The push to make the cosmetic industry cruelty-free may be in trouble. Ministers in the United Kingdom recently announced that they were considering overturning a 1998 law that bans animal testing for ingredients used in the cosmetic industry.
The negotiations are part of the country’s eventual withdrawal from the European Union, which means it no longer has to comply with the EU’s ban on animal testing on cosmetic ingredients. Critics say this could lead the industry down a dangerous path.
Changing the Status Quo
The animal rights organization Cruelty Free International (CFI) says it received a letter from the U.K.’s Home Office that said the government had “reconsidered its policy” on animal testing for cosmetic products.
The letter indicated that the government was considering aligning itself with a decision made last year by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which stated that two chemicals from Germany used in cosmetic products must be tested on animals to make sure they are safe for human use, which would override the EU’s existing ban on animal testing for cosmetic products.
The letter obtained by CFI said the Home Office is looking to “publicly clarify its position now with the formal publication of an updated policy and regulatory guidance.”
However, the government insisted that the 1998 U.K. law has not been changed – at least for now.
“Under UK regulations to protect the environment and the safety of workers, animal testing can be permitted, where required by UK regulators, on single or multiuse ingredients. However, such testing can only be conducted where there are no non-animal alternatives,” the letter said.
The CFI responded by saying that relying on the ECHA’s ruling would be “blowing a hole” in its leadership to ban animal testing.
The announcement cast doubt on the country’s existing regulations. Dr. Katy Taylor, Director of Science and Regulatory Affairs at CFI, tried to clarify, “The government is saying that even ingredients used solely in cosmetics, and with a history of safe use, can be subjected to animal tests in the UK.”
“This decision blows a hole in the UK’s longstanding leadership of no animal testing for cosmetics and makes a mockery of the country’s quest to be at the cutting edge of research and innovation, relying once again on cruel and unjustifiable tests that date back over half a century,” Taylor added.
Taylor believes the U.K. will abandon existing animal testing bans once the country’s Brexit negotiations have been finalized and it is no longer a part of the EU.
How Will the Industry Respond?
The 1998 law passed by the country’s Labor party was designed to ban all animal testing in the cosmetic industry across the European Union. The EU banned the testing of finished cosmetic products on animals in 2004 before banning the testing of cosmetic ingredients on animals in 2009.
The EU bans the sale of cosmetic products and ingredients that have been tested on animals, which has forced international companies to rethink their approach. Many companies have altered the manufacturing process to make sure they can sell to consumers across Europe.
Dr. Julia Fentem, from Unilever, one of the world’s largest cosmetics companies, said there’s always been uncertainty about how to comply with the EU’s chemicals and cosmetics legislation. She described the U.K.’s decision to overturn these bans as a “retrograde step.”
Fentem says there are around 100 substances used solely in the cosmetic industry that must be tested on animals before they are used by consumers. She says that before these animal testing laws went into effect, many of these substances were tested for eye or skin irritation, but the ECHA ruling could impose additional testing requirements. She fears some companies may conduct additional tests on animals “just to tick boxes.”
Surveys show that a large majority, around 84% of British residents, wouldn’t buy a cosmetic product that was tested on animals.
Fentem adds that the U.K.’s decision may make it difficult for consumers to find cruelty-free products. “That’s the signal to the consumer who’s looking at having logos on the pack around sustainability, no animal testing, vegan etc.…essentially then it’s the house of cards, and everything around cruelty-free products just collapses.”
She argues that companies can use sophisticated methods to ensure the safety of their products without testing them on animals.
The U.S. doesn’t ban animal testing for cosmetic products, but many states have implemented their own regulations, including California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nevada and Virginia. Companies across the U.S. and abroad cannot sell their products to consumers in these areas if they were tested on animals. Australia, Colombia, Guatemala, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey and parts of Brazil have issued similar regulations.
The U.K.’s decision to leave the EU gives the country a chance to review existing legislation. If the Home Office decides to do away with the EU ban on animal testing, it could encourage companies to conduct more testes on animals to get their products to market.