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Do You Know How Your Mascara Is Made?

All Animals magazine, March/April 2014

Across the globe, countless animals continue to suffer in painful tests simply to bring new skin creams, hair dyes, and other nonessential cosmetics to market. But the Be Cruelty-Free Campaign is leading the charge to ban cosmetics animal testing worldwide by engaging consumers and companies, rewriting laws, and advancing the science of safety testing.


by Arna Cohen

Customers grabbing a late-morning cup of coffee in downtown Brussels caught a strange sight two years ago: Suddenly, across the street, on the grounds of the European Commission, there were rabbits everywhere.

Some seemed to emerge from nearby bushes. Others slipped out from behind city walls as pedestrians stopped to watch and curious faces peered down from office windows. And then, right there on an open stretch of sidewalk, on a Wednesday in June, those rabbits began to dance.

Support the Humane Cosmetics Act. Contact your legislator now »

As a happy burst of music piped out over a nearby sound system—“Saturday night, I feel the air is getting hot”—27 advocates in white rabbit costumes stepped, hopped, clapped, and spun in unison. Reporters snapped photos. A few onlookers began to move with the song. And atop a stone wall, two women unfurled a large white banner: “350,000 Petition for EU Cosmetics to be Cruelty-Free in 2013.”

The flash mob gathered to shine a spotlight on the issue of cosmetics animal testing in the European Union—one white rabbit representing each member country. “It attracted quite a lot of attention, as you might imagine,” says Wendy Higgins, remembering a round of applause as the dancing concluded. The local media even asked for an encore, to capture more footage.

  • A rabbit-costumed flash mob marches toward EU headquarters in Brussels in June 2012, bearing 350,000 signatures against cosmetics animal testing. Virginia Mayo/Associated Press

Immediately afterward, Humane Society International and Lush cosmetics company delivered stack upon stack of signatures to the European health commissioner, calling on him to support a March 2013 ban on the sale of animal-tested cosmetics.

“It was quite an emotional event, I have to say. I had a tear in my eye,” says Higgins, HSI European communications director. “This had a real sense of meaning, and it was such a joyful event. But all of us knew, for animals in laboratories being tested on for cosmetics, there is no joy. There is no happy moment. And we were there, speaking up for them.”

The eventually successful petition was one in a series of rapid-fire victories achieved recently by HSI and The HSUS’s Be Cruelty-Free Campaign. Last year alone, Israel banned the sale of all newly animal-tested cosmetics, India prohibited animal tests of cosmetics within its borders, and China announced that it will no longer require animal testing for domestically manufactured nonmedicated cosmetics. In South Korea, the government invested more than $150 million to establish the country’s first nonanimal testing center, further committing to accept alternative methods for safety assurance of medicated cosmetics such as sunscreens and anti-wrinkle creams.

See our infographic on creating a cruelty-free world »

Progress has been most striking in the European Union: Five months after those white rabbits danced their jig in Belgium, the health commissioner stated he would fully implement the March 2013 ban on the import and sale of cosmetics newly tested on animals or containing ingredients tested on animals, regardless of where such tests are conducted. With an EU testing ban already in place since 2009, the 2013 sales ban marked the final piece in a 20-year struggle by advocates to remove cruelty from the beauty equation there, and the domino that is knocking down barriers worldwide, says Troy Seidle, HSI director of research and toxicology.

“With the EU closing its doors to animal-tested cosmetics, the beginning of the end of global cosmetics cruelty is within our grasp. It is a major moral milestone in the history of ending cosmetics animal testing.”

Pascaline Clerc, HSUS senior director of animal research issues, adds that the EU decision has wider implications for animal testing of noncosmetic products such as paint, coffee sweeteners, and household cleaners. “This is the first step in replacing animals used for toxicity testing in general. People can see that it can be done.”

An animated bunny is taken from the wild and imprisoned in a research laboratory. He is locked in a full-body restraint system and a chemical is applied to his eyes, which blister and turn red.

Bright Eyes, a video created by HSI partner Choose Cruelty Free Australia, is based on a true story (with creative license: Unlike the animated specimen, laboratory rabbits are not obtained from the wild; they’re purpose-bred for research). For 70 years, rabbits have been the go-to animal for the Draize eye irritation test the video depicts. They spend their short lives undergoing the procedure without anesthetic before being killed when no longer “useful.”

