GREEN SPA NEWS: The Cruelty-Free Skin Care Movement

The definition of “cruelty-free” can be murky. Here’s how to discern those products and ingredients that are truly animal-friendly.

In 1926, philosopher John Dewey wrote, “Cruelty, the wanton and needless infliction of suffering upon any sentient creature, is unquestionably wrong.” Increasing numbers of today’s consumers share this sentiment: A poll conducted in October 2011 by the Philadelphia-based Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC) found that 67% of Americans believe that companies should not test consumer products—such as cosmetics—on animals, and 60% of respondents indicated they were more likely to purchase a product that had not been tested on animals. In fact, a full ban on the sale of animal-tested cosmetics went into effect last month in the European Union. Experts say the U.S. is most likely not far behind.

Vicki Katrinak, administrator for CCIC, creator of the Leaping Bunny symbol, which denotes cruelty-free products, notes that current U.S. law does not require animal testing to clear products for the market, and that many companies have successfully petitioned the FDA to accept non-animal test data on products. However, the fact that the term “cruelty-free” doesn’t carry set-in-stone meaning clouds the issue.

“As the FDA doesn’t regulate terms like ‘no animal testing’ or ‘cruelty-free,’ there have been many interpretations about what it means, which is confusing and misleading to consumers,” explains Katrinak. This confusion affects conscientious businesspeople such as spa owners, who want to be sure that their shelves are stocked with 100% cruelty-free items. In an effort to help professionals navigate the animal-friendly jungle, DAYSPA called upon spa owners, manufacturers and advocacy experts to shed some light on the truth behind the labels.

Murky Waters for Furry Friends

The lack of regulation backing so-called “cruelty-free” goods has resulted in the broad usage—and in some cases, abuse—of the term. To complicate matters further, “cruelty-free” may refer to the finished product only, or it may also describe individual ingredients. “Companies can say whatever they want about their animal testing policies,” points out Katrinak. “A company may provide consumers with the perception that it’s committed to no new animal testing when, in fact, it simply hires a third party to do testing. It may purchase ingredients that have, in fact, been newly tested. Or it may make disclaimers, such as ‘unless required by law,’ after stating its cruelty-free stance.”

The “ingredient vs. whole product” variable has sparked some debate. “In my opinion, ‘cruelty-free,’ as used and defined in the cosmetic and skincare product business, is a label designation that pertains to the finished good, and not each individual ingredient,” says Kirsten Corcoran, owner of Larénim Mineral, a cosmetics manufacturer in Columbus, Ohio. “Due to the complexity and history behind the development of many raw cosmetics, to say anything else might be misleading, inaccurate or untruthful.”

Indeed, regardless of how airtight a manufacturing company’s reputation may seem, in-depth research may be necessary. Brad Drummer, managing owner of Nusta Spa in Washington, D.C., had committed to an eco-friendly, certified-organic line, but one day, a client pointed out that the collagen used in one of the spa’s eye treatments was harvested from an endangered fish. After contacting the manufacturer (whose U.S. division was itself perplexed, and transferred Drummer to its overseas headquarters), the company was—after a week of research—able to produce verification that the collagen in question was derived from a non-endangered species, and sourced only after the fish had been harvested for food.

“It was an enlightening experience,” says Drummer. “I’ve researched products more carefully since that happened, but it can be difficult to get the right answers. And, ultimately, unless you physically investigate the company’s manufacturing plant, you have to take its word for it.”

Animal-Friendly Advice

Running a credible cruelty-free spa is well within reach, if you do your due diligence in researching brands and products. Here are some steps to take:

Refer to a reputable third-party regulator. Third-party certifications are designed to help skeptical spa owners and consumers feel more secure about the ethics behind their products. The aforementioned 2011 CCIC poll found that consumers are more than three times more likely to trust an independent third party (67%) than a company’s own claims (21%) about its animal testing policy. Look for PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) cruelty-free bunny logo, or the Leaping Bunny symbol, on products you’re considering carrying in your spa. Katherine Goldman, esthetician and founder of the San Francisco-based Stript Wax Bar, also suggests seeking the words, “Not Tested On Animals” or “Against Animal Testing,” on all packaging.

Test your manufacturer’s commitment to “cruelty-free.” According to Katrinak, CCIC’s Leaping Bunny program ensures that a company doesn’t engage in any new animal testing for products, formulations or ingredients, by requiring companies to obtain declarations from their manufacturers and ingredient suppliers attesting to this fact. Participating companies must recommit to the program annually, and be open to independent audits, too. All certified companies are listed on, and the organization has an app for Androids and iPhones that allows for quick brand searches.

Regularly checking in with manufacturers can also help concerned spa owners determine the
extent of a company’s commitment to cruelty-free. “Manufacturers using the cruelty-free label should avoid using animal-based studies from medical literature, and emphasize test-tube and other kinder ways of studying product performance and safety,” says David Steinman, the host of Green Patriot Radio and a consumer advocate based in Topanga, California. “Also be sure that any ingredients obtained from animals—such as beeswax—are done so humanely,” he adds.

Read labels carefully. Steinman warns that ingredients such as lanolin and progesterone may be red flags for animal testing. But Katrinak asserts that no one ingredient ever tells the full story. Hence, it’s up to a spa owner to do her research and obtain written verification about ingredients and finished products.

“Ask questions and don’t assume,” says Drummer. “For instance, ask for the source of all materials, and demand documentation from the company that does the harvesting and processing of ingredients.”

Doing your “cruelty-free” homework is well worth the effort, and manufacturers that truly shun animal testing should be able to provide the answers you need. “Before using ingredients, I always ask the manufacturer whether they are tested on animals,” says Annie Mayo, founder of Advanced Mineral Makeup in Scottsdale, Arizona. “When it comes to cosmetics, no animal should have to suffer.”

The cruelty-free fight is far from over but, fortunately, it seems we see new progress every day. One thing is certain: Ensuring that your spa stays animal-friendly requires constant vigilance. However, it is one of the best ways to optimally serve an increasing number of consumers—not to mention our furry friends.

Spa Owners Speak

Here’s how some pros ensure that the products they use are safe.

“I look for key symbols and phrases on packaging,
and I verify any cruelty-free status with press releases, brand websites, store staff and unbiased, third-party, watchdog-type sites. My favorite resource is via Twitter:
@MyBeautyBunny, operated by Jen Mathews, who also has a blog that’s regularly updated. She does an incredible job of checking brands and their products.” —Liliana Aranda, clinical oncology esthetician/owner of FACES by Liliana Mobile Beauty, San Francisco and Phoenix areas

“We use only botanical ingredients certified by at least one cruelty-free organization. We also visit most of our suppliers to personally oversee the process. We drop by once a year—often unannounced—to verify their claims.” —Keith West-Harrison, esthetician/co-owner of Great Face & Body in Albuquerque, New Mexico

“Being an animal activist and lifelong animal lover (we even feature pictures of our clients’ pets in our spa), I have always felt beauty shouldn’t have to hurt others, and over the years, I keep getting more requests for all-natural and/or cruelty-free products. In researching products, I first call the company to ascertain its stance on animal testing, and then check with several websites to verify they’re cruelty-free; if there’s a parent company, we work to ensure that they, too, are cruelty-free.”—Susan Vanyo, CEO/founder, Rejuvenate Spas, Atlanta

Tracy Morin is a freelance writer and editor based in Oxford, Mississippi.