China is expected to have the world's largest cosmetics market in a few years, but some companies have avoided selling beauty products there. That's because China is also the last major country to require animal testing on many beauty goods, a mandate that puts off some consumers and can harm even non-Chinese sales. The rule applies to all imported cosmetics and covers everything from sun block and skin whitener to deodorant and hair dye. China, however, is moving toward alternatives to animal testing, helped along by nonprofit organizations and cosmetics companies that are training Chinese scientists in substitute methods. New technologies may also accelerate the end of animal testing.
1. Why does China require animal testing?
China has gotten a bad reputation for allowing the sale of poor-quality products and fakes. The government takes responsibility for product safety, which puts it under pressure to avoid more black eyes, says April Guo, a cosmetics regulatory affairs manager of Hangzhou-based CIRS. Some labs approved by the Chinese Food and Drug Administration prefer animal testing because they don't have the capability to carry out alternative methods, for which they need to be trained and certified, she said. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals estimated in 2013 that Chinese companies had tested products on more than 300,000 rabbits, mice and other critters in the previous year.
2. How does this compare with the rest of the world?
The European Union banned animal testing as of 2013, and other countries, including India, Israel, Norway and Switzerland, have similar laws. The U.S. bars the sale of adulterated cosmetics but it doesn't require animal testing to prove safety.
3. What does China's policy mean for cosmetics companies?
The beauty industry wants its cosmetics to be recognized as cruelty-free because the demand for such products keeps growing, especially among younger women. But if companies wish to sell their products in China, they must submit to the animal-testing rule. While companies might not perform animal tests themselves, they're obliged to provide samples and pay the government to conduct them. That has kept brands like The Body Shop, sold by L'Oreal to Brazil's Natura Cosmeticos SA last year, Clorox Co.'s Burt's Bees and Urban Decay out of China's $30 billion skincare and make-up market.
4. How is China moving away from animal testing?
The Chinese Food and Drug Administration in 2014 said it would educate and train provincial labs in alternative testing methods. That same year, China waived animal testing on domestically produced non-special-use cosmetics, like nail care and perfume. (Animal testing is still required on domestically produced special-use cosmetics, such as sun block and whiteners, and all imported cosmetics.) In 2016, the regulator accepted data from the first non-animal test for photo-toxicity, commonly used to see if a new ingredient damages skin after exposure to light. In September, China's Zhejiang Institute for Food and Drug Control opened a lab in collaboration with the Institute for In Vitro Sciences, a U.S. non-profit research and testing laboratory based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, that has been training Chinese scientists in tests using reconstructed skin cells.
5. What are reconstructed skin cells?
They are living cells from donors, rather than the synthesized components used in artificial skin. Testing that used to be done on animals is now more often done through so-called in vitro tests on reconstructed skin. This could involve growing single layers of cells in a culture. Or it could involve more sophisticated 3-D reconstructed tissue models, which are grown by layering cells upon cells and letting them develop, thus more closely mimicking human tissue. L'Oreal is the first cosmetics company to develop Chinese reconstructed skin, which it makes available to universities, scientists and competitors.
6. Is China open to tests that don't involve live animals?
That will depend on China's comfort with the new science. The methods it adopts will likely be those that are in use internationally but can also be practically implemented in China. For example, one test uses the cornea from a cow that has been slaughtered for food. The Chinese diet doesn't have as much beef in it, compared with other countries, so the availability of bovine corneas may be limited. Amanda Nordstrom, company liaison for PETA's Beauty Without Bunnies program, says she is optimistic the Chinese government, with the help of the Institute for In Vitro Sciences, "will end its requirements for tests on animals for cosmetics in the near future."
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