The news about cosmetics safety testing is better than you'd guess. In the cosmetics industry, testing on animals has been nearly phased out except for unique new ingredients. We can stop even this practice by letting cosmetics companies know that we don't want innovative new ingredients at the price of animal lives.
Here's how cosmetics are tested for safety today.
Finished cosmetics normally undergo tests for skin and eye irritation, using alternative, non-animal methods.
For allergies and toxicity, a finished cosmetic is assumed safe if the individual ingredients have all tested safe. Regulatory agencies in the US and the European Union recommend this approach in their guidelines. Sometimes a finished cosmetic is still tested for allergies or toxicity, but through non-animal studies.
Most cosmetics testing is for individual ingredients, not for finished products.
Ingredients usually undergo a basic "six-pack" of safety tests, which today are almost always done through non-animal alternative methods (thanks largely to the EU's ban on animal testing):
The first four tests evaluate short-term effects like skin irritation, the most common concerns for cosmetics.
The last two, skin penetration and genotoxicity, screen for potential long-term, systemic effects. When you hear about endocrine disruptors and carcinogens, these are in the group of potential systemic effects.
If an ingredient tests positive for genotoxicity (indicating a potential problem), it usually is dropped as an ingredient. Only rarely is such an ingredient further considered, and then only if the results of a full carcinogenicity test are available from another industry. A carcinogenicity test might be available, for instance, if the ingredient was originally developed by the chemical industry, which routinely conducts such tests. Carcinogenicity tests typically use about 400 animals.
The skin penetration test is a more general screening tool. If an ingredient penetrates the skin deeply enough, the next step is checking if the ingredient could be biologically or chemically active. An ingredient can't affect your system unless it can both penetrate your system and also have the ability to react with your system.
Only a small percentage of ingredients fall into this category. (Internet stories circulating widely say "up to 60%" or even worse "everything", but the instances are actually rare - we couldn't survive if they weren't!) These ingredients - the ones that can penetrate deeply enough and that can potentially biologically or chemically react with our systems - are typically further evaluated, and that may include more tests, including animal tests.
If an ingredient both penetrates skin and is potentially active, then it typically undergoes further study, to evaluate systemic toxicity.
If the new ingredient is similar to an existing ingredient, the study can be based on data from the existing ingredient, avoiding animal tests.
If the new ingredient is unique, however, it can't be evaluated from existing ingredients. These unique ingredients may undergo long-term animal studies, called repeated-dose tests. This is where animal testing may occur today, but it is rare, because only a small percentage of ingredients fall into this category.
Repeated-dose tests are animal experiments, which always result in death. After the animals are killed, their bodies are autopsied to examine systemic effects to their organs. The tests are called repeated-dose because the animals receive a dose each day for the length of the experiment.
The most common tests for these unique new ingredients are
If a unique ingredient undergoes animal testing, therefore, the tests typically result in the testing and death of 600 to 1,080 animals minimum. In reality, the number is higher, because tests must include enough extra animals so that tests are still valid if some animals die during the test.
When you buy cruelty free, it's these unique new bioactive ingredients that you are giving up. They are the ones that typically still undergo animal testing. With more than 15,000 existing cosmetics ingredients, however, cosmetic chemists still have many choices for creating great formulations.
Many point out that most existing ingredients were tested on animals in the past. That's true, and we can't change that. But we can stop further animal testing of ingredients.
By buying cruelty free, you send a message to companies that innovative cosmetics ingredients aren't worth the cost of animal lives. Even better, directly tell a major cosmetics company. Cosmetics firms believe consumers demand innovation. Tell them that's not true when the cost is animal lives. Ask them to use that ingredient research money to instead research non-animal tests.
Last updated: October 2017
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