November 19, 2020

Cruelty-Free vs. Vegan vs. Organic vs. Natural Makeup: What is the Difference?

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There are certain chemicals of concern in conventional makeup that can raise red flags for both consumers and beauty science influencers. Additionally, the beauty industry is looking for ways to further promote sustainability. As a result, some common topics of interest for all parties might include cruelty-free, vegan, organic, and natural cosmetics. It can be difficult to understand the difference between some of these terms, as they are occasionally used interchangeably, but it is important. This is especially true for those applying to makeup artist school, those already currently enrolled in cosmetic school, or currently practicing makeup artists looking for continuing education opportunities


The information below was designed to help differentiate between the above terms, and to help all users of beauty and makeup products understand where to access the right solutions for their needs.


“Cruelty-free” makeup refers to cosmetic products that are not tested on animals at any point in development — neither before nor after the product hits the market. In order to be truly “cruelty-free,” all of the ingredients used during production also cannot be tested on animals. For example, if you are creating a blush, and you refrain from testing on any animals, it is only truly “cruelty-free” if all the ingredients used to make the blush are also not tested on animals. Blush generally has dyes, talc, acids, and various oxides. If the dyes that are used to make the blush are tested on animals, the final product is not considered cruelty-free. 


The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) address the legal requirements and labeling guidelines for all cosmetics, as well as animal testing. Some manufacturers believe that animal testing is necessary to ensure product safety, but unlike some countries, the U.S. does not require animal testing. Additionally, the U.S. is part of a global push to ban animal-tested cosmetics — but China requires cosmetics to undergo animal testing, so the movement has proved difficult given the role Chinese manufacturing plays in the industry at large. 


A large benefit of cruelty-free is the peace of mind behind knowing that the cosmetic products that you use are not the result of cruel, inhumane, cosmetic testing performed on animals.

How to Find Cruelty-Free Makeup

There are certain ways to understand whether a cosmetic product is cruelty-free or not. Use the tips below for how to find cruelty-free makeup:

  • Look for one of three certified cruelty-free bunny logos. This can often be found on the back, or on product labels. Beware of lookalikes.
  • Look for online lists of certified cruelty-free brands.
  • Take advantage of cruelty-free apps:
  • Reach out to the cosmetic company and ask.


“Vegan makeup” refers to cosmetic products that do not contain any animal ingredients, animal by-products, or animal-derived products. Cruelty-free makeup and vegan makeup are often used interchangeably, even though the two terms differ. A cosmetic product can be vegan, but still tested on animals, and a product can be cruelty-free without being vegan — in some cases, it can be both. Vegan refers to the list of ingredients, while cruelty-free refers to the production process. 


Additionally, there are vegan brands and vegan products. Vegan brands avoid the use of any animal ingredients, animal by-products, or animal-derived products in any of the products they offer. It should be noted that just because a brand offers a vegan product, does not mean that all of their offerings are vegan. 


Again, the FDCA and the FDA are responsible for regulating the production and labeling of plant-based foods. The current standard for labeling vegan food is the same as the FDA regulation for what all food labels must abide by: all labeling for packaged products must be truthful and not misleading. Outside of this, there is a lot of grey area. If a product or company mislabels a product as vegan, it is largely up to consumers and competitors to right the wrong by reporting the problem to the FDA.


Vegan makeup products are often good for you and the environment. They are considered to be more gentle for individuals with sensitive skin, and they are eco-friendly.

How to Find Vegan Makeup

There are certain ways to understand whether a cosmetic product is cruelty-free or not. Use the tips below for how to find cruelty-free makeup:


  • Look for one of three certifications for began products:
  • Look at the ingredient list and if you are unsure, enter the contents into a vegan ingredient checker. Common ingredients to miss are honey, beeswax, egg whites, and milk substances.
  • Reach out to the cosmetic company and ask.


“Organic makeup” can be more difficult to understand because official definitions and regulations tend to be applied more to food and consumables than to cosmetics.  Although many look to the USDA organic regulations for answers, the program was intended for agriculture regulation and food labels, not personal care products like cosmetics. There is no FDA definition for organic cosmetics. The term “organic” is not defined by the FDCA either. 


The National Organic Program is a federal program that is responsible for the rules, regulations, production, handling, labeling, and enforcement of organic products. For cosmetics, “organic” means that none of the ingredients used to create the cosmetic product contain harmful chemicals. They need to be produced without excluded methods like genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or creating sewage sludge.


Even though it can be difficult to understand what organic makeup is via parameter, there are several reasons to use organic makeup:


  • Eco-friendly production;
  • No harsh chemicals;
  • Natural fragrances/scents;
  • Rich in Nutrients;
  • Protection from Premature Aging;
  • Gentle on skin.

How to Find Organic Makeup

Since there is a complex, global supply chain with many different manufacturers and suppliers involved at various stages, it can be difficult to confidently find organic makeup — use the following tips:


  • Search the organic integrity database;
  • Avoid genetically-modified organisms;
  • Look for the USDA organic seal, meaning the product contains at least 95% organic ingredients;
  • Look to for NSF Organic-Certified seal, meaning the product contains at least 75% organic ingredients;
  • Study cosmetic ingredients to avoid;
    • Parabens, alcohol, formaldehyde, sulfates, phthalates, synthetic colors, triclosan, toluene, polyethylene, oxybenzone, and petroleum
  • Reach out to the cosmetic company and ask. 


Like organic makeup above, there is no FDA or FDCA definition surrounding “natural” makeup, so it can be complicated to understand. Natural makeup broadly refers to cosmetics that are made up of natural ingredients — either plant-derived or non-synthetic. The exact meaning of this term, and allowances it providers for, can vary from cosmetic company to cosmetic company. It should also be noted that very few ingredients are used as-is from nature, and natural substances don’t always mean healthy — they can be harmful. According to the National Products Association (NPA), the NPA natural standard consists of the following:


  • Natural Ingredients: A product labeled “natural” should be made up of only, or at least almost only, natural ingredients and be manufactured with appropriate processes to maintain ingredient purity;
  • Safety: A product labeled “natural” should avoid any ingredient with a suspected human health risk;
  • Responsibility: A product labeled “natural” should use no animal testing in its development;
  • Sustainability: A product labeled “natural” should use biodegradable ingredients and the most environmentally sensitive packaging.


There are several benefits of natural cosmetics attributed by those who prefer such products; these include:


  • A good option for sensitive skin;
  • Free from harsh chemicals;
  • It is less comedogenic;
  • Natural fragrances/scents;
  • It is eco-friendly.

How to Find Natural Makeup

Since the word “natural” is not regulated within the beauty industry and there is no consistent official definition, it can be tricky to find what is truly natural and what is not — use the following tips:


  • Look at the label and navigate it using the NPA positive list of ingredients;
  • Look for one of five NPA certification seals;
  • Do not rely on the word “natural” in the product name, or on the label. There are unnatural products that claim to be natural, and there are natural products that do not indicate this;
  • Avoid products that contain the word “fragrance.”

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