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The truth about cosmetic animal testing in China: what is really changing in 2020?

13 June 2019

If you've seen our World Map, you know that animal testing of cosmetics is still permitted in most of the world.

Unfortunately, the situation in China goes a step further, with cosmetic animal testing being mandatory for certain personal care products. Pre-June 2014 this was the case for all cosmetics in the country. China has since made positive steps to reduce their animal-testing requirements, with the most recent changes due to come into effect in 2020.

The situation in China is very complex, which led to much confusion after the changes in 2014. The upcoming 2020 changes have again led to widespread misunderstandings. Some articles have even reported that cosmetic animal testing is ending completely!

Not true.

Let's clear the confusion.

What changed in 2014?

China bowed to political pressure from the EU to move away from using animals for cosmetics tests. The EU wanted to ensure that companies selling to both markets would not have compliance issues.This did eventually become a weakness in the EU laws. (As a side note, China unsurprisingly lobbied against the EU ban, which gives you an idea of their initial unwillingness to change the status quo). The 2014 change was enough to make China appear cooperative, but not enough to bring about any significant change.

They also made it unnecessarily complicated.

This lead to a lot of online articles making sweeping generalisations and publishing incorrect summaries on the situation. An infographic made in collaboration with a big-name international animal protection agency did the rounds on Pinterest and blogs, but contained a big error and a confusing structure and ultimately had to be remade. It's no wonder people were confused.

It's time to set the record straight.

In order to understand the situation, you should know that China split cosmetic products into two wide categories: 'Ordinary products' is the label given to makeup, perfumes, skincare, general haircare and nail products. The 'special use' category concerns products which make a functional claim on the label. Although this criteria seems rather vague, the category is said to cover hair dyes, sunscreens, whitening products etc.

These two were further split into domestic (made and sold in China), and imported (made elsewhere, and sold in China).

This leaves us with the four main categories, reflected in the numbered boxes 1-4 below.

The only category for which animal-testing was made no longer mandatory in 2014, was box 1: domestic ordinary cosmetics. Note that it only affected HALF of this category, that is: pre-market testing only.

Let's clarify a few things..

The difference between 'pre-market' and 'post-market'

Animal-testing of cosmetic products in China can happen at two distinct times during a product's life. Either by the China Food and Drug Administration ("CDFA"), before it is placed on the market. This is known as 'pre-market' testing. Or by the Chinese government, after the product is already on the market. The government has the power to select products at random for this 'post-market' testing. The brand's consent is not needed – in fact, it normally occurs without the brand's knowledge.

Some general exceptions..

There are some exceptions which escape the general mandatory animal-testing requirements:
  • Products sold only in Hong Kong but not within China (animal testing of cosmetics is permitted but not mandatory within Hong Kong);
  • Products sold online directly to the Chinese consumer, so long as the company is not registered in China. The brand 100% Pure is an example of this. The products need to be held outside of China and shipped directly to the Chinese consumer. Bonded shipments (where the products are held in a warehouse in China before being sold online) do not qualify for the e-commerce exception;
  • Products made in China but not sold in China itself (i.e. only exported). The laws only target products sold on the Chinese market. So an American company could produce its products in China but not sell any products there, and still maintain its cruelty-free status. This exception is represented in the last row of the table.
There used to be a misunderstanding that products sold exclusively at airports were exempt from animal-testing. This was apparently true for pre-market testing, but the government is still able to conduct post-market tests on these products. The Body Shop reportedly removed their products from Chinese airports after learning of this through Australian consumer watchdog Choice.

Nothing changed for imports.

Any company making their products outside of China and exporting them to China for sale MUST allow their products to go through pre-market animal testing. This is why companies who export to China, when they try to claim their products are not tested on animals, need to add the disclaimer “except where required by law”.

It depends on companies choosing to stop – and the effect is miniscule

The 2014 changes only have effect were companies making eligible products choose to use alternative testing methods when entering the Chinese market. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 animals face animal-testing in China each year. Humane Society International (HSI) estimated that the 2014 changes could save 10,000 animals per year, but only if all eligible companies were to choose to stop animal-testing. Let's assume for a moment that 30% of these companies were to choose to do so (and that is a very generous assumption, considering there is no pressure to change their ways), this would drop the figure to just 3,000. Out of a possible 300,000 animals per year, that's only 1% that would be saved. Of course the first step is always a welcome initiative, no matter how small, but as Peter Li of HSI said, “[w]e know much work remains before we eliminate all cosmetics animal testing in China.”

The changes don't mean a thing if a product contains new ingredients

Products containing ingredients which are not listed in the Chinese chemical substances database will still be required to be tested on animals at the pre-market stage.
A company cannot provide a 100% assurance of no new animal testing for the Chinese market. New animal testing can still be required or undertaken for new ingredient notification...

Chinese consulting group REACH24H

Post-market testing remains a problem for cruelty-free status

Even if all the companies making eligible products chose to use alternative test methods when entering the Chinese market, these companies would still not be able to call their products cruelty-free.

Why not?

Because in the large majority of cases, pre-market animal testing remains mandatory, and in the limited cases where this is not so, there is always a chance the products will be randomly tested on animals post-market. Thankfully, animal-testing will soon play a smaller role in post-market surveillance. We'll get to that shortly.

First change in 2020: Post-market testing

In March 2019 it was reported that post-market testing would normally no longer involve animal tests from 1 January 2020.

