We’ve all seen the horrific pictures of doomed laboratory rabbits with red, crusty eyes. No one wants to hurt those bunnies. However, we also understand that companies can't just go around hawking toxic cosmetics to the public. The good news is that overall, both consumers and brands agree — we want the most effective products that cause the least harm, and we want them now. A Humane Society Legislative Fund poll taken in 2013 found that 73% of American voters are in favor of federal legislation to end animal-testing for cosmetics. And in Nielsen’s 2015 beauty-product survey of more than 1,000 adults, “not tested on animals” was the most important packaging claim listed, with 57% of the vote.
Cosmetic animal-testing is a double-edged sword of cruelty-free innovation versus consumer safety.
We put a man on the moon. Why are we still animal-testing? Aren’t we past this already?
Coconut oil is pretty damn versatile, but it’s hardly cutting-edge technology. If consumers want new beauty products with innovative ingredients, they have to be tested for safety first. Thank the FDA for that. Since 1938, the group has been charged with enforcing the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and related statutes. That’s largely a reaction to 100+ people killed in 1937 — many of them children — after ingesting an untested wonder drug called elixir sulfanilamide that had a bit too much in common with antifreeze.
You’d think the Act would be a series of laws outlining specific safety standards, but it's mostly about selling adulterated or misbranded cosmetics across state lines. It turns out, the FDA doesn’t actually require animal-testing or pre-market approval of cosmetics except for color additives used in hair dyes. It’s up to companies to prove their safety, and “in many cases, the only substantiation the government accepts is animal-testing,” says cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski, cofounder of The Beauty Brains. “Any new molecule, such as the new sunscreen agent Mexoryl SX, has to be tested.”
Why isn’t there some kind of Encyclopedia of Nontoxic Ingredients somewhere that beauty companies can check, so we don’t have to keep doing horrible experiments?
There is, and previously approved ingredients are grandfathered-in already. Since the 1930s, every ingredient used in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and skin care — “even water,” says cosmetic chemist Ni'Kita Wilson — has been tested on animals. Companies can prove their products are harmless by using already established ingredients — for example, one of the nearly 20,000 ingredients in CosIng, the European Union’s database of information on cosmetic substances and ingredients.
To discourage over-testing, “most companies have adopted a fixed cut-off date for raw materials. That means that they won't use any ingredients tested on animals after a certain date,” Wilson says. To be clear, that also means when a company says it doesn’t product-test on animals, that’s exactly what it's saying. That company didn’t test its products (or ingredients) on animals. But someone, somewhere did.
Wait, so we’re seriously still poking rabbits in the eye with mascara? What kind of world is this?
Yes, but there’s less eye-poking all the time. The disturbing image seared into our brains of the adorable lab bunny with crusty, cloudy red eyes? That was called the Draize Test, used for determining eye irritancy of products like shampoo. “Now, there are better alternatives,” says Wilson. “The new standard is a HET-CAM (Hen's Egg Test-Chorioallantoic Membrane) test that involves adding the diluted product to a membrane in unfertilized hen’s eggs. There’s also an EpiOcular test that utilizes reconstructed human tissue.” She says the latter isn’t as reliable as the other two yet. If you’re curious about other FDA-sanctioned animal-testing alternatives, here’s a comprehensive list.
When a company says it doesn’t product-test on animals, that’s exactly what it's saying. That company didn’t test its products (or ingredients) on animals. But someone, somewhere did.
We’re working on it, but they aren’t always available. The FDA and EU are both receptive to alternatives, and looking for ways to reduce the number of animals used in tests and/or reduce pain and suffering. Scientists are now using a variety of human patch tests, in-vitro tests, in-vivo and ex-vivo cell tests; even “microchips lined in human tissue are being evaluated as a replacement for toxicity testing usually done by feeding or injecting an animal,” says Wilson. How’s this for sci-fi: Beauty giant L'Oréal has a farm in Lyon, France, where it grows skin samples from excess tissue donated by plastic surgery patients after cosmetic procedures; and it recently partnered with Organovo, a 3-D human-tissue company, to streamline the process of creating testable skin.
With these types of developments, it’s easy to get ahead of ourselves, but the truth is we still don’t have reliable alternatives [other than animal-testing] for toxicity tests “measuring lung damage, organ failure, or birth defects,” says Romanowski. Because while it’s easy to grow human skin cells in a lab, it’s (currently) impossible to grow organs.
So if the box says my lipstick is cruelty-free, I’m in the clear?
Depends. There’s a lot of gray area here. Labeling a beauty product cruelty-free doesn’t legally mean much. Just like labeling a product “natural,” it’s a made-up marketing term since there is no government organization to enforce cruelty-free standards. And your personal standards depend how much exploitation you’re cool with. Think of it this way: Most vegetarians won’t wear a new fur, but some think wearing vintage fur is okay since it doesn’t support today’s industry. Others feel that wearing a fur — no matter how long ago it was made — isn’t acceptable, since it promotes the idea that fur is fashionable. Somewhere down the line, an animal was exploited.
What if a makeup brand doesn’t animal-test, but (to avoid negative PR) hires an outside company to test on its behalf? That’s still the case for international brands selling makeup to China, where they’re forced to pay for animal-testing by government-mandated labs. No tests, no sales. Recently, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) activist Pamela Anderson sent MAC an angry letter over its presence in China; PETA has crossed off Avon, Estée Lauder, and Revlon from its list of cruelty-free companies. What if a brand, like L’Oréal’s The Body Shop, pulls its products from the Chinese market, but its parent company doesn’t? Or what if it only tests the raw materials? What if the raw materials are made with animal products? You could still be indirectly contributing to the animal-testing machine.
There really is no upside to animal-testing. It’s expensive and terrible for brand image. Not to mention, bad for the animals.
So how do I figure out which brands align with my beliefs? Or should I just move to a desolate cabin and smash all my mirrors?
Look for the Leaping Bunny seal, which is the current gold standard for cruelty-free. The Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC) is a team of eight national animal-protection groups with a single comprehensive standard and an internationally recognized logo. Download the app, and you can search by product type, company name, or — in the ultimate lazy-girl move — scan the UPC code. PETA has its own searchable Beauty Without Bunnies Guide of over 1,700 companies that have passed their own standards.
“However, this isn't a perfect system and companies can cheat if they are suitably motivated,” says Romanowski. The best way to know is to contact the brand making a cruelty-free claim and find out about its policies. Sure it’s a pain in the ass, but cosmetic animal-testing is a double-edged sword of cruelty-free innovation versus consumer safety — and science is still trying to figure out the best ways of providing one without sacrificing the other. Says Romanowski, "When cruelty-free alternatives become available, you can bet the cosmetics industry will switch immediately. There really is no upside to animal-testing. It’s expensive and terrible for brand image. Not to mention, bad for the animals."