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Animal testing of cosmetics has been nearly phased out except for unique new ingredients.

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How Are Cosmetics Tested for Safety Now?

By Jean Knight, White Rabbit Beauty (wearing her environmental engineering hat)

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. The threat to animals is more from proposed legislation that would trigger new animal testing (read about that here).

Here's the current state of cosmetics safety testing.

Finished Cosmetics Usually Tested with Alternative Methods

Finished cosmetics normally undergo tests for skin and eye irritation, using alternative, non-animal methods. Sometimes a finished cosmetic is also tested for skin allergies, also through non-animal studies. Usually, though, for allergies and also for 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.

As you can guess from this, the focus of cosmetics testing is on individual ingredients.

Most Ingredients Tested with Alternative Methods

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):

  • Eye irritation
  • Skin irritation
  • Skin sensitization (potential to trigger an allergic reaction)
  • Acute toxicity (from a single dose - this is the single dose that produces a toxic effect)
  • Skin penetration
  • Genotoxicity (potential for an ingredient to cause changes to our genes)

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 all 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. When you think about it, it makes sense: 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.

Unique New Ingredients May Still Have Animal Testing

If an ingredient both penetrates 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 keep in mind that it is still relatively rare, because only a small percentage of ingredients fall into this category.

Repeated-dose tests are animal experiments, which almost 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 the 28 day, the 90 day, and the prenatal developmental toxicity test. Typically, a 90-day test and prenatal developmental toxicity test might be done:

  • The 90-day test assesses general systemic toxicity throughout the body.
  • The prenatal test looks at potential toxicity during early development. In the prenatal test, pregnant mothers are dosed daily throughout their pregnancy and then killed immediately before delivery, and the mothers and babies are autopsied.

Again, these tests are typically done only for unique new ingredients that are biologically active and can penetrate the skin, a small percentage of ingredients.

What Does Buying Cruelty Free Mean? You Give Up These Unique New Ingredients

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, there's still plenty to work with. Yes, most existing ingredients were tested on animals in the past. We can't change that. We can only change what happens going forward.

By buying cruelty free, you send a message to companies that we don't want the next big anti-aging miracle at the cost of animal lives. It tells the companies to find non-animal alternatives for those repeated dose-tests. Alternatives to these tests are particularly difficult to develop, and experts predict they are about 10 years away, but that is partly because of priorities. As consumers, we can help them re-set their priorities.

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Notice: This site was developed and is hosted by White Rabbit Beauty, LLC, a retailer, as part of a broader public goal to make cruelty free products more accessible. We strive to make this an independent resource for cruelty free consumers. Here, we take the consumer's point of view, enabling you to find the best cruelty free products at the best prices at as many stores as possible. The site also has a direct advocacy role, providing news and information to help you take action to end animal testing.