South Korea made headlines in the beginning of January when it announced a five-year plan to enact a ban on animal testing of cosmetic products. That announcement follows similar bans by India and Europe, which puts a lot of pressure on the U.S. to follow suit. While most people agree that testing cosmetics on animals seems unnecessarily cruel, it’s going to be complicated to get a ban here, thanks to a combination of science, economics and politics.
Contrary to some of the propaganda you see out there, most beauty companies really do want to be able to move away from animal testing. Pretty much every expert I spoke to on both sides of the issue agreed on this point. Animal testing is expensive, it can be imprecise, and to take a cynical view, it can also be a PR nightmare for a company. Brands like Caudalie and Urban Decay discovered this a few years ago when they announced plans to sell in China, a country which has a mandatory animal testing law for cosmetics. The public backlash was brutal.
The U.S. has many resources committed to researching alternatives to animal testing. The Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT) at Johns Hopkins is at the forefront of the science, and it receives funding from private cosmetics companies, philanthropy and grants from governmental agencies like the NIH. Thanks to the CAAT’s research, there are a number of tests that can substitute for animal testing now. “We have progress on eye irritation, skin irritation, skin erosion, and phototoxicity. Skin sensitization is coming soon,” Dr. Thomas Hartung, the director of the CAAT, says. But there are limitations. According to Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and a co-founder of The Beauty Brains, there are no laboratory tests yet that can replicate the results of what happens when a chemical is inhaled (although Dr. Hartung says there has been promising research on artificial lungs coming out of Harvard) or to predict whether a substance will cause cancer, for example.
So how are Europe and other countries able to get around all this? It’s all about grandfathered chemicals. According to Dr. Hartung, there is a list of about 11,000 ingredients in Europe on the so-called “safe list.” These are chemicals whose safety has been verified already, so there’s a general consensus that they’re safe to use in new formulations. But there’s still a legacy of animal testing there. “When you see a brand that says they’re cruelty free and they never test on animals, that could be true, but they’re using ingredients that were tested on animals years ago,” Romanowski explains.
There are also a few loopholes. Most beauty companies buy chemicals from manufacturers, some of which definitely test on animals. Chemicals that come from industries other than the beauty industry are also fair game. “While [animal testing] has been banned for cosmetics in Europe, it hasn’t been banned for pharmaceuticals or manufacturing or other chemical industries,” says Romanowski. “A lot of new anti-aging skin care actives are things that were taken from the pharmaceutical realm and they’ve been used in cosmetics.” Kim Paschen, a representative at Leaping Bunny, a not-for-profit that has a rigorous system for certifying brands as cruelty-free, says they also have a stipulation for this and will certify companies if they meet the other requirements.
But obviously the limitations in non-animal testing could affect the use of new chemicals. In the beauty industry, buzzwords like “innovative” are used constantly, and consumers always want the hot new miracle product. With an animal testing ban, innovation could be stalled. “All [companies will] do is take current formulas and change the fragrance and coloring and packaging and call them new, but they won’t be new,” Romanowski says. Francine Lamoriello, the executive vice president of the Council’s Global Affairs at the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), an industry trade group, agrees. “If there was something innovative where the safety could not be completely verified by alternatives, then yes, an [animal testing] ban worldwide would prevent that innovation from being produced on the market,” she says. Obviously it’s an issue for companies, because if you don’t innovate, you won’t sell product.
This fast pace of innovation has scientists racing to keep up, with various levels of success. “There’s an economic force to do something different. It’s an industry of permanent turnover,” the CAAT’s Dr. Hartung says. “You don’t want tests that take a couple of years.” Lamoriello is also quick to point out that safety is a priority for the cosmetics industry. “I’m hopeful the endpoints will be developed at a similar pace to new innovations, but clearly the first priority has to be the safety of the ingredients and the products,” she says.
John Hurson, the executive vice president of government affairs at the PCPC, suggests that the FDA is partially to blame for the roadblock in verifying the accuracy of non-animal alternatives. “The FDA hasn’t approved many alternative testing methods that would satisfy their requirements on the safety of certain ingredients,” he says. The FDA declined to provide a representative to speak to this issue, and instead pointed me to its statement on animal and cosmetics testing.
The FDA doesn’t require animal testing, but it does require that safety be demonstrated satisfactorily, though it’s hard to find a stated definition of what that exactly means. (Here’s a list of FDA-sanctioned animal-testing alternatives if you’re interested.)
While innovation versus the pace of research is one obstacle to a ban on animal testing, China is another one. Every brand wants a piece of China because it has huge sales potential, but the country has a strict animal testing law. It requires that companies pay for end-product animal testing in China. The country recently softened this law a bit and is allowing local companies to prove the safety of certain “ordinary” cosmetics by alternative means, but that doesn’t apply to foreign companies that want to export products there. The PCPC’s Lamoriello says her organization has been working closely with the Chinese government on the issue of animal testing and she is hopeful that it will become more flexible about non-animal testing alternatives. “If you look at it globally, what little animal testing is done is largely done to sell in a Chinese market,” she says. “If we could eliminate that, that would be tremendous progress.”
Several companies that have otherwise committed to cruelty-free products leave their options open. For example, L’Oreal and Avon both have statements on their websites declaring that they do not test on animals, yet they might have to occasionally. Avon states: "Some products may be required by law in a few countries to undergo additional safety testing, including animal testing. In these instances, Avon will first attempt to persuade the requesting authority to accept non-animal test data."
For all the reasons discussed here, Hurson from the PCPC doesn’t think that a ban will happen here in the U.S. in the next five years, although Paschen from Leaping Bunny is cautiously optimistic. The Humane Cosmetics Act, introduced by former Congressman Jim Moran, has a new champion in Congressman Don Beyer, who has pledged to bring it before Congress, where he may face opposition from the newly Republican-controlled House. But between the limitations of non-animal alternatives, all the other priorities of the government and the fact that a pretty small percentage of animal testing in the U.S. is actually done by the cosmetics industry -- the majority is in biomedical and pharmaceutical research -- the chances of something passing anytime soon are pretty slim.