Why are the EU and UK backtracking on cosmetics animal testing bans?
Countries are banning animal testing for cosmetics, while the UK and EU are backpedalling. This year Brazil, Canada and the US state of Oregon banned the practice — joining 42 other countries and nearly a dozen US states. Meanwhile the EU and UK have started allowing animal testing, despite banning the practice a decade ago. They say it’s sometimes necessary to safeguard workers manufacturing cosmetics.
Annually some 500,000 animals are used to test cosmetics. Rabbits, mice and rats are the most commonly tested animals. Tests can involve rubbing chemicals into the skins and eyes of animals and force-feeding them chemical substances. Many animals die. Those that survive are killed anyway, usually by asphyxiation, neck-breaking or decapitation, all without pain relief. These tests, which are used in other industries like medical, pharmaceutical, and chemicals, are widely condemned by NGOs and activists.
Animal rights groups like PETA, Cruelty Free International and Humane Society International (HSI) say tests are cruel, unnecessary, and results can be inaccurate due to species differences. They say companies should use chemicals already tested as safe, or use computer modelling or other methods involving human cells and tissues, all of which are becoming more common and effective.
In the late ‘90s in the UK, PETA and The Body Shop called for bans on cosmetic animal testing, after which UK regulators made it illegal to market or sell cosmetics where the finished product or ingredients had been tested on animals. After spending €238 million to fund animal testing replacements, in 2013 the EU banned the testing of cosmetic ingredients and the sale of animal-tested cosmetics.
Other countries followed suit. In 2014, India banned cosmetic animal testing. Guatemala banned it in 2017. In 2023, Brazil introduced a testing ban for cosmetic ingredients after years of campaigning by animal rights groups. Canada outlawed cosmetic animal testing and the sale of animal-tested cosmetics in June, labelling it cruel and unnecessary. Oregon became the 11th US state to ban the sale of animal-tested products in August, following California, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Virginia.
Public opinion is firmly against cosmetics animal testing. 85% of Brits oppose it, 67% of Americans, 85% of Australians, 87% of Canadians, 87% of Southeast Asians, and 73% of Brazilians.
As the rest of the world steps up, the EU and UK are backtracking. The main reason given for cosmetic animal testing is to protect workers who are more exposed to the chemicals than consumers. A ruling by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in 2020 said that chemicals used exclusively as cosmetic ingredients must be tested to safeguard the workers manufacturing them. ECHA claims animal tests are sometimes needed to measure long-term health effects, and that cosmetics-related regulations were only protecting consumers and not workers. The UK started secretly issuing animal testing licenses in line with the EU chemicals law, despite leaving the EU in 2020.
Opponents say ECHA is taking an outdated, bureaucratic approach to chemical safety, as modern alternatives are more effective than animal testing. Other campaigners argue the UK government should prioritise animal welfare and the views of the public.
Companies and citizens heavily criticised the loosening of EU and UK regulations. In August 2021 organisations such as Unilever, The Body Shop and PETA launched the European Citizens’ Initiative Save Cruelty Free Cosmetics to uphold the EU ban. 1.2 million people signed it.When news broke in May that the UK had secretly issued animal testing licences, more than 80 brands including Boots, Dove and Simple signed a letter to appeal the UK’s decision, saying the government is following the EU’s ‘retrograde’ approach.
In response, the EU and UK have made some new commitments to stop cosmetics animal testing, which critics call inadequate. In July, the EU Commission published commitments they say are aimed at phasing out animal testing. But these don’t promise to uphold the full 2013 ban. The EU Commission says the EU won’t make legislative changes before the EU Court of Justice has considered the laws. In May, the UK reinstated a partial form of its original ban, which outlaws the testing of chemicals used ‘exclusively’ as cosmetics ingredients, rather than all chemicals used in cosmetics.
The overlap between the cosmetics animal testing ban and chemicals law is being judged in two ongoing court cases. Meanwhile, the EU Commission continues funding the development of non-animal alternatives.