Cosmetic Animal Testing Is Cruel – But There Are Alternatives

Animal testing is an outdated method of testing the safety of cosmetics. While many companies still rely on it, consumers are demanding cruelty-free alternatives.

image of guinea pig, animal testing cosmetics

Explainer Animal Testing Policy

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While we may think of animal testing for cosmetic products as a thing of the past, it’s a practice that causes the death of 500,000 animals every year, primarily rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats and mice. These animals have chemicals applied to their skin, injected into their bodies or smeared onto their eyes. They  often  undergo immense physical pain and mental torment just so  companies can produce the very latest lipstick or deodorant. Not only is there significant consumer demand to stop testing cosmetic products on animals, but there are now many alternatives to testing cosmetics on animals that produce more accurate and efficient results — and most importantly, don’t cost lives.

What Products Are Regulated as Cosmetics?

Under U.S. law, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act considers cosmetic products to be any “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body…for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.” This includes a wide range of products we buy every day, from skin moisturizers to shampoos to deodorants. This also includes any chemicals or substances that a manufacturer is intending to use as an ingredient in one of these products.

When Did Animals Start Being Used to Test Cosmetics?Widespread use of animal testing for cosmetics began in 1938 when the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act came into law, requiring cosmetic products to be safety tested before being sold to consumers. A key trigger for this was the death of one woman and the blinding of several others from a mascara known as Lash Lure. The product contained p-pheynenediamine, a then untested chemical that caused severe skin damage

There’s little debate that cases like this must be prevented, and that cosmetic products need to be safety tested before being applied to human skin — but many feel strongly that testing these products on animals is not the way to do it. In a survey carried out by the organization Cruelty Free International in the U.S. in 2019, 79 percent of respondents would support a federal law that would end animal testing for cosmetics.

Following the widespread introduction of testing cosmetics on animals, it wasn’t long before the Draize irritancy test was introduced and became the “gold standard” for testing cosmetic products on animals. This test was introduced in 1944, and involved the animals’ eyes and/or skin being subjected to harsh chemicals to determine whether or not they were safe enough to be used in cosmetic products. 

Are Cosmetic Products Still Being Tested on Animals? 

Unfortunately, animal testing for cosmetic products is still taking place today. In the U.S., the decision of whether or not to test cosmetics on animals is largely left up to the manufacturing company. In the European Union, conflicting regulations —between requirements on safety testing to protect workers, and a directive to avoid animal testing unless absolutely necessary — mean that animal testing is still used on some substances only for cosmetic products. While China no longer requires cosmetic products to be safety tested on animals, particular products such as hair dyes require a license that can only be granted once data from animal safety tests are submitted. Which Animals Are Used by the Industry for Testing?

Precise numbers of each species used are difficult to ascertain, but animals used to test the safety of cosmetics include rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, rats and hamsters. There is little scientific basis for these species being used;  the animals are often selected instead for their practicality. These animals breed easily, have short gestation periods and therefore reproduce at a rapid rate. They are also cheap to maintain in a laboratory environment, and because they are prey species, are easy for researchers to handle during experiments.

What Products Are Tested on Animals?

In countries where animal testing for cosmetic products is permitted, tests can be carried out on the finalized cosmetic products, or the individual ingredients in them. Testing makeup products on animals is a common example, but cosmetic products also include shampoos, deodorants and moisturizers, just to name a few. Instead of using chemicals and formulas that are already known to be safe for consumers, some companies are still developing new ones that they have no knowledge of the effects of, and testing them out on animals.

What Cosmetics Tests Are Performed on Animals? 

Skin Absorption or Dermal Penetration

Dermal penetration tests, also known as skin absorption tests, are carried out to determine the rate at which a chemical can penetrate the skin, and what happens to the substance once it is in the body. Animals, typically rats, have their backs shaved and various chemicals spread across their bare skin. The rats are then killed at various times in order to analyze their blood and tissue for changes related to the chemicals. Even if not for their ethical implications, there is no reason for these tests to still be carried out today; the technology exists for in vitro methods to be used instead. These involve models of human skin tissues, or parts of living organisms such as sample of cells.

Skin Sensitization

Skin sensitization tests are similar to dermal penetration tests and also require untested chemicals being smeared on an animal’s skin so that researchers can see how much damage they cause. Just as with dermal penetration tests, there are alternative skin sensitization tests that use in vitro methods and so don’t require lives to be ended. 

