Ethical Shopping: What does Cruelty-Free, Organic, and Natural Really Mean?

Written by Michele C. Hollow


Michele C. Hollow

Climate Journalist

Michele C. Hollow is a journalist that specializes in climate and health. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.


Are you one of those shoppers who strains your eyes to read product ingredient lists despite the small print? Do you check to make sure products are cruelty-free, organically sourced, and don’t contain artificial ingredients?

Table of Contents
  1. Understanding the “Cruelty-free” designation
  2. What makes it truly organic?
  3. Is it really natural?
  4. Using products that are good for us and for the planet

A 2021 sustainability study from Simon-Kucher & Partners, a global strategy and pricing consultancy, found 85 percent of us want to purchase sustainable products. When we see labels for “cruelty-free,” “organic,” and “natural,” how do we know if these claims are truthful? What exactly do these labels mean and how can we tell our purchases align with our principles? 

See also: Organic vs. Conventional Framing: What are the Key Differences?

Understanding the “Cruelty-free” designation

The terms “cruelty-free” and “not tested on animals” are often interchangeable. According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) there is unrestricted use of these terms because there are no legal definitions for them.  The FDA’s website states:

“Companies may apply such claims solely to their finished products even if some of the ingredients come from suppliers who test on animals.” 

“Consumers want to do the right thing, however, it gets tricky,” Vicki Katrinak, director of Animal Research and Testing for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), said. She recommends looking for the Leaping Bunny logo on products to ensure items are cruelty-free. Before joining HSUS, she worked for Leaping Bunny.

Today, more than 2,000 companies place the Leaping Bunny logo on their products to prove to consumers that their products are not tested on animals at every stage of production; this rule also applies to companies that purchase ingredients from other companies. “For examples, a cosmetics company may purchase ingredients for use in their products,” Katrinak said. “Those ingredients must also be cruelty-free.”

Participating companies agree to independent audits and if they pass inspection, they receive the logo. Leaping Bunny holds annual reviews for companies in their program to make sure these businesses continue to be cruelty-free. 

Don’t be deceived

Cruelty-free shopping became popular in 1996. “It’s confusing at times,” Katrinak said, “because if you look at the FDA’s website, you’ll find that some companies design their own bunny logos.”

The site states, “Companies abide by their own definition of cruelty-free and animal friendly.”

“That means companies can put ‘cruelty-free’ or ‘not tested on animals’ signage on their products without any representation of what it means as described in the FDA’s link about cruelty-free,” Katrinak said. 

“To be sure that the product you’re purchasing is free from animal testing, look for the Leaping Bunny logo and visit the website which lists all participating companies,” Katrinak said. “This way you’ll be certain what you’re buying is cruelty-free.” 

The Leaping Bunny logo is internationally recognized and is on product packaging, advertising, and websites for cosmetics and household products. 

What makes it truly organic?

The FDA takes a similar approach with the term “organic” as it does with “cruelty-free;” these terms aren’t regulated when applied to cosmetics and personal care products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the term “organic” regarding food. You can read about the differences between organic and conventional farming here.

The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) states, “If a cosmetic, body care product, or personal care product contains or is made up of agricultural ingredients, and can meet the USDA/NOP organic production, handling, processing, and labeling standards, it may be eligible to be certified as organic.”

Understanding what a label actually means is like deciphering a secret code. Products labeled 100 percent organic is easy to understand; it mean all of the ingredients it contains are organic.  If they are 100 percent organic, they can display the USDA’s Organic Seal and must display the certifying agent’s name and address.

Understanding organic labels

Here’s where it gets problematic. Products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can list up to three of the organic ingredients on the label. The label can claim the product has organic lavender, rosemary, and chamomile in it; or it can state, “This product is made with organic herbs.” It might entice you to purchase a product that contains these ingredients. However, there’s no way to tell how much lavender or rosemary is in it. It might only contain a couple of drops. 

Products containing less than 70 percent of organic ingredients cannot use the term “organic” on the label or in any advertisements about the product.

The best way to find out if that body lotion, shampoo, or eye makeup is truly organic, you have to read the labels. If you spot any chemical ingredients, you know it’s not 100 percent organic. Reading product labels is a good way to understand what you’re buying. It’s not a guarantee it’s organic because the USDA’s NOP does not regulate cosmetic and personal care products.  

Is it really natural?

Think of the word “natural.” Images of trees and nature may come to mind. It’s a loosely used term. “Sadly many brands overuse the word in their marketing in order to sell more products,” Elle MacLeman, skincare biochemist at The Derm Review, a resource on skincare products, cosmetic ingredients, and beauty tips, said, “and that feels misleading and deceptive. Especially as our research found that these products tend to be priced higher while not necessarily being better, safer, or more environmentally friendly.”

“I think one of the problems is that the industry is pretty much unregulated when it comes to making claims.”

The Derm Review analyzed ingredient lists of the top 100 best-selling “natural” skincare products and found more than half of these products are not “natural.” They also found:

  • Products marked as natural contain at least one synthetic ingredient.
  • Facial toners that use the term “natural” cost more than facial toners without the word “natural.”
  • Skincare products labeled as natural contain on average two or more synthetic ingredients. 
  • Ethylhexylglycerin is the most commonly used synthetic ingredient in skincare products according to their report. It’s deemed safe and is used in low concentrations. It may cause minor skin irritations.

Using products that are good for us and for the planet

False claims or greenwashing are common, and because the FDA doesn’t review cosmetic or personal care ingredients for safety, knowing what you’re purchasing is important. Read the ingredients and look up those big words that most of us don’t know. In your research, look for mentions of any adverse effects.

It comes down to educating yourself, reading labels, and understanding them.

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  1. Hello Michelle,

    I would like to know how much does it cost to obtain those logos for a company? And is it all right to have a company that uses organic ingredients to say so without the USDA logo?



  2. You will have to check with Leaping Bunny for the cost since it depends on the size of the company and the number of products involved. You can find that information here:

    If the product is 100 percent organic, the company can display the USDA’s Organic Seal and must display the certifying agent’s name and address.

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