As you walk through the aisles of shampoos and eyeshadows, products marked “cruelty-free” and “vegan” seem almost to be the new norm. However, while many companies have made significant strides towards the obliteration of animal testing, there are a number of brands that still test on animals. There is an increasingly global movement to end animal testing for cosmetics altogether, and that change must be accompanied by scientific advancements to create new ways of testing for toxicity.
The facts about animal testing are not so pretty. Animal tests for cosmetics involve rubbing the product into the eyes and skin, forced feeding, or “lethal dose” tests. These tests are often employed when determining the toxicity of new ingredients. The FDA claims that animal testing may be necessary in some cases, however, the sale of cosmetics that have been tested on animals has been banned in the European Union, Israel, and India, showing that there are other solutions. These seemingly archaic methods have indeed been used since the 1930s. Further, these methods do not always translate to human outcomes. Clearly, it is time for change.
The strongest argument for the use of animals in cosmetic testing is their ability to demonstrate effects on a whole-body system. Complex issues such as carcinogenicity and endocrine disrupting effects still do not have a comprehensive way of being tested outside of animals, though a number of alternative tests exist for specific mechanisms.
Fortunately, many alternative methods for cosmetic toxicity tests do exist. For example, 3D reproductions of human skin can be used to test skin sensitivity. These accurate human epidermis models can simulate the effects of UV exposure, permeability, and corrosion. Multiple researchers and companies are also working on ways to 3D print human skin which would make the skin models more widely available with an automatized process.
Computer modeling techniques such as QSARs (Quantitative structure-activity relationships) can predict the biological effects of chemicals based on their structures. These programs use molecular descriptors to quantify different aspects of the chemical structure. Then, a relationship is established between descriptors and the target property. Target properties can range from skin sensitivity to developmental and reproductive toxicity.
Engineers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute have created “organs-on-chips” containing human cells that mimic the structure and function of human organs. These chips can combine different cell types to replicate the interconnectedness of human organ systems, creating a microenvironment in which the effects of cosmetic chemicals can be traced. These methods demonstrate a few of the diverse advancements that have been made thus far. Scientists are working to develop more complete methods of testing by integrating multiple approaches.
The issue of cosmetic testing on animals is not only scientific, but also political, social, and economical. It is a debate that extends into the factories of international manufacturers. Numerous companies continue the use of testing on animals, so they can sell in China, where animal testing is required. Many people are opposed to cosmetic testing on animals for ethical reasons. Especially in the cosmetics realm, in which consumers make a conscious decision to use these non-essential products, it is often argued that we are exploiting animals for our own frivolity. Yet, these animals do help to assess health risks for us. To fully transition to a cruelty-free market will require scientific advancement, however, that may only come if we demonstrate a serious need for it. Ultimately, legislation is required to secure a definite end to cosmetic animal testing.
In an analysis on the argument against animal testing for cosmetics, Davis argues that in order to prompt significant change in legislation, we need to de-emotionalize our arguments. He explains that it is an economic push that will finally convince powerful companies and lawmakers of a need for change. Since animal tests are long, expensive, and do not translate smoothly to human outcomes, they are uneconomical compared to the alternative testing methods that are at the beginnings of their employment. For the consumer, these economical pushes can be enacted through voting with your shopping cart, or actively choosing not to purchase products that test on animals.
This past year, Cruelty Free International and The Body Shop have campaigned for a global ban on animal testing by the United Nations. Many more countries are enacting legislation to ban animal testing, but the United States has made few developments. Last month, however, California introduced a bill that would prohibit the sale of personal hygiene products including cosmetics that have been tested on animals. Following this optimistic prospect, it is up to us, as consumers and as scientists, to change the products we use, shape our arguments, and promote scientific advancement if we hope to save our four-legged counterparts while looking dazzling.
About the Author
Emily Davidson is a freshman at the University of California, Los Angeles studying Human Biology & Society. She is interested in bridging the gap between the humanities and life sciences by looking at the ethics and structural causations of scientific issues and analyzing how scientific research is influenced by the social world. She is also interested in nutrition and food science. In her free time, Emily enjoys running, cooking, and exploring new places.