31/05/2016 10:20 BST | Updated 30/05/2017 06:12 BST

China, Cosmetic Animal Testing and Cruelty-Free: Untangling the Web

The world is at a tipping point--closer than ever before to ending the misery of animals used in toxicity tests for cosmetics and their ingredients. After years of pressure from animal protection groups, caring consumers and ethical retailers across the globe, cosmetics cruelty has been fully or partially banned by law in 33 countries, home to 1.7 billion consumers, with at least 10 more countries lining up to do the same.

Yet despite this progress, Humane Society International estimates that as many as 500,000 animals are still being used each year around the world in cruel and outdated tests for cosmetic ingredients and products. By far the largest proportion of these animals--more than 375,000 in 2015--are used to meet pre-market test requirements in China alone.

Mandatory animal testing

China's Food and Drug Administration requires all imported cosmetics, new cosmetic ingredients, and "special-use" cosmetics such as hair dyes, deodorants and sunscreens, to undergo animal testing before being sold. Companies are required to submit finished product samples to the government for testing in a CFDA-recognized laboratory. Once approved for sale, provincial authorities also conduct post-market inspections of cosmetic products, which can include a further layer of animal testing.

Currently, CFDA accepts only a few of the available, internationally recognized cell- and tissue-based methods as alternatives to animal testing for cosmetics. In other words, even if a test requirement, e.g., eye irritation, can be satisfied using a validated non-animal approach, results from an animal test will still be required for sale in China. Expanding the number of existing and new non-animal test methods recognized and accepted by Chinese authorities remains a top priority as a gateway to change.

Changing regulations

In June 2014, the CFDA introduced regulatory reform that removed the mandatory requirement for pre-market animal testing for non-special-use or "ordinary" cosmetics manufactured in mainland China. This rule change could allow for some reduction in animal testing, provided Chinese domestic companies choose to conduct or contract for non-animal product safety assessments.

Foreign brands have also had limited options to circumvent China's pre-market animal testing requirements, although these doors appear to be closing. One route involved piggy-backing on the 2014 rule change by shipping semi-finished "ordinary" products for bottling or re-packaging in mainland China. Because such re-packaging was considered final "manufacturing" under the law, these products were not technically considered imports and mandatory animal testing was not required. However, it was reported in the past week that CFDA may be planning to ban such repackaging of cosmetics, effectively closing this loophole. Similarly, China moved in April to require licensing of all foreign cosmetics purchased online and imported through special government authorized "free-trade zones," closing another door to the avoidance of pre-market animal testing (although for now it is still possible for Chinese consumers to purchase cosmetics from foreign company websites and have these delivered directly to their home without animal testing).

Whether or not pre-market animal testing can be avoided in some cases, any cosmetic sold on shop shelves in China may also be subject to post-market testing, which can include animal testing. Such testing is undertaken at the discretion of provincial authorities, whether at random or in response to consumer complaints, and is normally carried out without a company's knowledge.

Sold in China and cruelty-free?

Following the CFDA rule change in 2014, certain animal groups have begun to provide "cruelty-free" endorsements for Chinese companies (see media releases from Cruelty Free International and PETA). Other cruelty-free certification programs, such as the North American Leaping Bunny program overseen by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics, maintain that "any company that markets or sells their products in China may be removed from the Leaping Bunny Program unless a company can provide proof that they are exempt from animal testing now and anytime in the future." Similarly, Australia's Choose Cruelty Free"is very concerned about cosmetic companies selling, or contemplating selling, their products in China ... If your company decides to enter a market where animal testing of your products is still required you will be removed from the Choose Cruelty Free List."

These conflicting positions from cruelty-free certification programs provide little help to consumers or ethically-minded companies, and beg the question: Is it possible for a company to provide a 100 percent assurance of no new animal testing for the Chinese market?

For an objective, independent opinion, Humane Society International turned to a very reputable Chinese consulting group, REACH24H. The resulting Investigation Report on Regulation Status of Domestic Non-Special Use Cosmetics-Related Animal Testing concluded that "a company cannot provide a 100% assurance of no new animal testing for the Chinese market. New animal testing can still be required or undertaken for new ingredient notification, and/or post-market surveillance by provincial [Food and Drug Administrations] or related authorities, who will conduct sampling inspection including animal testing randomly, no matter [whether] the submitted data is animal test reports or safety assessment reports."

Bottom line

While we all look to the day when cosmetics animal testing is relegated to the history books, we're not there yet, especially in China. By continuing to uphold the integrity of cruelty-free standards we can applaud the progress China has made while continuing the necessary pressure to facilitate further change and put an end to cosmetics cruelty around the world, once and for all. Caring consumers, and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of animals each year, demand nothing less.