Alternatives to Animal Testing in Cosmetics

From advanced computer modeling to in vitro cell culture, modern cosmetics testing doesn't need to include animals

Testing finished cosmetics on rabbit

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Although several countries—and even some U.S. states—are beginning to create laws that ban or limit the practice of animal testing for cosmetics, the sad reality is that some companies continue to experiment on animals such as mice, rats, guinea pigs, and rabbits for the sake of beauty products.

The good news? Thanks to growing interest in the ethical beauty industry and support for finding humane alternatives to animal testing, scientists and researchers are coming up with new and improved methods for checking the safety of cosmetic products and ingredients.

Do Alternative Testing Methods Work Better?

Many experts believe that testing cosmetics on animals is not only cruel, but unnecessary as well. For one, there are already thousands of cosmetic ingredients that have a long history of safe use in humans that don’t require additional testing. Not to mention, technology has advanced well enough to replace outdated animal tests with methods that are faster, less expensive, and far more reliable, such as computer modeling.

Take the European Union, for example. The ban on testing cosmetic products and their ingredients in the U.K. began in 1998 before spreading across the rest of the EU in 2013—a feat made possible because they’d already developed suitable non-animal methods to test the safety of cosmetics ingredients. That was almost a decade ago, so think about what new developments could be made in the future.

Techniques like cell culture tests can even be more inclusive, since scientists can use pigment-producing cells to create skin samples that resemble human skin from different ethnicities—which isn’t possible with animals like mice or rabbits.

Other in vitro methods can identify severe eye irritants and substances that can cause allergic contact dermatitis.

The development of such methods emerged as a direct result of an “increasing awareness of distinct interspecies-related differences that hamper the effective translation of results from animal models to humans.”

There’s also the issue with animal testing reproducibility—or the ability of a result to be replicated through independent experiments within different laboratories. Researchers have reported more concern about the lack of reproducibility of animal studies over recent years for reasons that include inappropriate study design, errors in conducting the research, and potential fraud.

Alternatives to animal testing that involve more controlled studies and replace animals with computers could make those reproducibility concerns obsolete.

The Three R’s

The “Three R’s” refers to replacing, reducing, or refining animal use in research and testing, a concept that was first described over 60 years ago as a response to the growing political and social pressure to develop ethical alternatives to animal testing across all industries.

Testing methods that incorporate the Three R’s are referred to as “new alternative methods.” According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Three R’s are as follows:

Replacing: A test method that substitutes traditional animal models with non-animal systems such as computer models or biochemical or cell-based systems, or replaces one animal species with a less developed one (for example, replacing a mouse with a worm).
Reducing: A test method that decreases the number of animals required for testing to a minimum while still achieving testing objectives.
Refining: A test method that eliminates pain or distress in animals, or enhances animal well-being, such as by providing better housing or enrichment.

In Vitro Testing

Pipetting sample into a petri dish of cells in the lab
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In vitro cell culture, which refers to the growth of cells from an animal (or human) in a controlled environment, uses skin cells that have been removed either from the organism directly or from a strain of cells that has previously been established. Healthy and diseased tissues can be donated from human volunteers to provide a more dependable method of studying the effects of cosmetics ingredients.

The human tissue can come from multiple places, such as donated from surgeries like biopsies or even cosmetic surgeries. Skin and eye models made from reconstituted human skin have been used to replace the rabbit irritation tests.

Scientists are also making advances in cultivating cells into 3D structures to create entire organs—which comes in handy when it comes to exploring the long-term effects of ingredients on the human body as a whole.

Artificial skin materials like EpiSkin, EpiDerm, and SkinEthic can imitate the reaction that a product might have to actual human skin, but using UV light can cause it to resemble older skin to create a spectrum of test results.

According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, there are over 40 in vitro methods approved by international regulatory bodies that can serve as alternatives for ensuring the safety of cosmetics without testing on animals.

Computer Modeling

Using a computer to test cosmetics
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Thanks to the rapid progression of computer science, researchers are able to easily replicate aspects of the human body using computer models of body parts and use them to conduct virtual experiments. Similarly, data mining tools can use existing information about current ingredients to make predictions about new ones that can be more accurate (and efficient) than animal testing.

In 2018, a computer-based system called Read-Across-based Structure Activity Relationship (Rasar) was able to use artificial intelligence to analyze a database on chemical safety that already contains the results of 800,000 tests on 10,000 different chemicals. As Treehugger reported at the time, “Rasar achieved 87% accuracy in predicting chemical toxicity, compared to 81% in animal tests.”

That same year, researchers from the University of Oxford developed computer simulations that were able to outperform animal models in drug trials of a new cardiac drug with an accuracy of 89%–96%. The study proved that computer simulations not only outperform animal models used to test more complicated drugs, but offer a cheaper, faster, and more ethical solution.

Human Volunteers

Scientist applying hand cream while conducting research in a laboratory
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Some studies have replaced animal testing with human volunteers even at advanced stages of the testing process. Especially with cosmetics, it’s becoming more common to use humans rather than animals for skin sensitivity tests.

A method called “microdosing,” for instance, involves applying small, one-time doses of a drug that are high enough to cause cellular effects but too low to affect the entire body. There’s already been a large number of drugs investigated using microdosing, with 80% of results corresponding to those observed at therapeutic doses.

Human microdosing can currently only be considered in the earliest phases of a clinical drug trial since the method isn’t developed enough to provide concrete data, but there is plenty of potential there.

Choosing Known Safe Ingredients

Natural drug research
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There are already thousands of cosmetics products on the market made using ingredients with a long history of safe use and therefore don’t require any additional tests.

In theory, companies can choose from an extensive list of ingredients that have already been used for many years to ensure safety—without the need to test new ones on animals.