The Truth About China's New Animal Testing Laws

A two-year-old law requiring mandatory animal testing of "ordinary" cosmetics has been rescinded, but animal rights activists see the change as bittersweet.
Publish date:
July 8, 2014
animal testing, animal cruelty, China laws, cosmetic testing

Last week, China took what you might call a big baby step away from animal cruelty. Their food and drug administration lifted the requirement for testing certain cosmetics on animals.

In many ways, this is a major victory for animal rights activists (and animals), but there are a lot of "buts," and a long way to go.

Let me break it down for you.

“Ordinary” Cosmetics

Animal testing is no longer required on what the government has deemed “ordinary” cosmetics, which include makeup, perfume, shampoos and conditioners, nail polishes, and basic skincare products like moisturizers.

Animal testing is still mandatory for “special use” cosmetics described as hair dyes, texture-changing hair treatments (like perms), antiperspirants, sunscreens, and skin-whitening products.

Not Mandatory, But Not Outlawed

Just because companies no longer have to test “ordinary cosmetics” on animals doesn’t mean they won’t. It’s up to individual companies to change their testing policies, and it’s unrealistic to expect them to change overnight.

However, Humane Society International is hopeful that a voluntary shift away from animal testing of ordinary cosmetics could mean a significant decrease in the suffering of rabbits, mice, and other animals.

“If every eligible company took advantage of the policy change, we estimate up to 10,000 animals a year could be saved in China,” HSI said in a statement.

Imports Are Unaffected

This is a pretty big deal, especially for those of you who avoid using brands that sell in China because of animal testing. The lifting of the requirement applies only to cosmetics produced and sold in China. That means that all non-Chinese brands selling their cosmetics in China are still subject to mandatory animal testing before their products can hit the market there.

For example, although Estée Lauder and the many brands under its company umbrella (MAC, Clinique, Aveda, Ojon, Smashbox, and more) do not test their products or ingredients on animals or hire others to test on their behalf, they do sell their products in China, so by law, their products must be tested there.

“As a global company, we are committed to providing our products and services to our consumers where they live,” Estée Lauder states on their website, “and we must comply with all legal requirements in the countries where we do business.”

Both Estée Lauder and L’Oréal contribute to research for animal-testing alternatives that they hope will eventually be adopted by China.

“We are working in close collaboration with the different Chinese regulatory authorities to bring rapid change to the regulatory framework of cosmetics products which requires animal testing, so can be recognized [sic] the many alternative methods that are already validated in many other countries,” L’Oréal explains on their website. “L’Oréal thus contributed in November 2013 to the first-phase for the validation of a skin irritation alternative method in China.”

Some major cosmetics companies, like Revlon, have pulled out of the Chinese market (although it’s not clear if the decision was based on their animal testing stance or poor performance), while other popular brands, like LUSH, won’t even consider selling there.

“LUSH and other cruelty-free companies are still unable to trade in China currently, as this legislation does not allow for fully non-animal tested cosmetics to come to market,” LUSH ethics director Hilary Jones tells HSI. “We look forward to further progressive legislation in this area which will put China on par with Europe, which would allow Chinese cosmetics companies to trade into Europe and allow us to operate cruelty-free in China.” The European Union banned the import and sale of all animal-tested cosmetics in 2013.

Post-Market Surveillance

Even if China does eventually allow imported cosmetics into their market without animal testing, they still do something called post-market surveillance testing.

“China will almost certainly increase its post-market surveillance testing, so I’m afraid for the time being it is impossible for a cruelty-free company to manufacture and sell in China without the risk that its products will be dripped in a rabbit’s eyes or forced down a mouse’s throat,” HSI’s China policy adviser Peter Li says. “We’re determined to end all such suffering, and this rule change is a step in the right direction, but we’re not there yet.”

To see which beauty brands sell in China (and thus accept their imported-cosmetics animal-testing laws), has a pretty thorough and up-to-date list. You can also check out Sephora China’s brand list for a solid idea of non-drugstore beauty brands sold there.

What’s your stance on China’s changing animal-testing rules? How do you feel about beauty brands that sell there?