Cruelty-free and vegan cosmetics started picking up momentum in 2016 and has shown no signs of slowing down. Today, animal testing for cosmetics is banned in the European Union, Israel, India, and Norway, and the trend towards limiting or banning animal testing will likely continue. As more consumers look to brands who are cruelty-free, we take a look at what’s at stake, the facts pertaining to animal testing for cosmetics, and the major considerations in this debate.
Animal testing refers to research using non-human animals as test subjects. Animal testing is used in a wide variety of fields such as biology, psychology, and medicine. To understand the scope of animal testing, the number of vertebrate animals used for testing may be as large as 100 million animals per year. Animal testing for cosmetics is relatively niche, accounting for an estimated 100,000 to 500,000 animals per year. As a whole, the cosmetics industry plays a very small role in animal testing at 0.1 to 0.5%, but the absolute number of animals that are tested on is large, and it is a topic that invites considerable controversy.
In cosmetics, animals are used primarily to test for the safety or toxicity of an ingredient or product, as well as its likelihood of causing irritation to the skin or the eyes. In other cases, they can be used to test for carcinogenic (cancer-causing) properties, or for comedogenicity (acne-causing). The animals used for cosmetics testing are primarily rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, rats, and hamsters. The use of animal testing in cosmetics is becoming increasingly controversial, and we’ll delve into why.
The Controversy with Animal Testing
The clear downside to animal testing is the amount of suffering that the animals endure both during the testing and throughout their lives as test subjects. In the case of cosmetics, most of the tests revolve around measuring the toxicity or irritability of ingredients. Unlike human subjects who consent to medical tests, animals cannot consent (and most likely would not if they could). It’s impossible to generalize the conditions and lives of test animals because they vary widely based on the country’s laws, the particular facility, and the test itself. However, it isn’t difficult to imagine the quality of life of a captive animal that is bred for the explicit purpose of medical experimentation.
There is general support for the use of animals in medical testing. Animal testing has played a critical role in the advancement of medicine historically, and it still remains important and relevant today. There is always an upside and a downside, and animal testing for medicine seems to pass, but the scales are becoming less favourable for the case of testing for cosmetics. Between medicine and cosmetics, the latter is rightly seen as more of a luxury rather than a necessity. New cures for devastating diseases are more important than a snazzy makeup ingredient and is a less convincing a case for justifying the lives of test animals. The other angle of criticism is that the tests may not even be necessary in many cases where the safety of the vast majority of commonly used ingredients are well established already, and the animals may be suffering in vain.
Animal Testing Facts Matter
Arguments about values are seldom absolute, and this is the case with animal testing as well. Here are some important questions to consider:
What are the tests that are used in cosmetics?
Various tests are used to determine toxicity and irritation. In some cases, carcinogenicity is also tested (cancer-causing). Tests can involve rubbing the ingredients on to shaved skin, the eyes, or forced ingestion, depending on what they are testing for.
Outside of ethical considerations, what are the strengths and weaknesses of animal testing in terms of reliability?
The strength of animal testing is that we can observe how a substance acts on a living animal. Often, what we can observe on a cell under a microscope does not reflect what is observed in a living system. It is closer and more analogous to what we are likely to observe in humans. The weakness is that animals are not identical to humans. What may be toxic to a rabbit may not be toxic to humans and vice versa. There are alternative tests that can use human subjects using diluted solutions which may provide more accurate data.
Is animal testing required by law?
Regulations vary widely from country to country. In Europe, testing for cosmetics is banned (with some notable exceptions). In some countries, testing on animals is a legal requirement. China is a major market that requires animal testing.
Have there been any improvements in animal testing?
The direction has been to reduce animal suffering where possible. Controversial tests like the Draize test and the LD50 tests have declined considerably and alternative methods that don’t require testing on live animals are growing. Change, however, takes time.
Do we need to test new ingredients in cosmetics? What cost are we willing to tolerate?
This is really the crux of the issue. There are few sound arguments to test the same ingredients using the same tests over and over to duplicate the results beyond a certain point. It’s the demand for new and improved ingredients, often used for marketing for its exotic appeal rather than for efficacy, that require animal testing, and many consumers are opting out of this.
Cruelty-free and Alternative Testing
With animal testing, particularly in the realm of cosmetics, public opinion has shifted considerably in the last decade. Cruelty-free is a trending search term, and several companies have adopted the trend, making it an important part of their brand’s message. The EU has largely banned animal testing for cosmetics, and Canada is quickly heading towards an effective ban on animal testing for cosmetics via Bill S-214, an amendment to the Foods and Drugs Act. Social values are changing and more consideration is given to animal welfare, but regulatory changes can often be slow.
The science is adapting and also changing to the environment, and alternative testing methods are being developed as well, but these changes also take time. Another issue is that many claims like “cruelty-free” or “not tested on animals” can be opaque, with many loopholes. There are programs like the Leaping Bunny Program, that act as third-party seals of approval, demonstrating that a product is not tested on animals. These types of programs can help consumers make purchasing choices that are in line with their values.