What Is the Difference Between Vegan and Cruelty-Free Makeup?

Makeup organized in pink containers on a bathroom ledge with a vase of pink tulips in the corner

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The terms are used interchangeably, but mean different things.

If you’re a label-reader (and I sincerely hope you are), then you’ll know how overwhelming the labels on cosmetic products can be. There are dozens of seals, certifications, and fancy descriptions, all declaring why a particular product is wonderful and why you should buy it.

One of the most sought-after terms these days is ‘vegan.’ According to retail research firm Mintel, sales of vegan cosmetics are up 100 percent this year alone, with the prime market being 16- to 34-year-olds who are very concerned about animal welfare.

Indeed, you don’t even have to be a hardcore animal rights activist to feel disturbed by what goes on in many animal testing laboratories (some of which are nationally mandated, like in China).

But what does vegan actually mean? And how does it differ from ‘cruelty-free,’ another commonly seen phrase? The two terms tend to be used interchangeably, but they mean different things.


Eyeshadow, lipstick, blush and brushes on a wood table.

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means that a product does not contain any animal products or animal-derived ingredients. It describes the ingredients, rather than the production process. As explained on vegan makeup blog Logical Harmony, “Items that are tested on animals can claim to be vegan.”


Flat lay of make-up brushes and mineral cosmetics on a towel.

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Cruelty-Free means that the ingredients/components and final product have not been tested on animals. It refers to the testing process, not the ingredients, which means it is possible for a cruelty-free product to contain non-vegan ingredients, such as honey, beeswax, lanolin, collagen, albumen, carmine, cholesterol, or gelatin.

So, what should one look for? The best option is to seek out both vegan and cruelty-free descriptions on a product. It is harder to find, but not impossible, especially as demand grows and companies respond.

Some Things to Keep in Mind

Two white women shopping for vegan cosmetics at a zero waste store.

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  • A company can claim anything on a label, so look for accreditation by known and respected organizations such as Choose Cruelty-Free, The Vegan Society, PETA, or Leaping Bunny in order to know that the claim is backed up.
  • Vegan and cruelty-free do not necessarily mean that an ingredient list is clean, safe, green, or all-natural. You still need to read the list carefully to be sure you’re not putting dangerous chemicals on your skin. Nor does it reflect on packaging in any way (despite the fact that one could argue the plastic cases harm animals eventually, once disposed of).
  • Finally, Rowan Ellis makes an excellent point made in this YouTube videoconsider the human cost. In an ideal world, the cruelty-free label would extend to the human labor that goes into sourcing ingredients and making products. For example, mica is a common ingredient in eye shadows, and yet is notorious for its use of child labor. If possible, look for companies committed to transparent labor standards and/or fair-trade certification.

It’s a lot to think about, but a good place to start shopping research is Logical Harmony’s brand list, updated weekly. All companies listed are cruelty-free, and many offer vegan options.