Trigger Warning: Animal cruelty and animal testing methods are briefly described in this post. I have avoided excessive detail and have not included any images of the testing. I have included a warning before the portion describing the testing. Please feel free to skip it.
Anyone that has purchased cosmetics – either skincare or makeup – has seen the label “cruelty-free.” Indeed it is a phrase that has become more popular in the last two decades thanks to consumer advocacy groups and growing concern over animal cruelty and mistreatment. Due to this, many companies have adopted cruelty free stances, unless hamstrung by laws (such as China, which requires animal testing before a product can go to market, though this has gotten less stringent since 2014), or have adopted alternative methods of testing, such as in vitro testing, which allows many products to be tested on grown cells in a controlled environment.
The history of animal testing begins in the 30s, at a time when the FDA was creating stricter laws around cosmetics, drugs, and health concoctions. There were several public health disasters and deaths that lead to the passing of the 1938 law in the US, specifically snake oil medicine that was quite popular at this time, with “radioactive quackery” being perhaps the most obscene.
Radithor, a “cure for the living dead” as well as “perpetual sunshine,” developed by Bailey Radium Laboratories, claimed to cure impotence and other ills. It contained triple distilled water as well as 1 microcurie each of the radium 226 and 228 isotopes. Eben Byers, an American socialite who died from radium poisoning from Radithor in 1932, was buried in a lead coffin and later exhumed in 1965 for testing, only for his remains to still be highly radioactive.
Sulfanilamide was another popular drug in the 30s, and in 1937, an improperly prepared medicine called Elixir Sulfanilamide caused the deaths of over 100 people in the United States. This liquid formulation of sulfanilamide – a popular drug for strep infections – had never been tested for toxicity, and contained diethylene glycol – a chemical used as an antifreeze that is a deadly poison. It was only confiscated from the public due to it’s labeling as an “Elixir,” which was covered in the original 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act. According to the FDA’s description of the incident:
A few simple tests on experimental animals would have demonstrated the lethal properties of the elixir. Even a review of the current existing scientific literature would have shown that other studies–such as those reported in several medical journals–had indicated that diethylene glycol was toxic and could cause kidney damage or failure. But in 1937 the law did not prohibit the sale of dangerous, untested, or poisonous drugs. Dr. Samual Evans Massengill, the firm’s owner, said: “My chemists and I deeply regret the fatal results, but there was no error in the manufacture of the product. We have been supplying a legitimate professional demand and not once could have foreseen the unlooked-for results. I do not feel that there was any responsibility on our part.” The firm’s chemist apparently did not share this feeling; Harold Watkins committed suicide after learning of the effects of his latest concoction.
Of 240 gallons manufactured and distributed, 234 gallons and 1 pint was retrieved; the remainder was consumed and caused the deaths of the victims. (Source)
The Smithsonian also details pre-FDA cosmetics – from mercury in face creams to coal tar in mascara. Three such cosmetics were Koremlu, Lash Lure, and Gouraud’s Oriental Cream.
Koremlu, a hair-removal cream, contained thallium acetate – an ingredient that was used as rat poison (now banned in the US due to how toxic it is). Women who used the cream suffered hair loss all over their bodies as well as paralysis and permanent eye damage. The Journal of the American Medical Association described it in 1932 as a “viciously dangerous depilatory.”
Lash Lure was another product that prompted movement by the FDA. It contained a chemical known as p-phenylenediamine, which, according to the authors of Science, Medicine, and Animals, “caused horrific blisters, abscesses and ulcers on the face, eyelids and eyes of Lash Lure users, and it led to blindness for some. In one case, the ulcers were so severe that a woman developed a bacterial infection and died.” (Source)
Gouraud’s Oriental Cream was advertised as a “cleansing cream that puts new life into sluggish complexions and brings a Natural ‘Healthy Glow’ to the Cheeks,” but unfortunately, it contained a mercury compound, calomel, which caused mercury poisoning in it’s users. One woman “developed dark rings around her eyes and neck, followed by bluish black gums and loose teeth.” Many acne products at the time contained these poisonous compounds.
Following these events, the 1938 US Congress approved the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, which mandated that products be tested before they went to market, lest they bear a warning label. While the FDA did (and still does) not mandate animal testing specifically, it does advise manufacturers of “appropriate and effective” testing “for substantiating the safety of their products.” A year after the 1938 law, John Henry Draize joined the FDA, where he was soon promoted to the head of the Dermal and Ocular Toxicity Branch.
Draize has obtained a BSc in Chemistry and then a PhD in Pharmacology. He had worked with the University of Wyoming to study plants that were poisonous to cattle, livestock, and people, and in 1935, worked with the US Army to investigate the effects of mustard gas. At the FDA, he was charged with testing developing methods of testing, and established the techniques that were later used by the FDA to evaluate the safety of insecticides, sunscreens, and many other compounds.
