinese market.

China has long been a major obstacle for cruelty-free brands, for example, Leaping Bunny brands are not permitted to sell in China unless direct to consumers. However on 04 March 2021, a finalised version of China’s cosmetic dossier was released by the Chinese authorities, confirming that imported ‘general’ cosmetic products will not require mandatory animal testing to enter the Chinese beauty market from 01 May 2021 onwards.

‘General’ cosmetics, includes the majority of products on the market, these are defined by China as products that do not have efficacy claims such as anti-aging, skin whitening, anti-hair loss or anti-acne, as well as specific products such as hair dyes and sunscreens. ‘General’ cosmetics include shampoos, body washes, lotions, and make-up.

This announcement by Chinese authorities is a huge step forward that will hopefully create more opportunity for cruelty-free brands to sell into the China market in the not so distant future.

The list of countries joining the EU & UK on banning animal testing for cosmetics is growing, each one being a significant step forward in protecting animal welfare globally.