December 8, 2023

The European Union banned animal testing for cosmetics in 2013, a move that was cheered by activists and sparked a string of copycat legislation elsewhere. But the European Court of Justice is now considering a case in which the EU’s chemicals regulator asked a manufacturer to conduct animal tests on two cosmetics ingredients to address concerns about worker safety.

At the heart of the matter is a clash between the cosmetics law, which focuses on consumer safety, and chemicals regulations that aim to protect workers and the environment.

While the ECJ’s ruling—which could come as soon as this year—will only apply in Europe, it has global consequences for some cosmetics makers. That is because cruelty-free certification from animal-rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals requires brands to ensure their ingredients and final products aren’t tested on animals anywhere in the world.

In response, Dove and TreSemme owner Unilever PLC, which has PETA cruelty-free certification for 31 products, is working with animal-rights organizations to lobby European lawmakers to retain the cosmetics-testing ban. It says science has advanced enough to obviate the need for animal testing.

“We do not need to do animal testing to ensure that our products and ingredients are safe,” said Julia Fentem, Unilever’s head of safety and environmental assurance.

Body Shop owner Natura & Co. and Procter & Gamble Co. are among other companies that have spoken out against the European Chemicals Agency’s decision to require animal testing on some cosmetics ingredients, saying it could harm thousands of rats, rabbits and other animals.

The regulator, commonly referred to as ECHA, says it is looking out for workers who—unlike consumers—are sometimes in direct contact with chemicals for long periods and in large volumes.

“The way workers get in touch with the chemical is very different,” said Mike Rasenberg, the agency’s director for hazard assessment. ECHA says it has asked for extra tests on a handful of chemicals beyond the two involved in the case at the ECJ.

Mr. Rasenberg said ECHA supports reducing animal testing but that the entire system for managing chemical risks and corresponding safety measures is currently based on animal studies. Where animal tests can easily be replaced, they have been, he added.

One commonly used alternative is observing how chemicals affect human corneas created from lab-cultured cells rather than putting chemicals into the eyes of rabbits.

For assessing long-term hazards, including organ damage, weakening of the immune system and birth defects, the regulator says animal tests are often essential.

Unilever’s Ms. Fentem said animal testing won’t ensure worker safety because it produces results that aren’t relevant enough for humans.

In the U.S., several states ban animal testing for cosmetics and their ingredients. There isn’t a federal ban, although the Environmental Protection Agency has said it plans to phase out testing of chemicals in mammals by 2035.

The EPA and Unilever said last year they would work together on a project to determine how well non-animal methods could detect the risks posed by a minimum of 40 chemicals, building on previous joint research.

Anna Lowit, senior science adviser in the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, said there are still only a small number of approved in-vitro tests to replace many animal studies. In assessing whether certain chemicals can cause cancer, alternatives aren’t advanced enough to replace animal tests, she added.

For Unilever, the business case for not testing on animals is clear. It says alternatives are quicker and that surveys of consumers across several key markets show most don’t want to buy cosmetics associated with animal testing.

A string of consumer-goods makers now make cruelty-free claims. Unilever’s PETA-certified brands include Dove, Suave, TreSemme, Simple and St. Ives. P&G has 12 and L’Oréal has five, according to PETA.

Unilever’s efforts come as the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is working to overhaul its broader chemicals regulation to ensure safety, a move the company says could further jeopardize the existing ban specific to animal testing for cosmetics.

The commission’s proposed revisions to the regulations include asking for routine information on how chemicals might interfere with the body’s hormones, data that is currently only requested on a case-by-case basis. That change could lead to millions more tests on animals for chemicals already used in the EU, according to Cruelty Free International, a nonprofit.

The commission said it is committed to reducing animal testing to assess risks posed by chemicals but that there are still some areas in which alternatives can’t provide a comparable level of information and protection.

Unilever helped create and publicize a petition that—should it reach one million signatures by late August—would require the European Parliament to hear the ideas it contains and possibly adopt a resolution based on them.

In the petition, Unilever, the Body Shop and several nonprofits have asked the commission to change laws so that consumers, workers and the environment are protected from all cosmetics ingredients without testing on animals; pledge not to add additional animal-testing requirements to assess chemical safety; and outline a plan to phase out all animal testing in the EU.

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