The Draize test is only one in a litany of toxicity tests performed on animals, each more horrifying than the last. In the acute oral toxicity test, the needle of a syringe is forced down the throat of a rat and a massive dose of the test substance injected into her stomach to determine the amount that causes death. The animal can experience diarrhea, convulsions, bleeding from the mouth, seizures, and paralysis. The same procedure is used to assess smaller amounts in repeated dose toxicity tests, which last daily for one to three months or longer.

In carcinogenicity tests, rats and mice are exposed to substances daily for up to two years to see if they develop tumors; reproductive toxicity tests involve daily exposure of pregnant rats and up to two generation of pups, often by force-feeding (a method that seems doubly unnecessary given that most personal care products are applied to the skin). Even tests that aren’t measuring fatal doses ultimately end in death, notes Catherine Willett, HSUS director of regulatory toxicology, risk assessment, and alternatives: “Oftentimes you need to kill the animal to see what has actually happened at the microscopic level.” Typical killing methods include asphyxiation, neck-breaking, and decapitation.

A dubious science underpins the physical and psychological suffering endured by animals in laboratories, as results of tests done on rodents and rabbits are poor predictors of a substance’s effect on humans.

A dubious science underpins the physical and psychological suffering endured by animals in laboratories, as results of tests done on rodents and rabbits are poor predictors of a substance’s effect on humans. Spurred by widening acknowledgment of these limitations, scientists are increasingly focused on developing state-of-the-art, human-relevant, animal-free alternatives.

The days of the Draize test, for one, look to be numbered. Many governments approve the use of cow or chicken corneas left over from the meat industry for certain types of eye irritancy tests. The next generation of tests will use human cells, such as a new artificial cornea under development by Japanese researchers that could ultimately replace rabbits entirely. Preliminary evaluations of the tissue have obtained results that more closely predict effects on human eyes than animal tests have.

Meanwhile, the number of rabbits used in skin irritation and corrosion tests is being reduced thanks to computer modeling analyses and other techniques. Skin cells can be grown in petri dishes, says Willett: “You add two or three different kinds of cells to an artificial scaffold, and they start to form tissues that look and behave just like living tissues”— imitating skin on body parts as varied as the nose, trachea, and lungs. And Procter & Gamble scientists recently developed the first nonanimal method for skin allergy testing; chemicals are assessed in test tubes for their allergic reactivity according to the amount of depletion they cause in proteins known as peptides.

  • Pain-filled lives and deaths are the fate of rabbits and other animals used for cosmetics testing. Alternative methods are gaining traction thanks to a growing recognition that animal tests are poor predictors of how substances will affect people. PETA

As critical as these developments are, an emerging body of research is seeking to transcend such one-on-one test replacements with a more exhaustive approach that focuses on predicting chemical pathways in the human body. “Where does the chemical enter the body? How does it enter the body?” says Willett: “Does it bind to a receptor and cause a cascade of things to happen in the cell? Does it chemically modify a protein?

“And you can actually map this out from many different kinds of chemicals that cause different kinds of reactions,” she continues. “You can actually get a pretty decent idea of what a chemical is going to do based on the biological pathway it affects. It’s a completely different way of thinking about testing than has ever been done before. People who know about this are very excited about it.”

Governments have embraced the changes, with agencies such as the FDA, EPA, and Department of Defense investing in complex computer models, “organs on a chip,” and other technologies, says Willett. “Similar investment is being made around the world, in the European Union, Japan, Brazil, Korea, and elsewhere.”

Where alternative testing methods are not available, companies can create new cosmetics by choosing among thousands of ingredients that have been tested in the past and proven to be safe. Taken together, these options provide a counterargument to industry claims that animal testing is the only possible way to assess safety. “Now that we’ve had the technical progress, the politicians have become—well, they’ve lost sympathy,” says Seidle.

The EU import and sales ban was the initial focus of the Be-Cruelty Free Campaign, a global push to rewrite laws, train technicians in alternative testing methods, and engage consumers and corporations. Stalled for years, an EU testing ban was originally passed in 1993, with a five-year phase-in period, but the cosmetics industry managed to secure delay after delay, claiming that it needed more time to replace animals in testing. Finally, in 2009, all animal testing of finished cosmetics and their ingredients was prohibited within EU borders; a ban on sales of products animal-tested elsewhere was slated to go into effect in 2013.

