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The animal testing of cosmetics and toiletries and the REACH dilemma

Sadly, almost all of the ingredients that go into our cosmetics have been tested on animals at some point, even water! For decades, animals have been used to test the toxicity of products for humans and the impact that chemicals will have on the environment.

Animal rights campaigners have been stressing how unreliable animal testing is for almost as long, arguing that the biological make-up of the animals that we test on is just too far removed from humans to be justifiable.

More recent studies have shown that animal tests predict human reactions to cosmetics only 40-60% of the time, while alternatives can be 80% accurate.

And yet, the Humane Society International (HSI), which campaigns to end animal testing, believes that half a million animals are used for testing in the cosmetics industry every year! The vast majority of these animals are likely to be tested on in China, the only country in the world that has legal requirements for animal tests to be conducted on all finished cosmetic products that are entering the market.

The EU and animal testing

A total of 39 countries have banned animal testing for cosmetics, the majority of which are the EU member states. On the surface of things, the EU appears to be leaps and bounds ahead of the curve when it comes to stopping animal testing for cosmetics.

It banned animal testing on finished cosmetic products back in 2004 and went on to ban testing on the ingredients that make those products in 2009. And, in 2013, it went even further and banned the import and sale of any cosmetics that had been tested on animals abroad.

However, the EU’s chemical safety regulation known as REACH (The Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and restriction of Chemicals), which finished its formal implementation period in June 2018, has rendered the ingredients-testing ban somewhat obsolete.

REACH regulation requires all chemicals used in the EU to be tested for safety. Under this programme, safety tests are funded and organised by the companies that use and sell the chemicals. All chemicals bought and sold over a tonne in weight in the EU need a REACH registration number.

Some cosmetic companies, mostly larger ones, have been actively involved in organising and funding safety testing research for REACH. Which, in some cases, has included commissioning new animal tests. Although the guidelines for these tests state that companies should avoid animal testing where possible, a significant amount of extra animal testing has been commissioned because of REACH.

Under REACH, businesses can buy the rights to use the safety testing data gathered by other companies, instead of being involved at the testing stage. This distances them from animal tests but, by licensing the REACH registration number, they are still financially contributing to the companies who have commissioned the tests.

Other companies are trying to stay as far away from REACH as possible, passing the burden onto their suppliers. By insisting that suppliers apply for, or purchase access to, a REACH registration number, companies can claim that they have not commissioned or financially supported any animal tests.

Although imperfect, this approach may currently be the most effective way for companies to distance themselves from animal testing in the EU.

Brexit and REACH

One of the most important principles of EU REACH is ‘no data, no market’ – the idea that a company cannot trade in the EU without access to safety testing data on the chemicals it uses. This principle presents difficulties in light of Brexit.

UK REACH, which was originally posited by Theresa May’s government in January 2019, remains the most likely solution to this impasse. Under this system all current registrations with EU REACH would be transferred to UK REACH but, crucially, the UK would no longer have access to EU REACH’s substance data.  Instead the UK will have to request that companies re-submit their safety testing data.

It is feared that this process will cause significant confusion and cost for UK companies because many do not actually own this substance data.

Under EU REACH, it was not necessary to own the study data, you could instead buy the right to refer to another company’s data, as discussed above. As such, it is likely that more animal testing would be conducted to fill in gaps in the substance data that UK companies have access to, if this proves to be more cost effective. An industry spokesperson said the government’s approach is “unworkable, unrealistic, costly and will lead to more animal testing”.

Similar to many other Brexit-related issues, clarity is hard to come by.

Hope in technological advances

There is hope: technological advances in safety testing are increasing researchers’ ability to artificially simulate the impact of any particular chemical compound on the body through computer programming. Advances in this field, as well as through other scientific avenues, are extremely promising and are paving the way to a future without animal testing.

In a surprising turn of events, recently the Chinese government appears to be changing its approach to animal testing and cosmetics. From January 2020, the government are accepting more non-animal tests for certain elements of its product safety testing process, a move which HSI have described as “encouraging”, whilst also stressing that “pre-market cosmetic animal testing in China for foreign imports and special-use products, remains unchanged.”

2022 update Cosmetics animal testing ban under threat

Recently the EU’s chemical safety regulator has recently been writing to companies asking them to retest some of these ingredients on animals for 'workplace health and safety', which rather defeats the purpose of the animal testing ban.

Campaigners have long realised that European chemicals and animal welfare regulations were in conflict, which is why long-term projects such as Ethical Consumer's own joint venture with Lush Cosmetics around the Lush Prize were established. But this latest development, if not rescinded, appears to mark a final triumph for the animal testing lobby.

Ironically, this is appearing at a time when the unreliability of animal tests to predict human responses (in the workplace or in consumers) is becoming increasingly evidenced by research.

Unfortunately, now we are post-Brexit, UK citizens are not able to sign the new European petition which has grown up to demand a reversal of this move. However, if you have friends or colleagues in the European Union who would support this campaign, now would be the time to ask them to sign. Since Brexit, the UK's own regulations n this area have been in lockstep with those in Europe, so it makes sense to do so from the point of view of the UK's own regulations too.

Encouragingly, the campaign has brought together not just animal campaign groups like PETA, HSI and CFI, but also large companies like Lush, Unilever and Body Shop in support.

Sign the petition if you are EU citizen.

What can consumers do?

Sign the new EU petition if you are EU citizen.

Until alternatives to animal testing become widely accepted and implemented by the cosmetics industry, consumers need to be vigilant. Supporting companies who have clear stances against animal testing is also an obvious move. Look out for products and companies that are certified with Cruelty Free International’s Leaping Bunny logo, or companies which are campaigning actively against animal testing.

Consumers should also avoid companies which are marked down under our Animal Testing category. To achieve a best rating, a company needs to have a clear policy stating that it does not commission animal testing on finished goods or use ingredients in its products which have been tested in this way beyond a fixed cut-off date.

Having a fixed cut-off date is important because most ingredients have, at some stage in history, been tested on animals. So, it would generally be untrue for a company to say that none of the ingredients have ever been tested on animals. The aim of this rating is to highlight companies that are trying to stop animal testing occurring at present and in future.

If a company has a policy banning animal-tested ingredients, but lacks a fixed cut-off date, it will receive a middle rating for Animal Testing instead. Which is why we do not give best ratings to companies who are only Vegan Society, PETA or Organic certified as these standards lack a fixed cut-off date.

Which cosmetics brands are really ethical?

To find out which companies score well and which score badly, take a look at our ethical shopping guides.

We have guides for soap, shampoo, shower gel, and sunscreen that are all available on this website.

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