One such test was the Draize test, which can be distinguished by the target organs, namely the Draize eye and Draize skin test.
Trigger Warning: Testing description ahead. Please feel free to skip this section.
To test the products, the animal’s eyes are held open with clips, and solutions of the product are applied directly into the eyes. This lasts the entire duration of the testing period, which can be several days, during which the animals are also placed in restraining stocks and cages. For skin tests, the hair is shaved, layers of skin is removed with tape, the product is applied, and then covered with plastic sheeting to occlude the area, enhancing penetration and exaggerating the effect. After, the animal is frequently euthanized and autopsied for any additional reactions, particularly cancerous or reproductive.
Albino rabbits are the most common choice for this testing, but dogs can also be used.
Some groups, such as the British Research Defence Society, say the Draize eye test is now a “very mild” test due to improvements and changes to the test, which include washing the product out of the eye at the first sign of irritation. In an article that appeared in Nature in 2006 entitled “Testing is necessary on animals as well as in vitro,” Andrew Huxley defended the practice, saying:
A substance expected from its chemical nature to be seriously painful must not be tested in this way; the test is permissible only if the substance has already been shown not to cause pain when applied to skin, and in vitro pre-screening tests are recommended, such as a test on an isolated and perfused eye. Permission to carry out the test on several animals is given only if the test has been performed on a single animal and a period of 24 hours has been allowed for injury to become evident. (Source.)
Groups against animal testing have argued that the differences between the eyes of rabbits and humans should be considered, specifically that rabbit eyes are much more prone to irritation than human eyes. In 2001, Kirk Wilhelmus, a professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at Baylor College of Medicine noted, “the Draize eye test … has surely prevented harm,” but predicts that it will be supplanted by other tests in the future.
Since then, many alternatives have been developed that have evaluated potential replacements, such as in vitro tests that use human corneal cells or human skin equivalent models. Other progress has been made as well. In 2004, animal testing for complete products was banned in the EU, and by 2009, ingredients were no longer allowed to be tested on animals. Furthermore, 2013 and 2016 saw the banning of imported goods into the EU that had been tested on animals.
Consumers have also weighed in with their wallets, and “cruelty-free” labels have popped up everywhere. Unfortunately, “cruelty-free,” while it carries the weight of the assumption that no animal has been harmed or killed in the testing of the whole product or the ingredients within the product, this is not always the case. As a term, “cruelty-free” has no strict definition, nor is it a legal definition, which means that while the product you are purchasing may not have been tested on animals, the ingredients within the product may have been tested on animals in the past.
Some groups have tried to make this less muddy for consumers, such as the Leaping Bunny Program, which was established in 1996, which dictates that companies that want to participate comply by “The Standard,” such as:
- The Company does not and shall not conduct, Commission, or be a party to Animal Testing of any Cosmetic and/or Household Products including, without limitation, formulations and Ingredients of such products.
- The Company does not and shall not purchase any Ingredient, formulation, or product from any Third Party Manufacturer or Supplier that conducted, Commissioned, or had been party to Animal Testing on said Ingredient, formulation, or product after the Company’s Fixed Cut-off Date. If a formulation, Ingredient, or product is found not to comply with the Standard, the Company will replace it with an alternative that complies with the Standard’s criteria or remove it from the product range.
They have also strictly defined animal testing as:
All testing of finished Cosmetics and/or Household Products, or any one or more Ingredients or formulations used in manufacturing or production of such products in which whole non-human animals are the test subjects, including without limitation, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and non-human mammals. Animal Testing excludes in vitro tests or tests conducted completely with human volunteers.
The prohibition against Animal Testing contained in the Standard does not apply to the purchase of animal-tested Ingredients if: (a) the ingredient was tested to meet explicit statutory or regulatory requirements for animal testing; AND (b) the testing was not conducted to assess safety, efficacy, or environmental effects of Cosmetics and/or Household Products.
Out of all of the advocacy groups I researched while writing this piece, the Leaping Bunny program is by far the most thorough, concise, and easy to follow.
Two other commonly seen and trustworthy programs are the Caring Consumer from PETA as well as the CCF Rabbit from Choose Cruelty-Free, which is an Australian-based organization.
Any other logo is not accredited by a reputable cruelty-free program or organization.
Many consumer advocacy groups also recommend that you check for authenticity by checking the appropriate database to verify that the product is indeed listed by the organization. In addition, only about 50% of products that are cruelty-free use the logos of the organizations that they are associated with, so you may be pleasantly surprised by checking the databases.
- FDA – Animal Testing and Cosmetics
- FDA – Sulfanilamide Disaster
- Smithsonian – Three Horrifying Pre-FDA Cosmetics
- Nature – Testing is necessary on animals as well as in vitro
- The Leaping Bunny Program