by Serena Murphy
Content warning: this article contains discussions of animal abuse, which some readers may find disturbing.
Recently the UK government has made the decision to allow animal testing for cosmetic ingredients, overturning a 25-year ban.
Animal welfare activists and cruelty free beauty brands have erupted in outrage as the government continues to take steps backwards in the fight for a cruelty-free cosmetic industry.
In theory, since 1998, testing on animals for the makeup and beauty industry has been banned in the United Kingdom, primarily thanks to large scale campaigns from The Body Shop and Cruelty Free International (CFI).
However, the reality is far more complex, and speaks of a longer history of government attempts to resume animal testing.
It was revealed in 2023 that the ban was secretly abandoned in 2019, with a letter from the Home Office to animal welfare charity CFI in 2021 revealing the Conservative government’s plans to allow animal testing on cosmetic ingredients.
After fierce backlash from over 80 companies, the High Court allowed the CFI to apply for a judicial review against the Home Office’s attempt to abandon the ban. On 5 May 2023, a High Court Judge ruled that the ban could be reinstated, despite the Home Office attempting to argue against it.
However, once again, the ban contained loopholes. In a statement on 17 May 2023, Home secretary Suella Braverman confirmed that the government was ‘taking action to seek alternatives to animal testing… of chemicals used exclusively as cosmetic ingredients.’
Even so, only 20% of the chemicals used in cosmetics are ‘exclusive’ to that industry, while the previous ban had also covered substances used ‘exclusively or predominantly’ in cosmetic products. This means that the ban is only partial, and many UK beauty products cannot claim to be entirely cruelty free.
Humane society international estimates that globally around 500,000 animals suffer and die for cosmetics per year. Animals involved in cosmetic testing are brutally harmed, with chemicals forced down their throats, in their eyes, and on their skin. Many go blind, deaf, and spend their short lives in agonising pain from chemical burns, as was the fate of Humane Society International’s animated ‘spokes-bunny’ Ralph, created to inform the public of the terrors of the cosmetic lab.
If the animals – primarily rabbits, Guinea pigs, rats and mice - do not die from these tests alone, they will be killed and dissected. A 2021 YouGov poll revealed that 85% of British people find it unacceptable to test cosmetic ingredients on animals, while 66% agreed that a target date should be set to end all animal experiments in the UK. Yet the government still cannot commit to a full-scale ban.
With the advancement of modern technology, there is no longer an ethical argument for using animals in cosmetic testing. According to Peta, the largest global animal rights organization, the majority of animal experiments do not contribute to improving human health, given that other animals may react entirely differently to the chemicals than humans do.
As noted by Human Society International, ‘Producing cosmetics without animal suffering is simple’, as companies can ‘use combinations of the thousands of existing cosmetic chemicals already established as safe, combined with available non-animal test methods.’ Many non-animal methods are also quicker, cheaper, and more reliable. Alternative methods which use organisms like bacteria, or tissues and cells from humans and computer models are becoming more readily available and will become cheaper as their demand increases.
Why, then, is the UK government constantly attempting to find loopholes to the ban?
The government claims that there are some products, namely sunscreens, antidandruff shampoos and fluoride-containing toothpastes which cannot be proven safe without the use of animal testing.
While this may be true, the vast majority of products can be safely tested with alternative methods and those products that cannot be tested safely with these methods could easily be banned in the UK.
Regardless, banning animal cruelty in the cosmetic industry is a wider issue which goes beyond the legislation of a single country. We in the UK are still supporting animal testing by buying products that are tested on animals in other countries.
Of the top 50 beauty brands, only 6 are cruelty free. This is not to suggest that the individual consumer is responsible, but it does suggest that there should be a more global approach to ending animal testing on cosmetic products.
Cruelty-Free Kitty noted, ‘In the beauty industry, one of the main reasons why big corporations still fund animal testing is related to their presence in China.’ Indeed, China is considered the largest market to implement mandatory testing on animals in the cosmetic industry.
Ultimately, discussions of how to oppose the UK government’s decision leads to a wider discussion of the global picture. If animal cruelty in the cosmetic industry is not banned worldwide, especially in countries like China which export cosmetic products on such a large scale, then the UK is still complicit in supporting cosmetic animal testing.
As consumers, we can protest through boycotting certain cosmetic brands which are known to test on animals, but, ultimately, change needs to come from the government.
First, it needs to be committed to re-implementing a full ban in the UK, then campaigning for a worldwide ban. It needs to listen to its people and represent them. When it does that, it will see just how many British citizens oppose the needless killing of innocent animals.
Edited by Emily Duff