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Smoke and compact mirrors

Spinning in circles, biting themselves, pulling out their fur, crying out in pain.

Animals in labs can become infected with diseases they would never normally contract. Photo: PETA Australia.

These are just a few of the neurotic tendencies an animal can develop while languishing in pain in a testing lab, reveals media manager at PETA Australia Aleesha Naxakis. “They can become addicted to drugs; their lives are spent in barren cages with no enrichment or veterinary care.”

Despite being commonly conceived as an old practice, animal testing for cosmetics continues to happen and isn’t stopping anytime soon. 

The federal government banned animal testing in Australia in July 2020. However, this ban does not prevent brands that pay for cosmetic testing elsewhere from selling their products in Australia. Take China for example. A Harvard University thesis titled Asian Cosmetics in Global Market: A Comparative Study of Internationalization of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese Companies states China boasts the second largest market in the global beauty industry. It’s also the only country that legally requires some popular cosmetics sold in bricks-and-mortar stores to undergo compulsory animal testing, identified in ChemLinked’s document China Mainland Cosmetic Regulation, published earlier this month. A company doesn’t have to do the testing themselves; they only need to pay for it.

Activists from PETA and NZAVS say even if a company pays for animal testing to sell products in China, it can still market itself as a cruelty-free organisation. This lack of transparency from retail cosmetic companies regarding their pre and post-market testing procedure creates a major loophole. With possible deceit behind the scenes, how can Australian consumers know what they are buying is 100 per cent cruelty-free?

Lack of transparency

None of this sits well with Naxakis. She stresses that companies making misleading statements to consumers is simply unfair, especially when an increasing number of shoppers are trying to make ethical purchases. “We are all busy, and when you’re browsing on the shelves, you do rely on the labels on packages,” she says. But a quick scan of a product’s exterior isn’t enough. Until further changes in legislation are made which clarify a company’s global record on animal testing, she urges consumers to research where their money is going via databases such as PETA’s Beauty without Bunnies. “We always say, you vote with your dollar.”

Tara Jackson, executive director of NZAVS. Photo: Jo Moore Photography.

Executive director for the New Zealand Anti-Vivisection Society Tara Jackson has been lobbying for systemic change to ban animal experimentation through NZAVS since 2015. She sees companies catching on to consumer demands for cruelty-free products, providing hope that society is changing. “Companies shouldn’t be misleading customers to try and get them to buy their product. But on the other side, it is an indicator that cosmetic testing on animals has lost its social licence. Even companies which are affiliated with animal testing want to appear like they aren’t,” she points out. “But I mean, massive global companies aren’t led by the ethics. They’re led by the money.”

“It’s all done behind closed doors, so it’s hard to hold people accountable.”

Tara Jackson

Current legislation in China

On January 1 this year, the Chinese State Council put a Cosmetics Supervision and Administration Regulation into action. Initially named the Regulations on Hygiene Supervision of Cosmetics, China reviewed cosmetic classifications for the first time since 1989. The new legislation defines ‘special use’ and ‘non-special use’ cosmetics and, as of May 1, exempts those of non-special use from being tested on animals. Although a step in the right direction, the physical claims often marketed with special use products (e.g., whitening, firming, freckle-removing) call for a more comprehensive safety assessment still requiring animal exploitation. Naxakis claims Chinese officials are in the process of accepting the first non-animal test for all cosmetics, thanks to guidance from scientists, funded by PETA. She is hopeful this progression will drive even more change. “It might take a while, but it’s good news.”

Infographic: Tilli Andrew.

It is important to remember the lack of transparency isn’t solely China’s fault. Although China is the only country where testing is legally required, Jackson highlights how the issue remains global. “Animal experimentation is a global multi-billion-dollar industry, and there are so many stakeholders that benefit. You know, we’re talking right from the people that supply them [animals], to people who supply the equipment, to people who get paid to conduct experiments. So, it’s a pretty big, monstrous beast.”