Five Easy Ways to Celebrate Be Cruelty-Free Week »

But in 2012, it again appeared that the cosmetics industry might impede progress. So HSI delivered the European health commissioner a large Valentine’s Day card from singer Leona Lewis, asking him to have a heart for animals. They held meetings with policymakers. They asked European citizens to send postcards in support. And then, immediately following the purposely upbeat, positive white rabbit event, they brought 350,000 signatures to that pivotal June meeting, including ones from celebrities such as Ricky Gervais, Kesha, Sir Roger Moore, and Chrissie Hynde.

“Even though only two HSI lobbyists were allowed into the meeting, they weren’t in that room alone,” Higgins says. “They said that when they stepped into that room, they felt the hands of those 350,000 people on their shoulders, spurring them on. And that’s what it’s all about. That’s what all of the petition-collecting was all about, was that moment where we could say: We’re watching. Europe is waiting for you to do this.”

Nine months later, they had their ban. “We probably would have been looking at more delays if our campaign hadn’t been there to really hold the EU’s feet to the flame,” says Seidle.

  • Be Cruelty-Free supporter Ricky Gervais says, "Compassionate consumers have a powerful voice and we can speak up for those animals in labs who cannot be heard." Ray Burmiston/For The HSUS

With the mission accomplished in Europe, the Be Cruelty-Free Campaign is working to achieve similar progress in other lucrative sales markets: Brazil, South Korea, Russia. In India, dedicated personnel hired with funds from a Lush grant recruited Bollywood stars and thousands of consumers to help HSI pressure officials to replace animal tests with alternative methods in the country’s regulations of cosmetics manufacturing. “We went as far as we could with the Bureau of Indian Standards,” says Seidle, “and from there we engaged some lead members of parliament and really just ratcheted up the heat with a very high-impact public campaign, which got the drug controller’s attention, and he personally went in with our letter in hand and said, ‘Yes, we’re just going to do this; get it done.’”

In June, HSI launched Be Cruelty-Free China, turning its focus to a critical battleground where the government has required all cosmetics for sale, both domestically produced and imported, to be safety- tested on animals in government laboratories, and where in recent years the lure of huge profits—$24 billion spent on cosmetics and personal care items in 2012—has proven irresistible to Mary Kay and other companies that had been cruelty-free for decades.

Decisions by these companies to surrender their principles have outraged their customers. When Urban Decay, a popular cruelty-free company, announced that it would sell in China, thousands expressed anger through email, social media, and online petitions, prompting company executives to reverse course.

What's in a Name? Navigating the murky world of cosmetic product labels »

Seeking to bring this element of popular pressure to bear on the government, HSI partnered with three Chinese organizations, “one that’s very connected politically, one that’s very media-wise, and one that’s a youth social media organization,” says Seidle. Advocates began spreading the cruelty-free message on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, with more than 500 million users, while press releases began naming companies that refuse to sell in China because of the testing policy.

“We’ve been actively disseminating information to the Chinese consumers for the first time ever,” says Seidle. “No one has ever done that before, to explain this is how your cosmetics are being tested; this is what’s involved; this is what the idea of cruelty-free means.” The European Union health commissioner applied additional leverage, meeting with Chinese officials to discuss animal testing as a barrier to trade.

A significant breakthrough came in November, when the China Food and Drug Administration announced that it would allow domestic cosmetics manufacturers to opt out of mandatory animal testing in favor of using previously collected ingredient safety data and possibly alternative test methods accepted by EU regulators—allowing Chinese goods to be sold in the world’s largest cosmetics market. The Institute for In Vitro Sciences is now training Chinese scientists in alternative methods, thanks to an $80,000 grant from HSI, The HSUS, and the Human Toxicology Project Consortium.

The change comes into force in June and doesn’t yet apply to imported cosmetics or to “special-use” products like hair dyes, sunscreens, and antiperspirants. But in meetings with HSI, the CFDA has indicated that, after the change has been implemented and assessed, it may be extended to the other categories. Companies are still free to continue animal testing if they so choose, so HSI’s next focus will be to persuade regulators to ban the tests altogether.

