Editor's note: Shortly after this issue went to press, Mexico banned animal testing for cosmetics. We've updated the number of countries with such bans in the copy below.
When Julia Fentem began her career in toxicology around 1990, there was one government-sanctioned way of proving cosmetics safety and one way only—animal tests. In order to show regulators that non-animal tests—ones that used human cells—worked, Fentem still had to harm animals: She injected chemicals into rats, killed them and looked at the changes in their liver enzyme levels.
“I thought, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ” she says. “ ‘Surely we could do better science.’ ”
Now Fentem serves as vice president of the Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre at Unilever, a partner with Humane Society International and the Humane Society of the United States in ending the use of animal tests for cosmetics safety worldwide. At Unilever, she focuses on “next-generation” risk assessment, which relies on more than 50 non-animal methods that are more humane, more popular with the public and much better at predicting effects on people.
“Humans are not rats,” says Fentem. “If you want human relevant information, you need to get as close as possible to a human being.”
As of this year, 41 countries have ended or limited cosmetics testing on animals. In 2013, the 28 nations in the European Union—the largest cosmetics market in the world—became the first. The Humane Cosmetics Act, expected to be reintroduced this year in Congress, would ban the manufacture and sale of animal-tested cosmetics in the United States, the world’s second largest market. Seven states have now banned the sale of animal-tested cosmetics—California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nevada and Virginia.
In May, China introduced a long-awaited process for exemptions from mandatory animal testing for the majority of imported cosmetics.
In the European Union, the cosmetic regulation that banned animal testing is being undermined by the European Chemicals Agency, which is attempting to force manufacturers of cosmetic ingredients to carry out new animal tests using the authority of the EU’s chemicals law. Some of the tests being demanded consume thousands of animals each, and the agency’s chemical registration database lists more than 3,000 substances with cosmetics uses.
“It’s like a tick box,” says Fentem. “It will translate into millions of animals being used unnecessarily.”
Unilever and HSI are speaking out against this change, along with their partners in the Animal-Free Safety Assessment Collaboration, says Catherine Willett, HSI senior director for science and regulatory affairs. AFSA members are creating case studies that show how non-animal alternatives could be used to replace every animal test being reintroduced.
For her part, Fentem is convinced that long-term there is no going back. Young toxicologists at Unilever these days have backgrounds in computational biology. When researchers on her team wanted to determine the safety of the same chemical she injected into rats in the 1990s—cumerin—they did so by observing its effect on human genes and proteins (and won an award). No one is trained in animal testing anymore.
Urge your federal legislators to support the Humane Cosmetics Act.