Here’s a fun weekend quiz. Do you consider yourself to veer on the side of good rather than evil? Do you recycle as much as possible? Buy only free-range meat, or no meat at all? Do you donate old clothes to a charity for the homeless? Great.
But before you give yourself a morally righteous pat on the back, run up to your bathroom and check whether you own any of the following brands of skincare or cosmetics: Estée Lauder, Dior, L’Oréal, Vaseline, Burberry Beauty, Revlon, Sisley . . . the list is practically endless. If they are in your bathroom — and I own items from pretty much all of those brands — then you, like me, are buying products from brands that test on animals.
It’s hard to believe that, even though it was effectively banned in the UK in 1998, animal testing on cosmetics is still a moral issue, and has been for some time. Stories of the infamous Draize test, invented in 1944, where rabbits had cosmetics squirted in their eyes, shocked and dismayed us, but then the tests stopped, and we just assumed it had gone away — because it had.
Sadly, in China, some 375,000 animals are estimated to have been used in tests — Draize included — in 2015 alone, according to the HSI (Humane Society International), and the chief implementers of those tests (mandatory for any “foreign” beauty brands trying to establish a foothold in the Chinese marketplace) are western, and household names. If your favourite moisturiser can also be bought in China, then the people who make your favourite moisturiser are obliged to submit their products to a list of recognised laboratories in China for animal tests. (NB: if it’s only sold in China online then the animal testing rule doesn’t apply. For a quick check, read the Paula’s Choice Animal Testing Report Card, which lists all the brands that are currently testing; Hong Kong is excluded from the ruling.)
Let’s be clear here — beauty brands are not happy with this, either. Not only is it a PR nightmare but it’s also expensive and inefficient. One brand founder, who doesn’t sell there, complained that she sees the regulations as being imposed purely to raise money. Others, such as Unilever and L’Oréal, have been investing in training Chinese regulators to use alternative methods that don’t involve live animals, while still meeting safety requirements; Estée Lauder contributes funds to the US-based Insititute for In Vitro Sciences, which develops educational programmes in countries where animal testing is still practised; and the UK Home Office has also been to China to help educate scientists.
Aside from the cruelty, animal testing is also outmoded — there are more effective, cheaper ways to establish whether ingredients are safe for humans. EpiDerm, for example, is a 3D skin model made from human skin cells grown in the laboratory.
Then there’s the L’Oréal-owned EpiSkin, a research laboratory which develops human skin models in vitro. Currently the most widely used one works by taking skin cells from healthy adult donors and growing them in a collagen base until human epidermis is formed. It’s now sold at cost to a number of other companies in the spirit of eradicating animal testing and advancing the ethics of the beauty business as a whole. “The beauty industry is on board,” says Dr Julia Baines from PETA UK, “but the Chinese are slow to accept change because they’ve had massive problems with cosmetics contamination in the past. It’s inexcusable when you consider the wide availability of the alternatives.”
The good news is that, this September, two important but unconnected advancements have been made towards moving away from animal testing. In China, the National Institute for Food and Drug Control has proposed that alternative methods could soon be used, which means that if the relevant parties agree, in vitro testing (using plant, human or animal cell cultures in a test tube as opposed to whole, living animals) would become the go-to method for testing, thereby putting a stop to animal testing. The downside is that the particular in vitro method adopted is one that uses the skin of dead rats, rather than the more advanced EpiSkin method of in vitro testing — but it’s a step in the right direction.
The second important recent change concerns European regulation. In Europe, animal testing on finished products was outlawed in 2009, and on ingredients in 2013, but a year later, the Reach (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) regulations were brought in, something that has been interpreted by the European Chemicals Agency as meaning that any new ingredients must be tested on animals if manufacturing workers are exposed to them. Significantly, even after tests have occurred, they can still market any such products as “cruelty free”. If that doesn’t make sense to you, it didn’t make sense to PETA, either, who this month, after several years of petitioning, won their right to a European Ombudsman Enquiry. No doubt a lengthy process will now ensue, but at least it means potentially closing another back door to animal testing.
In the meantime, how do we as consumers buy ethically? It’s hard to understand how the cosmetics industry (estimated to be worth $675bn globally by 2020) doesn’t have enough clout to make this stop; and of course many would argue that beauty brands should simply not sell to China until animal testing there does stop, as Chantecaille, Codage, Dr Hauschka, By Terry and many others have done. Animal testing is still legal in the US, but not mandatory, and most brands — including Estée Lauder — run a mile from it there. But until China adopts the new in vitro tests, it’s a sad fact that one of your favourite moisturisers has probably been party to something most people wouldn’t want to support.