Last week, greenies around the world celebrated the announcement by the European Commission to ban animal testing for cosmetic products in the EU. Although this may sound like a huge win in the fight against animal cruelty, I think this move has a lot more to it that needs to be discussed.
First of all, there is a very clear distinction in the cosmetic industry between a “finished product” and raw materials. A finished product is basically what you as a consumer can buy off the shelf at your local supermarket, pharmacy or beauty retailer. The raw materials, or ingredients, are the components that make up a finished product.
Animal testing of finished cosmetic products has actually been banned in the EU since 2004. In 2009, the EC announced that the testing of raw materials on animals for use in cosmetic products was being phased out. Because of a lack of alternatives to animal testing, the EC gave industry the 2013 deadline to either come up with effective alternative tests or look at reformulating. Since product development usually takes about 2 or 3 years, it seemed like a reasonable timeline. So in reality, testing has been banned for a few years now and this last step in the process is actually a marketing ban and not a testing ban.
So the announcement really hasn’t come as a surprise or The Big Win Against Big Business that the media has made it out to be. Since 2009, companies such as L’Oréal have been pouring money into research for alternative tests and there are now new methods (one of them being synthetic skin that mimics human responses) available. The biggest problem here is that they aren’t readily available and are still quite expensive. They also don’t allow for some of the more complex testing that cosmetic ingredients also require. So although they’re fine to test skin irritation and allergic reactions, they don’t quite measure up when it comes to toxicity. Personally, I’m a lot more worried whether something will kill me than I am about a rash or allergic reaction.
Another issue I have with the ban is that this is only on the testing of ingredients for cosmetic purposes. If you work in the industry, you know that many ingredients in cosmetics are used for a multitude of other purposes including food, pharmaceuticals, household products and hundreds of other applications. So if you’re testing an ingredient on animals for say, a new drug, and you discover that it doesn’t cause skin sensitivity, that ingredient could be used in a cosmetic product. So it doesn’t stop animal testing, it just stops people doing it for cosmetic purposes.
Banning the testing of ingredients on animals isn’t going to stop companies from using those ingredients. In fact, since the ban categorically excludes products that are already on the market, it effectively prevents the testing of new ingredients on animals. Trade associations are claiming that this stifles creativity and innovation in cosmetic development in that any new ingredients that are discovered may be discarded by manufacturers because they cannot guarantee the product’s safety.
My opinion is that this announcement is being made out to be bigger news than it really is. If you’ve been following the controversy, you knew this was coming. Also, I think that the communication adopted by the EC was worded in such a way that it doesn’t actually change anything. From what I can ascertain (I’m no lawyer or politician), the communication points out that although some alternative tests are available, not all testing has been replaced. But that doesn’t matter. There are other reasons why the ban should go forward, the most notable being that this puts the EC in the enviable position as one of the first to legislate something of this nature. As the US and Asia don’t have anything like this, it puts pressure on them to adopt similar policies and with China’s controversial animal testing policies, it will be interesting to see if they do follow suit.
Lastly, as the communication points out (and it really does, you can read the whole thing yourself), there are other laws that fight for the health and safety of humans as well as the benefit of technical innovation. Argued eloquently, you could defend the testing of an ingredient on animals by saying that if it proves safe, can be used in non-cosmetic industries, say for medical reasons. Seriously, read up on the history of botox. It started as an eye treatment in the 1960s before being used in aesthetics in 1990s. Because of its popularity and the controversy around its use then, the research that has gone into it revealed a multitude of medical uses and is now used to treat everything from migraines to excessive sweating and, in some cases, for certain symptoms of MS (multiple sclerosis).
So although I laud the EC for trying to be a trailblazer, I think I’m coming down on the side of trade this time. It’s a little too early in the game for this kind of legislation and although I do think it may accelerate the development of alternatives, I just don’t think the reasons put forward by the EC are strong enough to warrant this kind of decision.