Two important things to note:
  1. the 2020 changes only concern POST-MARKET testing. Animal testing is still permitted for pre-market testing in box 1 (and even mandatory when new ingredients are concerned), and mandatory in boxes 2-4.
  2. the change literally states that post-market testing should NORMALLY not include animals. This is because there are exceptions:
It’s encouraging but not yet a guarantee that no animal testing will ever again happen post-market... no animal tests are listed for routine post-market surveillance. However, in the case of non-routine tests, eg: a consumer complaint about a product, unless/until authorities accept modern non-animal eye/skin irritation tests, and invest in local infrastructure to use such tests, animal testing could still be the default.

Humane Society International

The amount of animal-testing at the post-market stage will be reduced, which is a very positive move. The Chinese government will still have the power to pull products from the shelves for post-market tests, but these tests will only involve animals in some cases.

Second change in 2020: new alternative testing methods

Then in April a second change for 2020 was reported: the acceptance of two new alternative testing methods which “will be the preferred toxicological tests for the registration and pre-market approval of cosmetic ingredients.”

Some websites have wrongly interpreted this news to mean that all animal testing is being banned in China. One such article is actually titled “China will no longer require animal testing on cosmetic products”, and claims that as of next year “long-contested laws that made testing compulsory will finally be lifted – much to the delight of animal welfare activists everywhere.” The post implies that nine alternative tests are being introduced next year, when in fact only 2 of them are new and the other seven are already established. It even refers to the tests being the preferred methods for testing products (when the release clearly states the tests are for the ingredients). This was a doozy of an article, but it wasn't the only one. Social media was flooding with misinformation.
...a ban on animal testing for cosmetics in China is unlikely in the near future for several reasons. Although the country is making great strides in building its infrastructure, it is going to take some time until there are enough proficient laboratories and approved alternative methods.

Erin Hill, President of the Institute for In Vitro Sciences

What does this mean for brands that are committed to being cruelty-free?

It is not possible to sell their products in China until:
(a) all remaining animal-testing pre-market requirements changed from mandatory to permitted or banned; and
(b) the Chinese government commits to EXCLUSIVELY using alternative testing methods in the place of animal-testing for the post-market tests.
Until this happens, brands committed to being cruelty-free have no choice but to boycott selling in China (or go through the Leaping Bunny Pilot program – see 'what does the future hold' section).

A weak attempt to justify

The EU ban lead to multinationals creating different product lines for China/EU or producing the same products in different locations, with the result being that one is supposedly 'cruelty-free' and thus suitable for the EU market, while the other has been tested on animals in order to be sold in China. Some companies have tried to justify themselves in light of criticism that they claim to be both against animal-testing yet at the same time choose to enter markets that require it. What they've said is that it is necessary to participate in the market in order to bring about future policy change. The Humane Society is sceptical about companies making such claims.
''Big beauty brands have been selling in China for years and not actively contributed to accelerating change so I'm sceptical about claims that they need to be in China. Collectively, all those big brands could be extremely influential if only they decided to withdraw from China unless animal testing is banned. Indeed, we've explicitly invited one of the biggest players, L'Oreal, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us in actively supporting our legislative efforts. To date it hasn't taken us up on that offer.”

Wendy Higgens, Humane Society International

Conclusion nutshell:

1. Animal-testing used to be mandatory for all cosmetic products sold in China.
2. It has never been mandatory for products made in China but exported and sold outside of China.
3. The 2014 change only applied to ordinary cosmetics made and sold in China. For these products animal-testing is no longer mandatory but still permitted, so it is up to individual companies to choose whether to stop.
4. Post-market testing can still occur for any category of cosmetic product for sale in China. So even eligible companies who choose to stop pre-market testing cannot be sure their products are cruelty-free because they could face post-market animal tests.
5. Nothing has changed in terms of pre-market tests for special use cosmetics made in China, or for both ordinary and special use cosmetics made outside of China and imported in China for sale.
6. If a company is really committed to being sure their products remain cruelty-free, they cannot physically sell China (unless a legitimate exception applies).
7. From 2020 post-market tests are much less likely to involve animals. But they still could.

What does this mean for YOU?

It means that you can be sure a company is not cruelty-free if they are physically selling their cosmetic products in China, as long as none of the following exceptions apply:
(a) they only sell within Hong Kong;
(b) they only sell online, directly to the Chinese customer, and their company is not registered within China. This will rarely form a valid exception, as companies are increasingly being required to register in China first;
(c) they are part of the Leaping Bunny Pilot Program (– see 'what does the future hold' section, below).

Companies which only manufacture in China but do not sell there can still be cruelty-free. Be on the lookout for companies who state that they do not test on animals 'except where required by law', as this is often an indication that they sell in China.

What does the future hold?

  • The CDFA has said it intends to remove the pre-market animal-testing requirement for special use cosmetics made in China and both categories of imported cosmetic products (boxes 2-4). But only after assessing the impact of the 2014 change on the market first. We can assume that the animal-testing testing for these categories will also go from mandatory to permitted. There is no talk it being banned. This means it would still remain difficult to tell which companies are being honest about not conducting tests. An announcement made on 27 May 2019 detailed a proposal to lift the animal-testing requirement for imported, non-special use cosmetics. So it seems box 3A could be the first category to be changed.
  • In early 2018 the EU parliament voted to push for a worldwide ban on cosmetic animal testing.
  • It was announced in late 2018 that Cruelty-Free International had arranged a Leaping Bunny Pilot Program to enable some cruelty-free brands to sell in China without testing on animals. The scheme will allow participating companies to produce cosmetics in China without the threat of post-market testing. Participating brands include Bulldog and Neal's Yard Remedies.
  • From 2020 post-market testing should normally not include animal tests. Although this doesn't preclude animal tests completely, it's very promising progress.
The Chinese market remains a no-no for the large majority of cruelty-free companies, despite much misinformation claiming otherwise. China is moving in the right direction, but there is a still a long way to go.
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