Why not all cosmetics in Europe are, by definition, cruelty-free.
Mascara, shaving cream, perfume, shampoo and toothpaste. At first glance, this seems like a random list of products that many of us use on a daily basis. Together with a number of others,all of these can be categorised as cosmetics. Cosmetics does not only describe make-up products. The cosmetics product category covers all products used for personal care and hygiene. But there is something else all of these products have in common, which is the regulations regarding the production of cosmetics.
This article will explain more about a small part of these regulations. More specifically, the rules surrounding the testing of cosmetics and the ingredients used in these products. There will be a focus on animal testing. Last week you may have already read about animal testing for scientific purposes and the goal the EU has set to end this way of testing. The testing of cosmetics on animals has been prohibited throughout the European Union for some time now. However it has recently become apparent that the regulations are not always properly enforced.
The ban on testing cosmetics on animals
Since 2004, it has been illegal throughout the European Union to test cosmetics on animals. At the time these regulations were introduced, they only concerned the finished product. The combination of ingredients that composed your favourite hand cream or fragrance were no longer allowed to be tested on animals. Good news? Yes and no, because it was still possible to test the ingredients separately on animals. This meant that if a producer of cosmetics found a new ingredient they would like to use in shampoo, for example, it could still be tested on animals.
Since 2009, this loophole has been closed by a new regulation on cosmetics. In November of that year, EU Regulation EC 1223/2009 stipulated that ingredients could no longer be tested on animals if the aim was to use them in cosmetics. At the same time, however, manufacturers could still have individual ingredients tested outside of the EU and use them in cosmetics produced within the Union. This was considered somewhat of a transitional period. An example of this is brands that also sell their products in China. The rules in China are quite different from those in Europe, but in a nutshell, animal testing is mandatory on almost all imported cosmetics.
The aforementioned transitional period came to an end in 2013. Since that year, it is prohibited to have ingredients tested on animals outside of the EU, even for cosmetics produced within the territory. In addition a new ban on the marketing of cosmetics whose ingredients have been tested on animals was introduced. This has consequences for brands that sell their products in countries like China. Consequently, some companies had to adapt different strategies for both markets. Strictly speaking, these brands’ products sold in the EU are therefore labelled free from animal testing, but from an ethical standpoint these companies and their products are not completely cruelty free.
Animal testing ban under pressure?
With the total ban in place in the EU since 2013, the testing of cosmetics on animals appears to have been completely banned. Yet, there is some commotion surrounding the ban. This commotion arose at the end of 2020, when the Animal-Free Safety Assessment Collaboration (AFSA) issued a statement. A month later over 400 cosmetics companies signed an open letter to the European Commission. Both the statement and the open letter claim that the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is using REACH to undermine the European ban on animal testing of cosmetics.In last week’s article this revelation was already briefly mentioned, but what is actually happening behind the scenes at the ECHA?
The claims made in the publications were further validated by an article published in the scientific journal Alternatives to Animal Experimentation (ALTEX) in October 2021. The article states that research has shown that the REACH database contains 3206 dossiers on ingredients tested on animals, which mention their use in cosmetics. Of that number, 419 indicate that the ingredient is only used in cosmetics and 63 dossiers indicate that in vivo testing, which means testing of the ingredient on animals, was used. These dossiers all date from a time after the aforementioned Regulation 1223/2009 came into force.
You may have already read about REACH on this website in the article about the use of harmful ingredients in cosmetics. In short, REACH is a regulation set up by the ECHA to protect humans and the environment against harmful substances. Under REACH, (chemical) ingredients are tested before they can be approved for use. When a manufacturer wants to use a new ingredient REACH determines whether the test of the new ingredient is sufficient to exclude if the substance is harmful.
In the case of the 63 dossiers found, REACH rejected other forms of testing and animal testing had to be used to ensure that the specific ingredient would not be harmful to humans and the environment. What makes the situation even more complex is that in the cases animal testing was used, it was not mentioned that these were ingredients for cosmetics. Instead, the 63 dossiers were listed as part of the legislation for industrial chemicals. Cosmetic products containing these ingredients are therefore sold as cruelty free, but are in fact tested on animals, misleading the consumer.
Call for compliance
The previously mentioned statement and the open letter are already two examples of organisations speaking out against the circumvention of the rules on animal testing by the EU. But they did not stop there. At the end of last year, two major players in the cosmetics industry, Dove and The Body Shop, joined forces in a campaign called Save Cruelty Free Cosmetics, in which they call on European citizens to speak out against the ECHA not complying with the rules. Animal rights organisations such as PETA and Cruelty Free Europe have also joined the campaign.
A petition has been set up to that calls on the European Commission to i) protect and strengthen the ban on animal testing for cosmetic products, ii) adapt the EU legislation on chemicals, and to iii) create a roadmap with the goal to modernise science in the EU in order to phase-out all animal testing once and for all.
The last point that Save Cruelty Free Cosmetics is pointing out is something that the EU already ruled on in 2018. At that time, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for a global ban on animal testing for cosmetics by 2023. The resolution states that the EU’s progressive policy on animal testing for cosmetics has not efficiently limited the cosmetics industry in the EU. By doing so, the EU calls for an international convention to be launched at UN-level, in order to eliminate animal testing for cosmetics as much as possible.
The call for a cruelty-free world is big and the EU has shown with its policy on animal testing that it can also do without. Yet, ECHA and REACH do not seem to follow the rules. This makes European policy rather conflicting. On the one hand, the EU has a strong will to completely ban animal testing. This does not only concern animal testing for cosmetics, but also for scientific purposes such as the testing of medication.
On the other hand, a new Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability was adopted by the European Commission in October 2020. This strategy, which in itself is an important step within the goal of the Green Deal to bring environmental pollution to zero, endorses the fact that systematic animal testing for chemicals is still necessary. Nevertheless, this strategy also states that the alternative testing methods for chemical substances must be further investigated and improved in order to make animal testing redundant.
Where does that leave us? At the moment, it is mainly up to the European Chemicals Agency to make changes if it wants to comply with the rules on animal testing for cosmetics. However, both the ALTEX article and Save Cruelty Free Cosmetics agree that it is likely that more animal tests will be required on ingredients intended for use in cosmetics by ECHA if alternative testing methods are rejected by REACH. This is in spite of the fact that the used alternative methods for testing ingredients in the EU are presented by the European Parliament as the best way to become the global standard in cruelty-free cosmetics testing. Two ideals, namely the pursuit of the aims of the Green Deal on the one hand, and the EU’s desire to phase out animal testing on the other, have thus come head-to-head in this case. Accelerating the aforementioned research on improving alternative testing methods could be a solution in the equal pursuit of both ideals.
Esmee Slutter studied History at Radboud University and specialised in European cultural history. At the moment she is working on her bachelor’s degree in Russian Studies at Leiden University.