“Cruelty-free.” “Not tested on animals.” These are buzzwords in the beauty industry. Similar to sulfate-free, paraben-free, and fragrance-free claims, even if you don’t know precisely what they mean, these descriptors sound positive. We see them in a product’s description or on product packaging and think, I want that.

Whether you are strictly cruelty-free when shopping for cosmetics or not, understanding those words can be confusing. To each brand, cruelty-free can mean something different. Even PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies Program differs from Cruelty-Free International’s Leaping Bunny Program. Surprisingly, a brand can claim that its products are cruelty-free without providing any proof and, in some cases, even lie and get away with it.

This is why it is so important for beauty companies to offer transparency. But, for those that don’t, it is up to us to educate ourselves on what cruelty-free actually means. To simplify, there are three main tiers of cruelty-free status.

1.           First Tier: The brand does not test on animals, is not sold in Mainland China, and is neither owned by a cruelty-free parent company or does not have a parent company. (Examples: LUSH, Dermalogica, and Summer Fridays)
2.           Second Tier: The brand does not test on animals, is not sold in Mainland China, but is owned by a parent company that is not cruelty-free. (Examples: Smashbox, Bare Minerals, Buxom)
3.           Third Tier: The brand does not directly test on animals but sells in Mainland China. (Examples: OGX, MAC Cosmetics, Nars)

The first tier is what the most loyal cruelty-free shoppers stick to. This tier means that the brand is 100% cruelty-free, is not owned by a company that tests on animals, and does not sell in Mainland China (where the law requires animal testing for imported cosmetics). The popular cruelty-free blog Cruelty-Free Kitty uses this tier to qualify a brand as cruelty-free in its extensive list of cruelty-free beauty brands. If you aren’t sure if a brand is cruelty-free, this is where you can check. And if you want to ensure you are only supporting 100% cruelty-free brands, this is the tier you want. This coincides with Leaping Bunny, an internationally recognized organization that is highly reliable and selective with its approvals. For a brand to have Leaping Bunny certification, it must agree to independent audits that prove that its cruelty-free claims are accurate.

But, cruelty-free means something different to everyone. Some people don’t consider a brand to test on animals if they aren’t the ones doing it. For example, Bare Minerals is a cruelty-free brand that does not sell in Mainland China, but their parent company Shiseido is not cruelty-free. The same goes for other companies owned by Shiseido, like Buxom and MD Formulations. The issue here is a matter of ethics. If Estee Lauder, a non-cruelty-free company, owns a cruelty-free company like Bumble and Bumble, it still makes a profit. Even so, this tier seems to be the most popular with cruelty-free shoppers.

Finally, the third tier is not cruelty-free at all, if you ask most cruelty-free shoppers. Even if the product you purchase in the US has never been tested on animals, by selling in Mainland China, the brand allows the Chinese government to test their products on animals and pays for it. To clarify, this is only the case for products sold in China, not made in China. Therefore, a company making its products in China can be cruelty-free, but it isn’t if marketed to Chinese consumers. Any brand that sells in Mainland China agrees to allow the government to test its products on animals. And this is the reason so many beauty brands are not cruelty-free.

The Chinese market is enormous, so it makes sense why so many brands choose to make this sacrifice from a monetary standpoint. And the reason many brands can still declare themselves cruelty-free when sold in China is because they are not the ones testing on animals. Those in this boat can even be PETA-approved because their approval methods are not as exhaustive as Leaping Bunny’s. In fact, this is a loophole because the brands can claim to be cruelty-free since the Chinese government is doing the testing even if the brand pays for it. To know if a brand allows animal testing, you can often check their FAQ page, and it will say something like, we do not test our products on animals unless required by law.

With this, some people don’t blame the brands for Chinese law, but rather the Chinese government. Chinese law requires mandatory animal testing on all cosmetics manufactured outside of China. Anytime a brand, domestic or not, sells in China, it takes the chance that its products could require animal testing. Although the products may be free from pre-market animal testing, if a Chinese consumer reacts to a product, it can be pulled from the shelves and tested on animals. And even with this fact, PETA supports such brands, which further indicates that PETA’s approval is not as specific as possible.

As you can see, cruelty-free is not as simple of a label as it seems. And ultimately, it is up to you to determine what it means to you and your buying habits.