China plans to drop the requirement that cosmetic products be submitted to the government for animal testing. While animal rights groups cautiously laud the proposed changes, it’s far from the end of animal testing in China, where laws stand in the way of making or importing cruelty-free products, even as laws in the European Union have encouraged cheaper and more effective alternatives than pumping chemicals into rabbits’ eyes.
Unlike anywhere else in the world, China’s Food and Drug Administration required that a sample of every new product be submitted to the government, which would then assure its safety by testing it on animals. Under the proposed law changes, Chinese manufacturers of “non-special use products,” e.g., normal shampoos and skin creams but not including hair dyes, sunscreen or other products with biological activity, will be able to submit their own risk assessments to the government for approval.
But animal testing is still required in other ways. Foreign companies that want to sell in mainland China still have to submit a sample of their finished product to the government for testing. In order to substantiate the safety of their ingredients—as opposed to just the final cosmetic product—both Chinese and foreign companies will have to commission or conduct animal testing themselves.
Contrast this with the European Union, which, in March of this year, prohibited the sale of any cosmetic product where new animal testing had taken place, regardless of where it was made. If you want to sell perfume to Parisians, you can’t spray it into a rabbit’s eye first.
That’s had a two-prong effect—it’s driven companies to find alternatives to animal testing and has made manufacturers pitch their products specifically for a wealthy, established marketplace in Europe and a rising, large potential one in China, the world's second largest economy.
“If you’re one of the big [cosmetics companies] you’ve got two different product lines. One is cruelty free for Europe and one China-friendly,” said Troy Seidle, Humane Society International’s director of research and toxicology.
Seidle said that rather than killing or chilling cosmetics companies, the EU’s ban on animal testing has driven innovative, animal-free solutions. “The threat of policy action has inspired companies to step up with serious money and to invest in alternative methods. We’re talking billions of dollars, which has been matched by the EU,” he said.
Instead of testing for skin irritation on rabbits, companies can use a 3D skin model made from actual, post-surgical human tissue. “You’re not comparing rabbit to human anymore, you’re able to look human to human,” Seidle said, “so you’re able to get a much better prediction of what happens to you or I in the real world—and it's faster and cheaper.”
China’s proposed law change holds hope for things to come, and is proof of a widening consciousness of how cosmetics are made and tested, and a rising discomfort with the status quo.
“Across the board, people want this,” Seidle said, citing public opinion polls conducted in the dozen countries where the Humane Society International is fighting animal testing. “They don’t want Europe to be the only place where cosmetics are cruelty free. There’s this tremendous reaction where people want to pick up any cosmetic product off the shelf and be assured that animals haven’t suffered in its creation.”
While not as dramatic as changes in India and Israel that followed the EU's lead, Seidle said the proposed changes in China were a positive sign. As companies find cheap, viable options for testing, from 3D models to using adult stem cells for tests, there will be less incentive to keep using the estimated 300,000 animals now kept in China.
“They have indicated in the proposal that if this first step goes well, and once the system is established, they would consider imported cosmetics to fall within the new process and possibly also some special-use cosmetics,” Sible said. “Again those are possible scenarios; time will tell.”