Cosmetics and animal testing

Although there are already several thousand beauty and bodycare products, the cosmetics industry never tires of researching on new chemical ingredients. The aim is to follow fashion trends or to entice consumers with supposed innovations: the new summer colours in the eye shadow collection, the shampoo with the guaranteed anti-dandruff formula or the superfirm hair gel keep the money rolling in for the manufacturers.

What animal tests are carried out for cosmetic products?

The range of toxicity tests carried out for cosmetic products includes about a dozen extremely cruel and painful animal experiments, such as:

Acute toxicity

The substance is administered to rats or mice through a stomach tube. Depending on the nature and quantity of the substance, the animals suffer hours of convulsions, diarrhoea, fever, shivering fits or paralysis.

Chronic toxicity

A low dose of the test substance is administered to rodents at regular intervals over a period of several weeks.

Skin irritancy test

The substance being tested is applied to the shaven skin of rabbits. If the substance is a skin irritant it causes painful inflammation of the animals' skin.

Eye irritancy (Draize test)

The test substance is dripped into the eyes of rabbits. The damage is then observed: depending on the nature and quantity of the substance, the eyes suffer painful inflammation and severe blistering.

Skin allergy test

The test substance is injected into the skin of hamsters or guinea-pigs in order to stimulate the animals' immune system. If the test substance causes allergic reactions after repeated contact, this results in painful inflammation of the skin.

Damaging effect of sunlight (phototoxicity)

This test is carried out on rats or guinea-pigs and is very similar to the skin allergy test. The substance is injected into the skin. During the radiation with UV-A light which follows, the animals are confined for many hours in narrow plastic tubes which make it impossible for them to move.

Skin absorption test

The test substance is applied to the skin of rats. The animals are held in isolation in so-called metabolism cages. Urine, faeces and sometimes blood samples from the animals are examined to see whether they contain any of the test substance.

Damage to foetus or embryo (teratogenicity)

The substance is administered to pregnant rats or rabbits. The animals are killed at various stages of pregnancy in order to see whether the substance has damaged the mother and/or influenced the normal development of the foetuses. If substances are teratogenic this results in deformities or stillbirths.

Cancer-inducing effects (carcinogenicity)

The test substance is administered to rats or mice to find out whether the animals develop tumours.

Why are animal tests unnecessary and pointless?

The cosmetics industry claims consumer safety to be the reason for carrying out animal testing. Allegedly, only animal tests can guarantee that cosmetics are harmless and protect customers from possible injury from a new product. But the truth is that animal tests contribute nothing to the safety of consumers. Due to the many anatomical, physical and psychological differences between human beings and animals, and between the various animal species, the results of the tests simply cannot be applied to humans. Animal tests never provide any guarantee that one is purchasing a safe product. Only an individual can establish how one or another new product has worked for him or her, and even then often only after some years. Only when a product has proven itself over decades, without causing any harm to human beings, can one speak of it being harmless.

The fact that animal tests contribute nothing to the safety of consumers is shown by the string of injury cases that keep occurring: for example the scandal in 1986, when large quantities of cancer-inducing Dioxin were found in various shampoos and bathing products. Shortly afterwards, the German product-testing organisation 'Stiftung Warentest' found up to 5 times the approved maximum concentration of carcinogenic heavy metals, including arsenic, barium, lead and mercury, in many lipsticks, mascaras and eye shadows. Artificial fragrances used in perfumes, soaps and body lotions are dubious from the health viewpoint and damaging to the environment, according to a 1995 report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. They are not easily biodegradable and reach the rivers and seas via sewage, where they accumulate in the fatty tissue of fish and mussels. In 2001 the consumer magazine Öko-Test found potentially harmful dyes, and preservatives suspected of causing cancer, in 18 of the 22 bleaching preparations it had tested.

Why are animal tests really carried out in the field of cosmetics?

There are clear parallels between manufacturers of cosmetics and the methods used by the pharmaceutical industry. Both of them use animal testing to protect themselves from claims for damages in the event of possible injury. Animal tests thus serve to protect the producer, not the consumer - they merely perform an alibi function. One might think that the industry's risk could be reduced if it simply went back to long-proven ingredients and products.

However, the leading principle of all businesses in the industrialised nations is to maximise profit. The battle for image and market shares can hardly be won with long-established products, so new cosmetic and bodycare products are constantly pushed onto the market as the companies strive for profits - products that nobody needs and that cost the lives of innumerable animals.

A further reason for clinging to animal testing is also connected with the companies' profit strategy. In many countries animal testing is a legal requirement for cosmetics, so that anyone who wants to market his soap or suncream worldwide will test it beforehand in an animal laboratory.

What solutions are available?

One possible solution would be to do without developing new beauty and bodycare products, at least to a large extent, and to rely on long-proven products. A few firms already do this.
But there would also be an alternative for companies that insist on creating new cosmetic products. Testing methods that use pain-free materials already exist for all the current animal procedures mentioned above - so-called in vitro methods. The use of such test-tube tests not only doesn't raise any ethical problems, it produces results that are more reliable and meaningful. In addition, the tests are faster and cheaper than the conventional animal tests. So these modern systems are superior in every way to animal testing.

Examples of in vitro tests of the tolerability of cosmetics:

Acute toxicity

The toxicity of cosmetic and other chemical products can be tested with cell cultures from humans. The cells react very sensitively and die if subjected to toxic substances.

Skin irritancy test

The substance is tested on isolated human skin or on cultures of human skin cells. Various testing systems are available on the market.

