The most recent version of the cosmetic regulations, which came into force in the summer of 2013, made it illegal to test on animals for the purposes of developing cosmetics. This is something that has pleased most people, who tend to think of cosmetics as not really being worth being cruel to animals for. It doesn’t bother cosmetic chemists for whom the tests have never really been any help anyway. The only stumbling block has been the people responsible for consumer safety for whom the use of animals to test for toxicity was a useful form of reassurance.
The concerns of toxicologists were taken into account by the cosmetic regulation’s approval of validated alternatives to animal testing. In fact, a whole annex was assigned to detail these alternative methods to enable companies that chose to use alternative methods to quote the official status of these methods. It’s Annex VIII if you are interested. In fact it is one of the less interesting Annexes, because so far no alternative methods have be approved. So as it stands, Annex VIII is a blank sheet of paper. But at least it is an official blank sheet of paper.
Luckily I am not one to mock.
This issue isn’t quite as academic as it stands though, because there is another bit of legislation called REACH – which I have blogged about before – that requires data on the safety of chemicals to be generated and sometimes that means animal tests. So on the face of it the requirements of REACH and the cosmetic regulations seem to be at cross purposes. It was envisaged that the alternative tests on Annex VIII would solve this problem. In fact the only bit of writing on the Annex explains that when one of these methods does turn up it will be categorised as to whether it can be used to fully or partially replace testing needed for compliance with REACH.
So that leaves in a bit of an unsatisfactory place. Nobody really wants to test on animals and many people have assumed that the debate is now over. But what will happen when a chemical that is going to be used in cosmetics has to go through the REACH process? Does it get a free pass while the alternative methods are developed? Does it get held back? Or does it get tested? And if it gets tested does that mean that the material is now illegal in cosmetics?
The body that might be expected to resolve this is ECHA – the European Chemicals Agency. They have said that you can’t animal test chemicals intended exclusively for use in cosmetics. (You are allowed to do so for the purposes of making sure the workers who make the stuff in the factory are safe and for assessing environmental impacts – but I imagine most people would accept that.)
But they also say that you can test chemicals that have other uses besides cosmetics. This is a very tricky area and I am not at all sure that what ECHA are saying there would be accepted by animal rights advocates. It doesn’t take much research to discover that very few cosmetic ingredients are exclusive to cosmetics. Most of them have a wide variety of uses.
And PETA, the biggest of the animal rights organisations, has already challenged ECHA on exactly this issue. The European Union replied yesterday in a wordy response. To be completely frank, I am not at all sure I fully understand it even after reading it three times. But it seems to say that yes, we’ll have to carry out more testing on chemicals to meet the requirements of REACH. This is regrettable and we hope to have some alternative methods up and running soon. And we’ll make sure the data is shared so as to minimise it. And it will only be done as a last resort. But yes, ingredients that are used in cosmetics will sometimes still get tested on animals.
So basically the whole situation is far from satisfactory. I seriously doubt that much of this activity is really making the public any safer. It is worth pointing out that the neonicotinoids were thoroughly tested before they were approved and they still had problems. Nobody foresaw that they would have a devastating effect on bees.
I think the problem is that the legislators are trying to do the impossible.
It is almost impossible to come up with legislation no matter how complicated – and believe me REACH is complicated – that anticipates every possible eventuality. But even if REACH was perfect it still doesn’t take into account that there is a trade off here. If you want things to be really really safe then you have to kill lots of animals. You have to do a lot of other less controversial but still expensive work as well. And even then there is still a risk that some nasty effect will come to light later.
The only way to totally eliminate the risk from chemicals is to go back to the Middle Ages. It’s a matter of personal opinion of course, but my opinion is that I’ll put up with a lot if it means I don’t have to put up with the Black Death.
The reality is we live in a world where some risk is inevitable. And most of us would rather not kill animals for a minor reduction in the risk from using cosmetics.