The term cruelty-free usually strictly refers to animal testing. If a product is cruelty-free, it means that it hasn't been tested on animals at any point of production or afterwards. Cruelty-free does not however take into consideration things like animal ingredients, meaning that a product can still be certified cruelty-free by the Leaping Bunny and contain animal ingredients. This is a controversial subject and it's very subjective where the line between what is and isn't literally "cruelty-free" can be drawn, but for the sake of clarity: cruelty-free refers to the testing methods, while vegan refers to the ingredients.
As you know, most makeup brushes are made from natural bristles of animal hair. Brushes themselves don't have to be tested on animals, and are often sold by makeup brands that are completely cruelty-free in the sense that they abide by a strict no-animal-testing policy and are sometimes even certified. By this standard, it might be logical to conclude that brushes made from natural hair are also cruelty-free, although not vegan. This might sound right, but I disagree with it 100%, and here's why.
Where everyone draws the line when it comes to what is and isn't cruelty-free is sometimes a matter of opinion, and while I have pretty strong convictions given that I'm passionate about living cruelty-free and what it means to me, I also respect most opinions on the subject. And I'll share my personal opinion with you: I believe that no makeup brushes made from animal hair can be cruelty-free. This applies to the vast majority of brushes, especially those that are cheaply-made in places like China. About 99% of brushes made from natural hair are, in my opinion, obtained from cruel methods that can be just as cruel as animal testing.
Many companies claim that the hair used in their makeup brushes is obtained through "humane methods" and that the animals only "get a haircut" in the making of those mass-produced brushes. But who are we kidding! Does that sound plausible to you? Even though there's no real way to prove it, it all sounds like sugar-coating to me. Also remember that a lot of brushes use badger hair and squirrel hair, and in those cases, it's safe to assume that those small animals are getting more than just "a haircut". So there you go: I believe that buying synthetic, or vegan, brushes is the safest way to ensure that your makeup tools are cruelty-free.
That being said, I still support cruelty-free companies that sell natural hair brushes under their brand, although I will personally not buy or recommend buying their animal hair brushes. Sonia Kashuk is an example that comes to mind: the company is cruelty-free and their makeup brushes are excellent, but I only choose to buy their synthetic ones. It's a matter of preference, as well as where you personally draw the line. If you're a cruelty-shopper and still buy non-synthetic brushes, I'm not here to preach. After all, the official message of these brands is that their animal hair brushes are, indeed, cruelty-free.
Lastly, I want to point out that there are many companies offering quality vegan brush lines completely made from synthetic hair, at every price range. EcoTools and Everyday Minerals have some decently-priced soft vegan brushes, Illamasqua has a completely vegan and super wide range of makeup brushes, and there are other independent companies that offer synthetic brush sets available online, like Pirouette or Nanshy.
Where do you draw the line? Do you avoid all animal ingredients? Are you fine with all animal ingredients, or do you only buy cosmetics that contain some of them, like beeswax, and avoid others? Or like me, do you draw the line at animal hair brushes?
Stay tuned for my personal cruelty-free and vegan brush suggestions!