Understanding Clean Beauty: A Basic Guide to Cruelty-Free, Vegan, Ethical and Sustainable Beauty, and why they’r

The cruelty-free beauty movement is growing by the day, yet there is still some confusion about the different terminology within the industry. Many people still get confused between cruelty-free, vegan, ethical and eco-friendly beauty.

I will admit it: I still have to double check if a brand is cruelty-free even though I have been in the game for over 3 years. With the increased demand for cruelty-free beauty brands are quick to slap on a ‘certified vegan’ ‘sustainable’ or ‘cruelty-free’ symbol on their packaging. As consumers it is important for us to know the difference between these terms, so we can avoid being bamboozled.


What is Cruelty-Free Beauty?

In a nutshell ‘cruelty-free’ means that the products and its ingredients have not been tested on animals prior to their distribution to the public. I have written a full blog post explaining animal testing in the beauty industry and which brands that are definitely cruelty-free.

Brands that are cruelty-free include Elf Cosmetics, Garnier and The Ordinary.


What is Vegan Beauty?

Vegan beauty is the absence of animal byproducts and ingredients in cosmetics. Some commonly used animal byproducts are gelatin (commonly found in shampoos), honey and carmine (mostly found in makeup). Vegan beauty is rapidly growing as consumers – including myself – are more aware of the amount of animal byproducts that are found in cosmetics.

Vegan products are not always cruelty-free. This was a mistake I often made in the past. I still question why a product would be vegan but not cruelty-free since veganism is predominantly rooted in the protection of animal rights. I think that non cruelty-free brands that have vegan products in their range do it for profit. It’s like greenwashing, but for vegans. Brands who are known for doing this include Kiehl’s and Benefit Cosmetics.


Brands that are both cruelty-free and have a range of vegan products are plentiful. Fortunately you can support these animal friendly brands without questioning their motifs. Brands that are vegan and cruelty-free include E.L.F., NYX Cosmetics, The Body Shop, LUSH, Glow Recipe….the list goes on!

What is Ethical Beauty?

This is where lines tend to get blurred. Unless you know what type of ethical products you are after you can easily get confused.

Ethical beauty has 3 popular strands: human, animal and planet.

What are you after? Are you concerned about the mistreatment of animals in the production of cosmetics? Are you concerned about representation and the exploitation of human labour in the sourcing of ingredients, packaging and creation of the product? Or are you interested in the methods used to extract the earths resources for natural ingredients?


These questions can seem overwhelming especially if you are still new to this. But you don’t have to know the answer every time. Not all brands are completely transparent in their ethical terms but in today’s social climate where representation matters, they are being pushed to share more.

What is Eco-Friendly Beauty?

The terms ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable‘ are often interchangeable. In the context of beauty cosmetics, ‘eco-friendly‘ and ‘sustainable‘ often refers to the packaging of the products and sometimes the actual products.

Many sustainable beauty products can be:

  • zero-waste – no packaging at all
  • biodegradable – can be easily composted and is free of toxic substances that are harmful to the planet
  • plastic-free – these can be zero-waste or alternative materials such as glass, metal and sometimes bamboo or hemp
  • reusable – the packaging can be reused once the product is finished.

Often times cruelty-free, vegan and ethical products are packaged in sustainable packaging or are zero-waste. However, I think the beauty industry still has a long way to go. Brands are still using plastic packaging and most of the time zero-waste beauty is expensive and inaccessible. I don’t even have a completely zero-waste beauty routine but I do try to reuse empty packages wherever I can. It’s important to know that -like slapping on a vegan label- brands will use greenwashing by claiming that there packaging can be recycled once it is empty. Be wary of this tactic. Not all cruelty-free brands are zero-waste, not all zero-waste brands are ethical.


 Which brands to support?

Choosing the right brands to support can put you in a sort of dilemma. You can buy products that cruelty-free, vegan, ethical and eco-friendly and that’s great! If you can afford them and have access to it, go for it! But if you struggle to find those products or cant afford it (some are quite pricey) you can still support the cruelty-free brands.

Seek cruelty-free first then vegan. Supporting cruelty-free brands helps increase the demand for it. I could not say this enough. These days it is highly possible for you to find vegan products from brands that are already cruelty-free.

Look for the ethics. Ethical beauty isn’t spoken about enough and I hope that more people learn more about it. Unfortunately there is not much information on the ethical standpoints of every single brand out there. Some are transparent and make it easier for consumers to view their standpoint. The Body Shops Shea range is a great example of a cruelty-free, vegan and ethical range.

Less is more – if possible. The movement towards zero-waste beauty is growing so you might be able to find more options. It is quite common for a brand that has zero-waste beauty to be animal friendly and ethical.

A friendly reminder: Don’t stress about not having the best cruelty-free, vegan, ethical and zero-waste beauty collection. The goal isn’t to be 100% perfect but to do your absolute best.

You can follow my journey on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

-Kayla Shivana


3 replies »

  1. Really trying to do my best. It can be hard with the way brands cleverly weave their words to confuse or mislead us but thank you for providing clarity. I feel like I understand that wording a bit better so I can make some better choices

    Liked by 1 person

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