Advocates in Dalian, China, last year shared the truth behind cosmetics testing, little known in a country with a huge cosmetics market. Says event organizer Yu Dezhi, “We believe that animals do not have to die for human beauty products.” HSI

In small ways, consumers have shown their approval of the government’s change of heart. In Dalian, a port city in northeast China, animal advocates adorned with rabbit ears held several events that attracted 2,700 people, hundreds of whom signed HSI’s Be Cruelty-Free China pledge and a petition supporting the government’s plans. A tiny percentage of a huge populace, but notable in a nation not known for freedom of expression.

In the U.S., the state of cosmetics testing is somewhat of a different story. Even with the availability of cutting-edge technology, even with years of safety data on thousands of chemicals, even with no legal requirements that cosmetics be tested on animals, many American companies continue the practice in part because it’s what they’ve always done.

Fear of lawsuits is a factor in their conservatism, says The HSUS’s Willett. In our litigious society, “people will sue the company and they will sue the FDA. Not only do you have to convince the regulators that the method you used to evaluate your chemical was sound, but you have to make it legally defensible. Because animal tests are the historical measure that we’ve used, people feel that they’re on safer ground.”

It's so sad that these animals are dying for the myth that we can hold back the march of time. Companies sell that myth and sell us these miracle ingredients that disappear two or three months later, to be replaced by a new miracle ingredient, all of them tested on animals." - Hilary Jones, ethics director for Lush cosmetics

And profit sings its siren song. The bulk of animal testing these days is done in the lucrative field of anti-aging products that claim to reduce wrinkles, lighten brown spots, or lift sagging skin. The chemical ingredients in these treatments affect the body’s structure, thus pushing them into the category of over-the-counter drugs and, if an ingredient has never been used before, making it subject to mandatory animal testing (see "What's in a Name?")

“It’s so sad that these animals are dying for … the myth that we can hold back the march of time,” says Lush ethics director Hilary Jones. “Companies sell that myth and sell us these miracle ingredients that disappear two or three months later, to be replaced by a new miracle ingredient, all of them tested on animals."

With a strong industry lobby keeping a legislative ban on animal testing a nonstarter, the Be Cruelty-Free Campaign’s focus in the U.S. has been on public education. According to a 2013 poll, a majority of Americans oppose animal testing of cosmetics, and they actually feel safer if alternatives are used instead. But even so, consumers here simply aren’t as engaged, or informed, as they have been in the EU, says The HSUS’s Clerc. “When we started this campaign, people were surprised that animal testing was still around. They thought we had moved beyond that.”

Reaching out especially to a new generation concerned about what they put in and on their bodies, the campaign engages music, television, and film stars to spread the message through Twitter and public service announcements. It recently teamed with Miss DC 2013 Bindhu Pamarthi, who announced she was willing to compete barefaced in the Miss America 2014 pageant if it would draw attention to her platform of ending cosmetics animal testing. Although Pamarthi didn’t ultimately compete barefaced and didn’t ultimately win the crown, she did get a Facebook shout-out from R.E.I.G.N., the pageant’s makeup partner, which honored her “thought provoking platform” and called her “a beyond beauty inspiration to us all.”

  • Miss DC Bindhu Pamarthi announced she was willing to compete barefaced in the Miss America 2014 pageant if it would draw attention to her platform of ending cosmetics animal testing. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

The campaign also partners with bloggers who search out cruelty-free cosmetics and personal care products, doing intensive detective work on manufacturers before making recommendations. On Jen Mathews’ My Beauty Bunny blog, every item is tested on staff members before being recommended to readers. Today, the blog receives 100,000 views a month, while 140,000 people follow along on Facebook. But Mathews’ reach extends beyond the known numbers, with the blog winning multiple awards and featured in magazines and on television, radio, and websites.

Mathews began supporting animal welfare in college. “I was one of those college students who was posting things on billboards all over campus and the faculty were constantly taking them down.” She would put animal rights fliers in her bill payment envelopes, "doing everything I could, grassroots, to get the message out. ... Now I'm able to take that to the Web."

While Mathews' mission is to show consumers that cruelty-free beauty products are high quality, affordable, and widely available, Clerc focuses within the industry, seeking examples to share with companies that want to adopt humane business models. The strategy, she says, “is to find those companies that have done the right thing from the beginning and prove they can still be profitable; they can innovate without animal testing.”

