Saving animals from cosmetics testing

Animal testing in the world of beauty is a topic that engenders strong emotions. On the one hand, those in favour have argued that the health of consumers should come second to nothing and, on the other, campaigners lobby that human vanity should not necessitate the suffering of animals.

It’s an issue further confused by the misconception that animal testing is about performance, checking colours of lipsticks and lash-lengthening properties of mascara, when actually it’s entirely about safety.

However, in recent years, new technologies have been developed that satisfy both parties, allowing tests to be carried out without the use of animals. Not all countries have been so swift to adopt these alternatives. While using animals to test cosmetics has been banned in the European Union since 2009 and, for individual ingredients, since 2013, in China such tests are not only permitted, they are mandatory for any products sold in the country.

But last month marked a significant turning point for those campaigning against this when the Chinese Food and Drug Administration announced that basic cosmetics manufactured within China no longer have to be tested on animals. It’s not the blanket ban many wanted, but it’s undeniably a step in the right direction and in no small part due to French cosmetic giant L’Oréal.

Because while the company, whose brands include household names L’Oréal Paris, Garnier, Maybelline, Lancôme and YSL, is widely acknowledged to be a power player in the cosmetic industry, many of those buying its products are unaware that L’Oréal has also been at the forefront of developing alternatives to animal testing, predominantly through the creation of a human skin model called Episkin.

Basic cosmetics manufactured within China no longer have to be tested on animals

Episkin, human skin grown in a laboratory from fragments of skin left over from cosmetic operations, might sound like science fiction, but since the late-1970s it’s been science fact. Originally developed to help burns victims, over the last four decades it has become instrumental in cosmetic testing, with a growing body of knowledge improving the sophistication of the product to such a point that it’s now possible to create skin which behaves like aged skin or even skin of different ethnicities.

But just how is it done?

“We start by taking skin cells, or keratinocytes, from healthy adult donors,” explains Patricia Pineau, director of scientific communication for L’Oréal Research and Innovation. “These cells are grown in a collagen base and ‘fed’ with a mixture of water, amino acids [proteins] and sugars. After a few days, they have begun to form a thin sheet of skin cells and, left exposed to air for another ten days, layers of these cells grow, creating the sort of epidermis present in humans.”

Cosmetic products or ingredients can then be tested for safety and irritancy simply by adding them to the synthesised skin. Scientists assess their safety by checking the proportion of cells that have been killed off by adding another chemical which changes colour in the presence of living tissue.

Through its commitment to alternative methods, such as Episkin, L’Oréal was able to end all product testing on animals in 1989. And, in March 2013, following the EU ban on ingredient testing, another decisive step was taken. It was decided that, from that point on, the company would not use any new ingredients that would require them to test on animals, nor would they delegate this task to others. An exception could only be made if regulatory authorities demanded it for safety or regulatory purposes.

In 2007, Episkin was given a real boost when the ECVAM (European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods) approved its use as a method for assessing the skin-irritancy potential of chemicals. In real terms, this meant that Episkin was no longer just an internal L’Oréal project, but could legitimately be marketed to a huge number of pharmaceutical, personal-care and household-goods manufacturers worldwide.

“This is not an area of competition for us,” Ms Pineau said at the time. “We sell Episkin at cost to a huge number of other companies, including rivals.” In fact, it’s estimated that the ECVAM approval in 2007 contributed towards saving more than a quarter of a million animals. And that was just the start.

“The Episkin technology not only produces skin models, but other tissues such as eye cornea, gingival, lung and nasal epithelia,” says Ms Pineau. “To date, these have been approved as replacements for five tests that used to be carried out on animals and two further tests are currently going through the approvals process.”

Which brings us back to China. Any company that wishes to sell products in China must hand their products over to be tested by the Chinese authorities, knowing that they will be tested on animals.

“While we don’t carry out these tests ourselves, we’re a global company and have to conform to regulations in the countries in which we operate,” says Ms Pineau. “But we have been working very hard to promote alternative methods worldwide.

“In China, for instance, we have invested in Asian skin reconstruction and trained assessors from the Chinese Toxicology Society. And, in November 2013, Asian Episkin was validated as an alternative method to animal testing for skin irritation. That was an important step towards the legislative change in China last month and, we hope, the start of a global shift away from animal testing.”

That’s not mere lip service. Ms Pineau is enthusiastic about other methods being developed by L’Oréal that will improve product efficacy without animal testing.

“We’re looking at predictive evaluation, assessing the safety and efficacy of an ingredient or formulation even before it’s made. That involves a range of approaches which include looking at the molecular design and computational toxicology, a way of identifying risk through data analysis and mathematical modelling,” she says.

“At L’Oréal, we’re committed to working towards a world where animal testing will be entirely unnecessary – and obsolete.”