Decoding Beauty – The meaning of Vegan, Cruelty-Free and Clean

Sjaniël Turrell debunks the myths surrounding vegan, cruelty-free and clean beauty. 

Are cruelty-free beauty products vegan? Are vegan beauty products clean? You may assume these are one and the same…but are they?

More and more it becomes clear that as conscious consumers the onus is on us to decipher what the difference is between vegan-certified and cruelty-free certified products, and whether an organic certification gives you any assurance of either of these. Well here I set out to make it, hopefully, much simpler for us all to understand.


Firstly, it is important to know that a vegan-certified product is completely separate from anything to do with natural and organic or sustainable ingredients. Vegan certifications focus only on the treatment of and use of animal products and by-products in your beauty ingredients. A vegan certification will give you the assurance that your beauty product and all its ingredients have not been tested on animals in any way and have not been obtained from the by-products of either living or dead animals. 

This would include ingredients and derivatives from ingredients such as honey, beeswax, wool, silk, shells, insects, bone, leather, etc, and ingredients filtered through animal-derived materials. This may be the most important point on your personal value system to consider for your mindful purchase, but do also bear in mind that all synthetic and petrochemical derived ingredients are 100% allowed in vegan-certified products and what is good and helpful to animals is not automatically good and helpful to you and the earth (which really is needed for happy, healthy living animals).


A cruelty-free certification, such as the well-known Leaping Bunny, is an assurance to you as consumer that your beauty product and its ingredients have not been tested on animals in any way during the production of that product.  Almost all ingredients used today have been tested on animals at some point in history (even water) , but this certification is a promise that no current or new testing is being carried out on any animals. A cruelty-free certification does not cover animal by-products, which are allowed to be used in these products, and so the onus is on the consumer to read the ingredients list for anything you may personally wish to avoid. Again, a cruelty-free certification only applies to animal testing – any number of synthetic or harmful chemicals may be used in the manufacture of the final product.


For the purpose of this article we will include natural and organic-certified products in this category as there are also varying degrees and levels of natural and organic ingredients in certified products. It is nice to know that as a consumer who is conscious of the impact of their product’s ingredients, a natural or organic certification will automatically include a cruelty-free standard. This means that your clean certified products give you not only the assurance of wellbeing to you, but also to that of animals. The overriding international clean beauty certification COSMOS also includes standards for sustainable packaging. 

However, an organic or natural certification will not give you the assurance of a product being vegan. Naturally-produced animal by-products such as milk, beeswax and honey are allowed in clean certified products and many producers believe that these ingredients are more sustainable than their current alternatives, especially where beeswax is concerned. 

There are several different clean beauty certifications out there, but COSMOS, as the international standard, does not allow the use of animal by-products extracted from living or dead animals such as silk, shellac or carmine (often used as red pigment). There are still some clean beauty certifications that will allow those by-products to be used (as they are considered natural) so unless you see the COSMOS sign next to theirs you cannot be assured of that – but you can definitely ask questions. 

Independent, clean beauty brands strive to combine the trifecta of good practice for people, animals and the environment whilst still achieving a highly desirable and effective product and are therefore happy to hear from you if you have concerns.


There is also the caveat for animal testing standards that states ‘unless required by law’.  This refers mainly to the market in China where animal testing is required for all beauty products before they can be sold there. Many brands choose not to sell their products in China based on this law and opt for the Leaping Bunny cruelty free certification, which does not have this clause in their standards. They are not the only certification that forgoes this clause, but some certifications (especially organic and natural) don’t and therefore you will need to find out what each individual certification states in their standards.

Once you understand the difference between these types of certifications, it makes it easier for you to look out for those all-important stamps on your products. If you want your beauty cupboard to be good for you, animals and the earth, a clean beauty certification plus an anti-cruelty certification will give you that assurance. If you know your uncertified product is clean but are unsure of the rest, then look on their website for a full ingredients list or write them an email, they will be more than happy to answer your questions if they have nothing to hide – transparency is key. 

If it is imperative to you that your product is not only clean but also 100% vegan, then an added vegan certification will give you that peace of mind.  Many organic-certified brands have individual vegan products in their range and you should be able to find that information on a transparent brand’s website. Most importantly, education is key and claims should not be taken at face value – a certification helps you make an informed choice but it won’t always cover everything that matters to you.


Read Sjaniel’s guide to where to start with ethical beauty and our favourite natural beauty heroes.