Alternatives to Animal Testing in Cosmetics in the EU

Explore the industry's cruelty-free practices: in vitro, in silico and human volunteers.

History

The first larger movement within the beauty industry geared towards finding alternatives to animal testing can be traced back to the US in the 1980s. It was that year that animal rights activist Henry Spira ran a shocking full-page ad in The New York Times with the gripping headline ‘How Many Rabbits does Revlon Blind for Beauty’s Sake’ to call attention to cruel beauty. Little did he know that this cry for alternative testing practices would mark the beginning of a much wider public movement that would persist well into the 21st century.

While some scientists still argue that animal testing is critical for toxicology, drug discovery and biomedical research, there are now more than enough alternatives available to forgo these practices in cosmetics, regardless of whether or not they are mandatory. Nevertheless, an EU-wide study published by Savanta ComRes in 2020 showed that over 70% of adult citizens in member states believe that animal testing should be phased out and replaced in all industries as soon as possible. The animal rights group Cruelty Free International highlights the benefits of utilising alternatives, “Replacing animal tests does not mean putting human patients at risk. It also does not mean halting medical progress. Instead, replacing animal testing will improve the quality as well as the humaneness of our science.”

While medicine is still lagging behind, luckily, the first EU initiatives to combat animal testing in cosmetics already began to unfold in the 1990s. In 1993, the EU announced provisions for a marketing ban on animal-tested cosmetics. This ban officially came into effect in 1998. After a series of further provisions and subsequent bans, in 2013, the EU’s full ban on animal testing for test finished cosmetic products and ingredients finally came into effect, marking what some might call the end of a cruel cosmetics era. Sadly, outside the EU, regulations are not nearly as stringent. In fact, some cosmetics brands selling in China, for example, actually have to undergo mandatory animal testing before products are approved to go to market. Hence, the problem has certainly not been eradicated, and there is still much work to be done on a global scale in this area.

 

Alternative Testing Methods

Today, scientists and cosmetics brands rely on a wide range of non-animal testing methods. These include, but are not limited to, in vitro testing (using human cells and tissues), in silico testing (using computer modelling techniques) and research with the help of human volunteers. While further testing methods, such as bacterial studies and robotics do exist, these three types are currently the most relevant and widely used within the cosmetics industry.

 

In Vitro Testing

The term ‘in vitro’ refers to testing on a cellular level in a controlled environment. One method comprises testing human or animal cells away from their living organisms and under microscopes. Thanks to new technologies and continuous innovation, significant advances have also been made in the area of growing cells into 3D structures, such as specific organs. A major breakthrough in this area for cosmetics was the creation of a synthetic skin test, called Corrositex, which makes it possible to test if certain chemicals cause skin corrosion. 


 

In Silico Testing 

In silico testing is a virtual form of experimentation perhaps more commonly known under the term ‘computer modelling’. In these methodologies, computer models are designed and programmed to simulate human biology as a means of predicting ways in which the body will react to specific substances. One method involves utilising characteristics of new substances and comparing these to similar existing substances. This allows for the production of data on potential hazards. These similarities are called quantitative structure-activity relationships (QSARs) and are heavily promoted and funded by the leading animal rights organisation, PETA, around the world.


Human Volunteers

One widely accepted practice is the post-surgery or post mortem donation of human tissue samples. In these instances, individuals give their tissues to science voluntarily. Interestingly, depending on what the test ist for, both healthy tissues and diseased tissues can be used in this way. An ever-growing list of companies, including Episkin, CellSystems GmbH and Mattek, now provide cosmetics brands with simple testing kits that utilise human tissues.

Another form of testing in volunteers is via so-called ‘microdosing’. This method is primarily utilised in the early experimental stages of testing as it involves introducing only a small amount of a given substance into a person’s body. The result effects on metabolic processes and other parts of the body are then examined. Microdosing is implemented before expanding trials to larger groups of human volunteers. Although this testing technique is most widely applied in the medical community than in cosmetics, its applications in cosmetics testing have been explored and confirmed.

Imagery: (1) Louis Reed, (3) NCI and (4) Ana Essentials via unplash.com, (2) The European Commission via ec.europa.eu

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