It was 2013 when the news echoed through Europe: the much-needed, long-awaited ban on selling and marketing cosmetics tested on animals in the EU was finally coming into effect. Animal rights campaigners and conscious beauty lovers everywhere rejoiced. The next year, India followed suit and banned the practice. Australia’s ban came into force last year. Internationally, over 40 countries have to date implemented laws to completely ban or somewhat restrict animal testing for cosmetics and personal-care products.
In light of this legislation, it’s easy to believe that testing cosmetics on animals isn’t something that happens anymore – and that is in fact what many people believe. Unfortunately, reality is much bleaker: according to PETA’s estimates, approximately 300,000 animals are used every year in China alone for cosmetics testing, and the global figures are likely to be much higher.
What actually happens to animals in tests? Life in laboratories are akin to the stuff of nightmares: pregnant rabbits are force-fed ingredients, then killed with their unborn babies. Ingredients are rubbed into animals’ skin, dropped into their eyes, or forced down their throats. Animals used for cosmetics testing include rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, mice and dogs. They often live in small, barren cages, and after the test is concluded, the animals are most commonly killed.
PETA UK’s Science Policy Manager Dr Julia Baines joined the organisation after having worked in a laboratory that performs animal testing, and her experiences are haunting: “I’ve seen mice torn apart by cagemates who had been driven insane and made aggressive by the stress of confinement. I’ve visited laboratories where dogs are experimented on, and I’ll never forget the anguished cries of the beagles there, who were vying for attention, longing for someone to play with. I’ve observed primates imprisoned in cramped, almost barren cages – which have no ropes for them to swing on – who are given no opportunity to socialise. They’re so desperate for affection that they reach out to passing visitors, hoping for someone – anyone – to stop and notice them.”
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But all of this doesn’t apply to our beauty products…correct? After all, if we live in a country where animal testing is banned, none of this happens for our lipsticks and face creams, right? Wrong. Let’s take the EU sales and marketing ban, for example. Under the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) legislation, even ingredients that are used only for cosmetics can be tested on animals if there is any risk of workforce exposure during the production process. This constitutes a pretty major loophole. And this legislation – with all its imperfections – is now under threat, as the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has introduced recent test requirements that circumvent it and put animals back in laboratories. ECHA is calling for new tests of ingredients that have been safely used for many years, and data on their safety already exists. To counteract this, animal protection groups such as PETA and Cruelty Free International, alongside cruelty-free beauty brands Dove and The Body Shop, have launched a European Citizens’ Initiative calling for the vital bans to be saved.
And then we have China – the second-biggest beauty market in the world, which requires cosmetic products that will be sold in the country to be tested on animals. This means that any brand which brings its products into China cannot be considered cruelty-free. So no, your favourite big-name brands from the beauty counter are not “automatically” cruelty-free just because of the bans. To know whether they are, it’s not enough to ask them whether they test on animals – but it can give helpful clues. Brands that do engage in animal testing are likely to say, “we never test on animals…unless required by law.” The requirements they are talking about are indeed those needed to be able to sell their products in China. So a better way of knowing if a brand is indeed cruelty-free is to find out whether they sell in China. Companies have been taken off cruelty-free lists for succumbing to the lure of selling in China, and others have pulled out of this huge, lucrative market in order to be approved as cruelty-free.
However, there is significant progress going on in China, too. Last year, the country put an end to the mandatory requirement for animal testing for many types of cosmetic products, including shampoo and most makeup. As monumental as this step is, it doesn’t mean that all animal testing for cosmetics in China is now over. The RSPCA notes that the change does not include “special-use cosmetics”, which applies to hair dye, sunscreen, and more. Companies that wish to avoid testing on animals also have to pass a series of application steps.
“We believe there’s absolutely no justification for causing animals to suffer for testing cosmetics, and consumers across the globe have shown that they feel the same,” the head of the RSPCA’s animals in science department, Dr Penny Hawkins, has told Dazed. “Whilst we of course welcome this step forward for China, globally we still have a long way to go before we see our ultimate aim realised of all animal experiments being replaced with humane alternatives.”
What humane alternatives is Dr Hawkins talking about? Well, considering the fact that over 90% of drugs tested on animals fail in human trials, it’s definitely time we stepped away from this outdated and inaccurate form of doing research – in all areas, not just cosmetics. And modern science does just that. Alternative methods include growing 3D structures from cells to mimic human organs, donated human tissue, and computer models. These methods are able to more accurately provide life-saving results than pretending that the body of a human and that of a mouse don’t have a variety of physical and biomedical differences that make animal testing unreliable.
Animal testing for cosmetics will one day come to an end. Before it does, there is only one sure-fire way to ensure you didn’t pay for a guinea pig to suffer for your eyeshadow: only buy from brands that are certified as cruelty-free. The main certifications are Cruelty Free International’s Leaping Bunny (commonly used in Europe), PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies programme (global, very prevalent in the US) and Choose Cruelty Free’s rabbit (the main Australian accreditation, which has recently become part of Cruelty Free International). Don’t trust companies’ own rabbit symbols and assurances. Go with the programmes that are proven to have a rigorous certification and verification process, and you can trust that the end products – and all ingredients – are truly cruelty-free.
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Cover image by Elnur.