Products that have the potential to cause harm to humans, including personal care products, cosmetics and medication, must undergo safety testing in order to ensure they're relatively safe to use. Regulations requiring safety testing are important – without them, there's no way of ensuring products on the market aren’t going to cause serious harm (and even with safety testing, problems can occur). “You don’t want to buy a product that’s meant to enhance your beauty, and instead get a skin abrasion or a disease,” says Khaiat. “Cosmetics must be safe for their intended foreseeable use.”
And the intended use isn’t always the same as the foreseeable one, as Khaiat points out. Shampoos, for example, aren’t meant for use in the eyes, but the chance of accidental eye exposure is high. So shampoos are tested to ensure they're safe for ocular contact.
While there are many methods for testing ingredients for safety, including in vitro (test tube) tests on skin cells and donated corneas, these are relatively new scientific advances. For decades, the proverbial “guinea pigs” were, in fact, guinea pigs, as well as rats, mice and rabbits.
The methods currently used to test products in China are, according to Khaiat, variations of the Draize eye test, which involves applying the test substance to a rabbit’s eye and evaluating the damage caused. Irritation is assessed from tears, redness or swelling. The Draize skin irritation test involves shaving a patch on a rabbit’s back and applying the ingredient to be tested. The skin is then checked for irritation for up to three days.
But questions have been raised about the reliability of animal testing. “I did a study in the late 1980s comparing the data I had on animals to the data I had on humans, and found there was a less than 50% correlation,” says Khaiat. “I switched to in vitro methods [involving human cells in test tubes] and found an 85% correlation between in vitro and human results. Animal testing is not reliable, and it is not humane to treat animals this way.”
While alternative methods have been developed for most animal tests, including the Draize tests, there are still a small number with no alternative. However, this isn't necessarily a barrier. In justifying its wholesale ban on animal testing, the EU issued statements saying companies should either use alternative ingredients that have already undergone all necessary safety tests, or develop new methods of testing.