Animal efficacy

Tamara Drake is the director of research and regulatory policy at the Centre for a Humane Economy, a not-for-profit organisation based in America advocating for changes in regulatory science. She is leading the United States in a bill in congress called the FDA Modernisation Act of 2021 to enable manufacturers of a drug to adopt testing procedures other than animal abuse. Although her background predominantly lies in testing for medicinal products, Drake claims the discrepancies in animal test results when analysing pharmaceutical safety also applies to cosmetics. “Using animal tests to determine human safety and efficacy makes no sense. “If you’re looking at cosmetics, they’re usually using the Draize animal tests for skin and eye irritation,” she says.

According to a report titled Asking the US Food and Drug Administration to Issue Guidance for Industry on Acceptable Skin and Eye Irritation Testing Methods, the 72-year-old Draize test has never been scientifically proven. The document addresses a plethora of inconsistencies with particularly the Draize test for eye irritation. For example:

Infographic: Tilli Andrew.

“Even the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t want this data because it’s not reflective of what happens in humans. They would prefer a human-relevant test method that provides human data, such as reconstructed human epidermis for skin irritation.

“So, there is no good reason [to continue] other than we’ve been doing it forever. Companies are comfortable with it. A lot of regulators are comfortable with it. We must move forward, so they get comfortable with modern technology, which is based on humans,” she says. 

“We need to focus on human biology, not animal biology.”

Tamara Drake

Naxakis agrees medical treatments and cosmetics developed from animals rarely translate to humans, leaving no excuse for the crude experiments. “Ultimately, the differences among species are so vast that results in animals are at best a very poor approximation of what will happen in humans, or at worst, dangerously misleading.” She goes on to explain the future of science lies in cutting edge, non-animal methodologies like 3D human skin cultures, micro models of the brain and computer models that can accurately predict what happens in human beings. 

The most common animals used in testing are mice, rats, guinea pigs and rabbits. Photo: Tilli Andrew.

With animals like rabbits and mice having such rapid gestational periods, Jackson admits it is much easier to conduct research using animals as opposed to humans. “It all comes down to time. It’s much quicker to do animal experiments than an extensive longitudinal study of human beings.”


After being exposed to university animal experiments, Maria Nisulescu, a marine biologist who has worked at Plymouth University in the UK but now lives in Perth, not only went vegan but stopped using brands that tested on animals altogether. “It’s something that just didn’t sit right with me. I would be the odd one out refusing to do a lot of the animal experiments. Things like adding a pollutant to their environment then crushing up the animal, just to see how the chemical impacts them…it seemed so cruel and unnecessary,” she reflects. What she witnessed in labs led her to familiarise herself with the processes of cosmetic, pharmaceutical, or educational animal experiments. 

In November 2020, Nisulescu began fostering rabbits from WA run organisation Romeo’s Rabbit Rescue. Her love for her fosters, Lily, and Daisy, reinforced her decision never to use animal tested products.

“I don’t think people realise what animal testing in a cosmetic setting actually means. If you asked someone to kill a rabbit to see if their mascara was toxic, they would give it up and never use it again. It’s become so disconnected,” she says.

Maria Nisulescu explains her transition to a cruelty-free lifestyle. Video: Tilli Andrew.
Infographic: Tilli Andrew.

“The pivotal question is, it’s 2021 and all this research has been done to show that it’s really not effective and not a viable option for analysing the safety of a product: so why aren’t we doing more to replace the crude experiments that repeatedly fail?” 

Aleesha Naxakis
Jade Chan, founder of Sunslayer sunscreen. Photo: @sunslayeraus (Instagram).

Starting a 100 per cent cruelty-free brand was a no brainer for Jade Chan, founder of Sunslayer sunscreen. The ocean lover turned WA business owner adopts a plastic-free, reef safe and cruelty-free approach to her products. She currently exceeds her crowdfunding goal of $10,000 by an additional $3,000 and aims to finalise production in December. “When launching my brand on Kickstarter, I actually wasn’t aware of the animal testing laws in China. I initially pitched the concept to all countries, but when I heard of the requirements for selling sunscreen there [China], I had to remove them from the list.”

After learning this, she couldn’t help but feel somewhat sceptical of brands selling in China. “That’s why I chose to start a WA company so I could go to the factory myself and guarantee that no animals there were being tested on,” she explained. When asked why it was so crucial for her to sell cruelty-free products, she said, “because it’s the right thing to do.”

“With so many advances in technology, animals shouldn’t need to suffer and die for the sake of our beauty practices.”