Think for a moment about how many of your daily activities involve exposure to consumer products. From morning until night, you are in contact with a variety of personal care products and household or workplace chemicals. Brushing your teeth, washing and styling your hair, using sunscreen or lip gloss, washing your hands, doing the laundry, cleaning up the house, and routine yard work all include the use of chemicals. Most of us never give the safety of these and other products around us a second thought—that is, until an accident happens. Then it is vital to know that the shampoo we splashed into our eye, the household cleaner that the curious toddler just drank, or the highway accident involving a chemical spill that we passed on our way to school won’t cause any serious harm to people, animals or the environment.
Both product safety testing and basic medical research are part of the same scientific effort—to protect and improve human and animal health. While medical research often leads to new products and therapies to treat people or animals that are already sick, product safety research is aimed at preventing harmful effects or health problems from occurring.
Product Safety Testing
Years ago, there were no laws protecting the public from hazardous side effects of drugs, cosmetics, and other products. Companies were not required to completely test each product for dangerous side effects. People got sick, were injured, and even died.
For example, in the early 1930s, a new mascara product called Lash Lure was on the market and was used by women around the country. Unfortunately, using this product had dangerous side effects. Several women were blinded from the cosmetic, and one died. Around the same time, a new "wonder drug" known as sulfanilamide killed more than 100 men, women, and children. Unknown to the public, this drug contained a deadly poison—the same chemical used in antifreeze. Because neither of these products had been adequately tested, human lives were tragically altered. The public became outraged. In response, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 requiring that food, drugs, and cosmetics undergo testing and be found safe for human use before they could be sold to the public. Today, you and your family can buy products with confidence, knowing that they are safe.
The original product safety tests used were fairly distressing to the animals. Large amounts of the product were used to demonstrate gross toxicity. The LD50, or dose that killed 50% of the animals, had to be determined. That meant that 50% of the animals had to die in each test. But because of continued research, we’ve been able to develop new and better testing techniques and no longer require this type of test. We can determine the toxicity of an agent of other types of tests more rapidly and more reproducibly than before and our animals, although still used in testing, experience much less distress. Researchers use a variety of methods, including non-animal systems (cell and tissue cultures, mathematical models, and computer models), laboratory animals, and clinical testing with human volunteers to ensure product safety. Like pieces of a puzzle, each type of testing is interrelated and may provide important information to help scientists piece together a more complete picture of the safety of a new ingredient or product.
In the United States, manufacturers bear a responsibility to ensure their products are safe for consumer use. In fact, cosmetic products that have not been adequately tested for safety must have a statement on the front label which reads "WARNING: The safety of this product has not been determined."
Everything that you use is tested, even if it says “cruelty-free” or “not tested in animals.” The unrestricted use of these phrases by cosmetic companies is possible because there are no legal definitions for these terms. What these terms really mean are:
- The company has not personally tested the products on animals. Instead, the company has purchased ingredients from a supplier who has tested the product’s ingredients on animals or contracts out the testing of the product to a third party.
- The product and its ingredients have not been tested on animals within the past five years. This is called the rolling five-year rule because the deadline "rolls" from year to year. The manufacturer can then claim that their products are not currently tested on animals.
- The company does not manufacture or buy products or ingredients that have been tested on animals beyond a fixed cut-off date.
- The company attempts to determine the safety of its finished products using scientific literature, raw material safety testing databases, and alternatives, including the use of human volunteers.
As you can see, the words "cruelty-free" can be quite misleading.