The truth about animal research labels.

Image by Mycroyance | flickr.com

Image by Mycroyance | flickr.com

If you are like me, when you go to the store to buy shampoo, deodorant, or face wash, you don’t think too deeply about your choice.  However, as a first year graduate student studying toxicology, I’ve become more interested in the ingredients in the products that I use.

While standing in the face wash section recently, I noticed that many of the products have labels that state “Not Tested on Animals.”  This sounds rather alluring because, after all, who wants to hurt small, cute animals by testing cosmetics on them?  However, as I began to peruse all my options for a new facial scrub, I noticed that there were different types of animal research labels, and I began to wonder what they all really meant. 

Interestingly, it turns out that these labels mean rather little, both in the U.S. and in Canada.  Companies can say “Not Tested on Animals”, even if they actually do.  There is no legal definition for animal research claims. Often, this means that the final cosmetic product is not tested on animals, but the individual ingredients are.  Other types of labels, such as the PETA Bunny or the Leaping Bunny, have some meaning granted by a third party organization, but they do not guarantee that no animal testing was done in the creation of the hand soap, face wash, or body lotion.

Animal research labels could be misleading, and appear to largely be a form of marketing. A recent study through the PEW Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank, found a large divide between the opinion of U.S. adults and the opinion of AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) scientists on the topic of animal use in research.

This study shows that 89% of AAAS scientists support animal research while only 47% of U.S. adults support animal research. Low public opinion for animal research could be influencing the prevalence of animal research labels on cosmetic products. 

I wondered why the scientists and general public have such different perspectives, and began to realize that negative news headlines and celebrities telling us to not support animal research, and providing pictures of cute animals could easily influence the general public’s opinion on animal research.

As a scientist who is focusing my career on the toxicity of chemicals, I know that animal models are often vital to projects in which human subjects cannot be used.  Most of the major health and science advancements in history, such as the culture for the polio vaccine and development of organ transplantation techniques, could not have been achieved without the use of animal models.

Animal models also offer a unique advantage over other product testing alternatives, such as a microfluidic chip, cell cultures of human skin, and computer models. Animals allow for toxicity to be assessed in a living animal. Scientists can gain insight into absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion processes. These interrelated processes cannot be evaluated as well in alternative types of models.                   

Scientists may also be more familiar with the animal research regulations and associated ethical guidelines that are in place to protect animals used in research (both in the U.S. and in Canada).  Often, news headlines and celebrities do not discuss the current regulations and ethical strategies being used in science.  

Personally, as a cosmetic user, I like to know if the products that I use on my hair and face every day are safe for prolonged use. Additionally, as a toxicologist, I want to know that products distributed all over the world are safe for use on humans before they are sold. This is best accomplished through ethical animal testing.  However, with the current labeling on products, consumers are not getting accurate information about the products that they are buying.  Buyers assume that the labels mean what they say, and media campaigns and a lack of education on the benefits of animal testing are creating consumer bias towards these labels. 

Overall, there needs to be a clear understanding of what “No Animal Testing” means on a label.  Forcing corporations to put “Tested on Animals” on products will be counterproductive and damaging, because consumer opinion of animal testing is low.  Instead, in addition to increased transparency by scientists and companies regarding the importance of animal testing, a legal definition for the “Not Tested on Animals” label needs to be created and enforced. 

Better choices in the cosmetic aisle can begin when animal research labeling is accurate and understandable. There needs to be a legal definition for animal research labels.

To make this happen, contact your member of Parliament (Canada) or state representative (U.S.), and express to them the importance of accurate animal research labels.