One such company is Biao, whose laboratory evaluates skin care compounds for safety using technology such as gene chips that allow mass in vitro cell testing. Founder Nicole Baldwin’s entrepreneurial journey began as a little girl, when she suffered serious burns on her face, neck, and chest after upsetting a pot of boiling water on herself. Her grandmother, who was a nurse at the time, created a treatment from botanicals and other natural products, using formulas that had been passed down to her from her own mother.

Years later, when Baldwin was stationed with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, her skin suffered again, this time from stress, dust, and the extreme temperatures of the arid desert climate. When none of the commercial products she tried provided relief, Baldwin decided to develop her own skincare line. Returning home to Houston after her tour, she became a licensed aesthetician.

The most overwhelming thing that excited [customers] was it being cruelty-free. It really mattered to 72 percent of all of our customers." - Cathy Kangas, on consumer response to her cruelty-free skincare company Prai Beauty

A second tour of duty took Baldwin back to Afghanistan, where, using her grandmother’s remedies and her own experience as inspiration, she began to create face and body treatments formulated with sustainable organic plant oils and extracts. She named the line Biao—an acronym for “beautiful inside and out”—as a tribute to her grandmother, whose care healed not just Baldwin’s skin but her self-esteem and confidence. “I am following in her footsteps,” Baldwin said in an interview with ABC News, “and I’m very glad that at 81 years old she’s able to see me do this.”

Baldwin attributes her cruelty-free philosophy to her relationship with her childhood pet, a German shepherd abandoned by his previous owners. After she saved Spicy from choking on a chicken bone, Baldwin says he “followed behind me everywhere. When I would awake for school, he would be in … my bedroom door. … When I would ask him to get me a newspaper, he would go get it. ... I discovered that animals were so similar to humans. Spicy knew that I had saved his life.” Experiencing this kind of bond, Baldwin couldn’t fathom subjecting an animal to the cruelty of testing.

Prai Beauty, a skincare company founded in 1999 by HSUS board member Cathy Kangas, shares its cruelty-free status as a key component of its sales pitch on the home shopping networks where it sells in the U.S. and six countries. Kangas says a survey following the product launch found that “the most overwhelming thing that excited [customers] … was it being cruelty-free. It really mattered to 72 percent of all of our customers."

The financial success of Prai, with $30 million in annual sales, and other companies founded on humane principles, such as Paul Mitchell, Aubrey Organics, and Burt’s Bees, clearly demonstrates that cruelty-free can be good business—business that the cosmetics industry can no longer profitably ignore. “Companies that are still testing on animals will soon lose money and market shares,” notes Clerc. And now, the stakes are even higher for those selling in countries that have taken a stand against animal testing. “Those companies will see those markets slipping away from them if they don’t move away from animal testing rapidly.”

Five Easy Ways to Celebrate Be Cruelty-Free Week, March 10-14

1. Pledge to do your part

Sign our Be Cruelty-Free pledge to end animal testing of cosmetics. 

  • The Leaping Bunny logo signifies a cruelty-free product.

2. Look for the Leaping Bunny logo 

To find cosmetic, personal care, household, and pet care products that have been certified cruelty-free, download the Leaping Bunny app (for iPhone/iPad or Android), or request a pocket-sized guide at leapingbunny.org.

3. Start sleuthing

If the brand you're considering is not a Be Cruelty-Free Campaign partner or Leaping Bunny-certified, ask the company if its products or ingredients are tested on animals at any stage of the manufacturing process. Also ask if the company sells in China, which requires animal testing of imported cosmetics. Help expand the list by asking companies to certify their brands as cruelty-free; find a sample letter at humanesociety.org/cosmeticaction.

4. Shop smart

These days, cruelty-free products can be found at most retailers, but you can simplify your search by shopping at vendors that sell only Leaping Bunny-certified products, such as crueltyfreeconsumer.com, vitacost.com/cruelty-free, whiterabbitbeauty.com, and drugstore.com/crueltyfree.

5. Connect to the cause

Support The HSUS's Be Cruelty-Free USA Campaign by stocking up on makeup bags and more at zazzle.com/hsus. Fund our global work at hsi.org/donatetoendanimaltesting. Follow The HSUS’s End Animal Testing campaign and HSI’s End Animal Testing campaign on Facebook, and check out The HSUS’s Cruelty-Free Board on Pinterest.

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