Eye irritancy (Draize test)

The HET-CAM Test uses the skin lying directly beneath the shell of an incubated hen's egg, which contains veins and arteries but no nerves. The substance to be tested is dripped onto the skin and the reaction is observed.

Mutagenicity test (damage to the genetic structure)

The Ames Test (mutation test with bacteria) makes use of the fact that the gene structure of all living creatures is in principle the same. Alterations in the gene structure can also be examined in permanent (imperishable) cell cultures of mammals.

Damaging effects of sunlight (phototoxicity)

The 3T3 Neutral Red Test is based on the principle that the cells of a specific permanent mouse cell line, after being subjected to a damaging substance and radiation with ultraviolet light, are no longer able to take up a red pigment.

Skin absorption test

This test can be carried out on human skin samples.

Damage to foetus or embryo (teratogenicity)

Numerous in vitro tests exist, for example with isolated embryos of mice, rats or rabbits (embryo culture), with imperishable mouse cell lines (Embryo Stem Cell Test) or with cells from mouse embryos (Limb Bud Micromass Test).

Cancer-inducing effects (carcinogenicity)

For the so-called transformation test, cell cultures are used from hamster embryos or mouse cell lines. Human liver and skin cells are also suitable for this purpose.

What is the legal position?

A favourite argument used by the cosmetics industry to defend its use of animal testing is the alleged legal requirement for animal tests to be carried out. This is not so. In Germany, there is no legal provision that demands any testing on animals. The sole requirement is that the harmlessness of products, and thus the safety of consumers, must be ensured. How this assurance is to be provided is left to the firms concerned.

Animal tests for decorative cosmetics were already forbidden in 1986, when the new German Animal Welfare Law came into effect. This provision was, however, totally inadequate to prevent animal tests for the development of these products. For one thing the provision did not cover the entire range of bodycare cosmetics, and for another thing it was extremely difficult to define the borderline between bodycare and decorative products. The manufacturers even declared eye shadow and lipstick to have bodycare purposes, and were thus easily able to avoid the ban.

Since 1998, under the Animal Welfare Law, animal testing is forbidden for the development of both decorative and bodycare cosmetics in respect of both the ingredients and the finished products, so long as they are not covered by the Law relating to Chemicals. Some exceptions are permitted. However, a legal loophole still makes it easy for industry to carry out animal testing despite the ban. The ban only applies to ingredients that are used solely for cosmetics. As this only affects the bare minimum of ingredients, the substances can be tested on animals in accordance with the Chemicals Law.

Since 1993 attempts have been made to find a legal solution at the European level, but the long overdue ban on animal testing of cosmetics and on the importation of animal-tested cosmetics has been repeatedly deferred or watered down.

After many years of tug-of-war, on 11 March 2003 the 7th Amendment to the Cosmetic Guideline (Guideline 2003/15/EC) came into force. Its content can be summarised as follows:

  • as from 11.09.2004: Ban on animal tests for cosmetic finished products throughout the European
  • Union
  • as from 11.09.2004: EU-wide marketing ban of animal-tested cosmetic products and ingredients, if 'alternative' testing methods approved by the EU exist
  • as from 11.09.2009: Ban on animal tests for cosmetic ingredients throughour the EU
  • as from 11.03.2009: EU-wide marketing ban of animal-tested cosmetic products and ingredients in respect of most of the routinely used animal tests, irrespective of whether or not non-animal methods already exist
  • as from 11.03.2013: Marketing ban of cosmetic products and ingredients which have been subjected to three specific animal tests: repeated dose toxicity, reproduction toxicity, toxicokinetics (absorption, distribution, metabolic processing and excretion of a substance). This ban can be further deferred in the future if no approved non-animal tests are available by this date

Is there such a thing as non-animal tested cosmetics?

The fact is that the chemical industry only began to develop at the beginning of the last century, whereas mankind had already mastered the art of bodycare, the dying of hair and clothing thousands of years ago. To test such substances on animals after they have formed part of mankind's daily culture for thousands of years is just as absurd as it would be to test whether water is toxic. For water - as every child knows - is not toxic, although experience teaches that one can drown in it. Yet the chemical industry has tested even substances known to be non-toxic, such as jojoba oil or olive oil. Basically, all the ingredients of cosmetic products have been animal-tested at some time or another for their toxicity. To that extent, one cannot really speak of 'non animal-tested' cosmetics.

How you can help?

The most important criterion in non animal-tested lists is the date from which no more animal tests have been made on the ingredients. This date varies in the various cosmetic lists currently in circulation. There are also differences in respect of how the list was scrutinized. A list based only on information provided by the manufacturers is less trustworthy than data that has been audited by independent organisations. Finally, a further criterion should be whether a firm offers only vegan products, i.e. products that contain no substances from dead or living animals.

Even if there are no 100% non animal-tested cosmetics, it is generally true to say that by supporting firms that pursue a non animal-testing and vegan policy you are showing the large animal-testing companies that you reject their policies. Also, you are doing a favour not only to the animals but also to yourself: the ingredients used have all been on the market for decades, and any possible injurious effects on people would have long since become apparent. To use such products is therefore not only animal-friendly but also safe from the health viewpoint.

The Positive List of the German Society for the Protection of Animals (Deutscher Tierschutzbund) shows firms which do not carry out any animal testing and only use ingredients that have not been tested on animals since 1979.

The Humane Cosmetic Standard (HCS) is a seal of approval used in Europe and the USA and run by the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments ( www.eceae.org) and the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (www.leapingbunny.org). Neither the ingredients nor the finished products will have been tested on animals after the date stated by the manufacturer. The firms' claims are regularly audited by independent auditing organisations. The Humane Cosmetic Standard is currently not being run in Germany.