Cruelty Free Cosmetics – Are they really free from cruelty?

Hello and welcome to Hot Topics from Chemists Corner, the show where I pick some topic about the cosmetic industry that caught my eye and give my 2 cents.

Today’s topic…Cruelty Free Cosmetics.

I’ve seen a lot of articles about this topic and a quick look at Google trends shows that interest in cruelty free beauty products has rapidly increased in the last three years. Just the other day I read that Unilever has gone on a crusade to get animal testing banned around the world, Dove was credited with being cruelty free by PETA and California just passed a law called the Cruelty Free Cosmetics act that banned animal testing. I’ll save animal testing for another day but in this video I wanted to cover the claim “cruelty free”.

What does it mean? What effect does it have on animals? And are cruelty free cosmetics, really cruelty free?

According to Wikipedia the term cruelty-free refers to “products or activities that do not harm or kill animals anywhere in the world.” Now, Wikipedia isn’t always the most accurate source of information but it does reflect the beliefs of many people so there is a large segment of the population that believes cruelty-free products are not harming animals.

But is this true? Are cruelty free beauty products ones that do not harm or kill animals?

No. This isn’t true at all.

In fact, with the recent movement towards more plant derived ingredients, the production of cosmetic products may actually be becoming more cruel and harmful to animals.

How’s that you ask? Well I’ll tell you.

When beauty product companies use the claim “cruelty free” what they really mean is that their company has not done any animal testing. Essentially they rely on using only ingredients that were previously tested on animals by other companies and they use human volunteers for other testing. To cosmetic companies & the state of California cruelty free means not tested on animals. Well, non-human animals anyway.

While it is true that companies claiming cruelty free don’t harm animals by testing on them, this isn’t the only place in the production of cosmetics where animals can be harmed and killed.

Consider farming.

Now, it’s complicated to figure out exactly how many animals are inadvertently killed during plowing, planting and harvesting but one study by Fischer and Lamey published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics estimates about 7.3 billion wild animals are killed every year. And this doesn’t even include the insects that are both accidentally and purposely killed. Of course, this is a controversial number because no one has actually gone out and counted wild animal deaths. Critics will claim that most of the animals escape. But certainly everyone would agree that some animals are killed during this process of growing & harvesting crops. And this is my point….

Cosmetic products that use plant derived ingredients are not cruelty free. Indeed they are still responsible for killing and maiming a vast number of animals every year.

One thing that bugs me about the claim is that it is just wrong. Cruelty free cosmetics are not free from cruelty. That’s the wrong word. And it’s misleading because consumers really think that the products are cruelty free. They think that no harm is coming to animals in the making of these products. And that is just wrong.

But what really bugs me is the manipulative, holier-than-thou attitude that brands who make this claim have.

The cruelty free claim automatically implies that other cosmetic brands that don’t make this claim are evil, cold hearted, rabbit killing abominations. And this isn’t true.

In the EU and elsewhere animal testing of cosmetics has been banned since 2013. Pretty much every beauty product sold in Europe is cruelty free. And since big multinational brands who sell around the world don’t want to complicate production by using different formulas, most of them have stopped using animal testing too.

The reality is even in the United States the vast majority of companies have avoided doing animal testing. This is primarily because it is expensive, it’s a PR nightmare, and they can make most products perfectly fine without animal testing.

The cruelty free claim for cosmetics is just outdated and misleading. And the implication that somehow the brands that label themselves as “cruelty free” are better for animals than other brands, that’s just false.

Cruelty free cosmetics are nothing special and they certainly aren’t harmless to animals. It’s just morality marketing that attempts to paint competitors as immoral.

Now, I love animals. I had lots of pets over the years and even studied biology. Amphibians are my favorites but I love all animals. I even volunteer at a cat shelter every week. I think it’s great that companies are doing away with animal testing. For the most part, they aren’t needed for cosmetics and these tests are cruel. I’m happy the cosmetic industry is getting away from it.

But don’t be fooled by cruelty free marketing. Products with a bunny on the front or endorsed by PETA may avoid animal testing (like most every other cosmetic brand) but they are not free from cruelty and certainly harm animals. Just ask the rabbits who’s bodies were mangled during the harvesting of that corn-derived, gentle cleanser.

That’s it for me. Thanks for watching another Hot Topics from Chemists Corner. I’m Perry Romanowski and I’ll see you next time.

6 thoughts on “Cruelty Free Cosmetics – Are they really free from cruelty?

  1. Avatar
    Keren says:

    Animal testing is required by law in China, so companies that sell to China are contributing to animal testing even today.

    You’re right, farming is not cruelty free. One cannot live as a modern human and be cruelty free. But I think it’s better that people care and make an effort not to support companies that still contribute to animal testing. It’s not the only thing we can do, and it’s not a lot, but it’s better than doing nothing. Often people who care don’t stop there, they keep digging deeper and learn what else they might be able to do and what is damaging and harmful to the environment and to animals.

    Hopefully the rise in awareness will improve other aspects of how we treat animals and the environment. But people have to care first. A lot of people don’t. It doesn’t cross their mind and they’re not even willing to (even as a symbolic gesture) go to the trouble of looking for a rabbit symbol on the products they buy.

    Its convenient not to care. Caring demands sacrifice, discomfort. Caring fuels change. You start with one step, and then maybe find you can learn more, do more, care more. That’s my belief, at least.

  2. Avatar
    Chris says:

    I appreciate what you’re saying here, and I’m all for products that avoid animal testing.

    But I was surprised that you defined “cruelty-free” as not harming or killing animals even accidentally, as in farming, based on your example of a rabbit accidentally caught in an agricultural machine. I found that extreme.

    When I googled “cruelty,” I got this definition: “callous indifference to or pleasure in causing pain and suffering.” That definition doesn’t sound like the accidental harm done to animals in farming. But it does sound far more accurate than definitions that imply that ANY pain or suffering inflicted is “cruelty.” If that’s so, then even the humane killing of animals for human nutrition is “cruelty.” (While I know there are those who would strongly agree with that, do people generally butcher animals for food with “callous indifference” and “pleasure,” or just out of necessity for survival, as much as we may wish it were unnecessary?)

    So if we refine the definition of “cruelty” to clarify that it refers to deliberately doing harmful practices that cause unnecessary pain and suffering to animals by people who don’t care about them or who care primarily about their own selfish interests, then I think we’re closer to the truth.

    (No, I’m not a farmer! Just trying to be fair here. And I’m very much for “cruelty-free” products AND “harm-free” ones, as much as possible.)

    • Avatar
      Perry Romanowski says:

      Thanks for your comments. I would contend that plowing up a field and not worrying about the animals you are killing is “callous indifference to causing pain and suffering.” If harvesters cared about the animals that have taken up residence in their fields, they would implement practices which would minimize the harm caused to animals. But when harvesting, farmers do not give a second thought to the animals (including insects) that they kill. In fact, they purposely go out of their way to kill mice and rabbits in an attempt to prevent those critters from eating their plants. Placing rat traps around your farm is not accidental killing.

      These cosmetic brands already have a claim they can make which would be (technically) true. “Not tested on animals” They are not, at least in my view of the definition of cruelty, cruelty free.

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