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What is really behind the label “animal-free cosmetics”?

“Organic” and “nature” are terms that sound good at first – like natural and animal-free ingredients. But when it comes to animal welfare in particular, consumers have no guaranteed assurance. Experts clarify.

What does animal-free actually mean?

There are now many bans against animal testing in Germany, but they are not always lüceless. This also applies to the beauty market. Basically, any cosmetic product in Germany can claim to be free of animal testing,” explains Stephanie Link, a specialist at the German Animal Welfare Association. However, many cosmetics are not actually free of animal testing, – even those that advertise with this term.

According to the German Cosmetic, Toiletry, Perfumery and Detergent Association (IKW), the German cosmetics industry has voluntarily avoided animal testing for finished cosmetic products since 1989. Since 2004, there has also been an EU-wide ban on animal testing. The individual ingredients of cosmetic products may no longer be tested on animals in the EU since 2009. And since 2013, the sale of cosmetics whose ingredients have been tested on animals outside the EU has also been banned.

Bans only for new ingredients

But these restrictions only apply to new ingredients. What was previously tested on animals may therefore continue to be used. In addition, cosmetics manufacturers often use substances that are also used in other products. For example, in wall paints, cleaning agents or medicines, explains Birgit Huber, Head of the Cosmetics and Toiletries Division at the IKW.  Animal tests carried out for raw materials in cosmetics include acute and chronic toxicity tests in which the test substances are administered to rats and mice. Here, the animals often suffer extremely and die in agony, for example from respiratory failure or internal bleeding,” Link explains. Skin and eye irritation tests are usually performed on rabbits.

Link is critical of such tests for several reasons: "In addition to the ethical question of what we are allowed to do to animals, there is also the question of the scientific transferability of the results. After all, a human being is not a 70-kilo mouse or rat," says the animal rights activist. We differ in terms of lifespan, nutrition and metabolism, and there are differences in the nervous system, brain and sensory organs;

Alternative methods to animal testing

At the same time, there are already some alternatives. Alternative methods to animal testing are so-called in vitro methods – methods that are carried out outside living organisms in the test tube, for example using cell cultures", explains Huber. The German cosmetics industry also prefers alternative methods because they are faster and less expensive. However, the road to legally recognized alternative methods is long: for every method developed, it must first be proven that it is equivalent to animal testing. Subsequently, these data would have to be presented to the authorities.

Organic does not stand for animal welfare

So what can people do who care that no animals have had to suffer for their cosmetics? Simply reaching for organic or natural cosmetics is not it. "Organic refers to quality. That does not mean automatically that the means are animal-experiment-free", explains Alexandra Borchard Becker of the consumer initiative. It is also possible that raw materials are contained that have been tested on animals in the past due to the applicable legal regulations. The same applies to natural cosmetics, even if they are more frequently found in this range. According to Borchard-Becker, natural cosmetics have rejected animal testing for many years;

How can I recognize cosmetics that are not tested on animals?

Labels can provide clear orientation, explains the expert. For example, the BDIH seal, the Vegan Flower and the Leaping Bunny label. The symbol of the rabbit under the protective hand of the German Animal Welfare Association is considered the strictest label in the world. Only cosmetics manufacturers that have consistently avoided animal testing of their products and ingredients since 1979 make it onto the list,” Link explains. Meanwhile, there are also apps that can offer consumers guidance. Simply search for a specific product, and the app will then indicate whether the ingredients used are free of animal testing.

With material from dpa