If you walk into a drugstore and head down the shampoo or makeup aisles, you’re bound to find products that include ingredients that have been tested on animals.
When Canada’s ban on cosmetic testing on animals comes into force in December, those products will stay on store shelves.
The amended law isn’t retroactive. It focuses on banning new animal testing in Canada, and the sale of products that rely on new animal testing data.
“While we’re in this interim stage, where we’re moving from a time when it wasn’t banned … to a time that it is banned, there are going to be products out there where you don’t know” if they are cruelty-free or not, said Liz White, director of Animal Alliance Canada.
She’s been lobbying the Canadian and Ontario governments for three decades to introduce legislation on animal testing, and is pleased with where it landed.
“It’s been an uphill battle to get governments to actually consider it,” White said. “But I think times are changing and there’s more non-animal testing mechanisms now.”
Canada’s amendments to the Food and Drugs Act, passed on June 22, also makes it illegal for companies to falsely claim products are cruelty-free.
Health Canada said it’s developing guidance for the industry, and will rely on a complaints-based approach for how it enforces compliance. White says consumers will need to keep this in mind while shopping.
“I think that’s something that we’ll have to watch for and make sure that the legislation is being properly implemented and monitored and that companies that might stray — which I hope won’t happen — that we’ll find out about,” said White.
What is animal testing?
According to The Humane Society, shampoo, deodorant and lipstick are some of the products that could contain chemicals that were animal-tested — but it depends on the brand.
White says companies rarely test the final products on animals anymore. The main concern for animal rights activists is testing the preservatives and other chemicals used in the products.
She said the most common animals used in this kind of testing are rats, mice, rabbits and guinea pigs.
A variety of tests have been used to meet past regulatory requirements, including toxicity tests that would look for a reaction to a chemical on a patch of an animal’s shaved skin.
In an LD50 test, for example, an animal is forced to ingest a chemical to see if there are any effects. During a Draize test, a chemical is tested on a rabbit’s eye for irritability.
“It’s pretty painful stuff, and it’s pretty awful,” said White.
Cosmetics Alliance Canada, the organization that represents the cosmetics industry and consulted on the amended law, said companies have already moved away from these types of tests.
“I think it’s really symbolic, though, that we recognize it in legislation,” said Darren Praznik, president of Cosmetics Alliance Canada, at a news conference in Toronto on June 27.
Dozens of new non-animal tests have been developed and are already being used by the industry, including tests that use reconstructed human skin, computer-based models, even the corneas from the eyes of slaughtered cattle.
Many companies also use raw ingredients that were safety tested in the past, in some cases on animals, instead of purchasing recently developed chemicals that require new testing.
Many of these ingredients are on the so-called Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) list, which includes thousands of raw materials, such as glycerin and niacinamide.
Why not retest products on store shelves?
When asked about an outright ban on all products that were historically tested on animals, Praznik said it doesn’t make sense to retest them when they’ve been used by humans for decades.
“The law requires that you be able to demonstrate safety. You’ve got 10, 20 years of human use safety data. So that really is your justification, because [the products have] been in [the] market,” said Praznik.
“You can’t go back [on] what was done 30 years ago.”
White agrees, and points out that the industry now considers some products that have been sold for decades to be cruelty-free, since they rely on old data and didn’t require recent animal testing.
But Hilary Jones, ethics director for LUSH Global, said the ban could go further. She doesn’t think companies should be able to rely on historic animal-testing data to pass regulatory requirements.
“We don’t believe it’s scientific to test on animals. It’s a very blunt, old-fashioned tool… We’d like to see all cosmetics passed through new methods,” said Jones.
How can you shop cruelty-free?
Health Canada doesn’t require universal labelling that tells a consumer if a product is cruelty-free.
Instead, under the new legislation, companies will continue to decide how they want to state claims on their labels, so long as the claims can be proven.
“It’s really important to do your homework and figure out if you don’t want to purchase products that have been tested on animals… and buy carefully,” said White.
So, how do you do that?
White suggests checking Beauty Without Bunnies, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ (PETA) cruelty-free database, or using the Leaping Bunny Program app, which allows you to scan a product’s barcode.
Both have their own comprehensive standards that need to be met to be certified cruelty-free.
Products that meet PETA or Leaping Brown Bunny’s requirements may even have a bunny logo on their labelling.
What are other countries doing?
Canada will become the 44th country to ban cosmetic testing on animals when the legislation comes into effect later this year.
The European Union was an early adopter. Its 27 member countries have banned animal testing for cosmetics since 2009. A few years later, it made the sale of products that use animal testing in those countries illegal.
Other countries followed, including Israel, Australia and South Korea. But animal testing is still legal in many other countries.
“Hopefully we’ll get the United States to become the 45th [to ban it] and so on, because the United States is obviously a big economy and a big cosmetic economy,” said White.
In China, animal testing may still be required in finished products before they can get to market, but White notes it’s slowly moving away from that, too.
Ultimately, she hopes Canada’s work to ban animal testing doesn’t stop with cosmetics and personal care products. White has set her sights on the drug industry.
“We need to figure out — and the drug companies are actually working on this — how better to do it without animal testing and then how to get the regulators to change those requirements,” said White.