Acute Toxicity

Acute toxicity testing involves an animal being exposed to a chemical substance, either orally, through their skin, or by inhaling it. This can involve a single dose or multiple doses, and the animal is observed for 21 days afterwards to assess the substance’s toxicity

Draize Test — Chemicals Applied to an Animal’s Eyes

Draize testing involves chemicals being directly placed onto the eyes of the animals to evaluate the damage they can cause. Rabbits are commonly used for draize testing due to their large eyes and how easily they can be handled in the lab.

Skin Irritation

Skin corrosivity and irritation testing is an umbrella term used to refer to a range of methods used to test how a chemical can damage the skin, including the Draize test. These tests have largely fallen out of public favor due to their ineffectiveness in translating to humans, as well as their use of live animals. 

Where Is Cosmetics Testing on Animals Banned?

Animal testing for cosmetics has now been limited or banned in 42 countries around the world. Even in these countries, however, there are often exceptions to the rules that allow companies to still test harmful chemical substances on rabbits, mice and other animals. Campaigns are ongoing for the Humane Cosmetics Act to be passed in the United States so that animal testing for cosmetics here can be limited and eventually banned.

Is Animal Testing for Cosmetics Even Necessary? 

Animal testing is no longer necessary. Not only has scientific advancement provided us with alternative, more ethical methods of safety testing cosmetics, but also with options that are more accurate, efficient and cost-effective

 Are There Arguments for Testing on Animals?

The main argument used by those in favor of animal testing is that it allows cosmetic products to be tested on biological tissues before being applied to human skin. In many cases, however, the results they produce are not the same as the results of the chemical being used on human tissue. The absence of a viable argument for testing on animals may slowly but surely inch cosmetics companies closer to an overall end to animal testing.

What Are the Alternatives to Animal Testing? 

Thanks to scientific and technological advances in recent years, there are numerous alternatives to testing cosmetic products on animals. Along with not causing the suffering and deaths of thousands of animals, these alternatives often produce more reliable results and are more efficient to carry out.

Organ on Chip 

Organ on chip technology works by very small tissues being grown within microfluidic chips. These chips control the microenvironment of the cells so that human tissues can be accurately simulated. This technology can be used to mimic single organs or multiple organs, and can be more accurate and cost-effective than the methods that use animal models.

Computer Modeling

Also known as “in-silico modeling,” computer modeling for safety testing of cosmetics involves using computers to predict the toxicity of chemicals in the body. The technology works by using data from chemical substances we know to be similar to the test substance in order to predict how it will interact with certain proteins in the human body, and therefore any harm it might cause.

In Vitro Human Tissue

Instead of chemicals being applied to an animal’s eyes or skin, in vitro tests allow the substances to be applied to models of the human cornea or human epidermis, giving a more accurate picture of the effects of these cosmetics on humans. 

Human Volunteer Research

Chemicals that have unknown effects on human tissue cannot ethically be applied to a human either, so human volunteer testing can’t be considered a complete alternative to animal testing on its own. It can however be used after in vitro safety testing methods have been applied and the product is thought to be safe, to give final confirmation that the cosmetic product does not harm human skin.

Cosmetics Brands That Test on Animals

Despite increasing consumer demand for an end to animal testing and multiple available alternatives, some cosmetic brands still carry out tests on animals. Cosmetics brands that still use animal testing may do so themselves, or by using ingredients that a third party has produced using animal tests. The only way to be sure a product you use has not involved animal testing at any point in its production is if it is certified as “cruelty-free.”

How Do I Know If My Cosmetics Are Cruelty-Free?

Cruelty-free cosmetic products are ones that have not been tested on animals or had any of their ingredients tested on animals. Brands may attempt to get around this, however, by describing their products as being cruelty free when this is not actually the case. 

The best way to determine if a cosmetic product you’re buying is truly cruelty-free is to look for the Leaping Bunny logo . The Leaping Bunny certification program was set up in 1996 by a coalition of several animal protection groups to provide a single standard for brands to be certified as  cruelty-free. In addition to  looking for the Leaping Bunny logo on any cosmetic products you’re considering buying, the program also compiles a list of which brands have recommitted to being cruelty-free each year.

It’s important to note that just because a product is certified as cruelty-free, however, that doesn’t mean it’s vegan. While a Leaping Bunny logo signifies that no animal testing was used, a non-vegan product still has ingredients that are the result of animal confinement or slaughter. 

The Bottom Line

Animal testing is an outdated method of validating the safety of cosmetics. In addition to causing immense amounts of suffering for millions of animals around the world, animal testing isn’t effective nor is it economically viable. Thankfully, increasing demand for cruelty-free cosmetic products that use other methods of safety testing is on the rise, with more and more governments banning the sale of animal-tested products and the use of animal testing for cosmetics.

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