Thoughts on the testing of cosmetics products for toxicity

Dec 14 2009 Published by under Animals in Research

I was reading a post entitled "Fashion magazines can be hazardous to your health" over at the Millikan Daily.

What you're seeing is an extreme allergic reaction caused by a sprayable perfume sample of a fragrance called (no joke) Alien, by Thierry Mugler.

I'll let you click over there for the photographic evidence but it sure sounded like a serious situation to me. All joking about dodging the perfume-spritzers when you are trying to find the escalator to housewares aside...

Luckily, she works at a hospital and was able to take Benadryl within five minutes of the onset of symptoms and a PA there gave her a shot of prednisone when it got worse. "I couldn't see that whole first night and could only open my right eye a slit the next 24 hours. After continued Benadryl use every 4 hours, I had a full recovery after 4 1/2 days."


Yowsa. Pretty nasty. Arikia ends with:

She still doesn't know what specific ingredient in the perfume caused the reaction, but she's going to tell me when she figures it out (right??). In the mean while, I am going to steer clear of Alien. Probably fashion magazines in general, for good measure

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and of course, before we get too far down the road we should be clear. We don't know for sure that any one thing is uniquely at fault here. Could be a very limited individual susceptibility. Could be the glue they use to stick the stuff into the magazine. An interaction between competing chemicals in the glossy rag.
Or it could be a failure to properly test the cosmetic product for toxicity.
Resort to teh Google pulls up a suggestion that the company in question qualifies as "cruelty free" in the minds of those concerned with such issues. At least for some products although one link I found claims to have "researched the company" so I'm going to assume for now it is all the products which are untested.
Now, as we know, the "cruelty free" label adopted by companies is essentially meaningless. As Janet detailed,

A label on your shampoo or handsoap that says "no animal testing" does not mean that the substances in the bottle were not tested on animals. They were. They were required by law to be so tested. What the label indicates is that someone else did the testing.

Naturally, the substances have been tested in isolation or in other products but not in the specific formulation being shilled by the "cruelty free" company. (Probably not in the specific context of magazine delivery of product sample either.) Otherwise you would not have a new product you would have an intellectual property / patent type dispute on your hands. Nevertheless consumers should not be permitted to fool themselves. This is a nice little marketing dodge made to salve the consciences of those who like to think of themselves as against animal testing but can't give up their addiction to latest-n-greatest cosmetics. From an ethical perspective it is false.
As I have said before, I think it is very important to draw a distinction between cosmetics testing and animal research. The ARA movement is highly invested in conflating these two issues because they know that people are much less supportive of cosmetics testing than they are of scientific and medical research. If you fool people into thinking the latter is nothing more than the former, you gain a good deal of ground. Although not part of everyone's moral calculus on these issues*, the intended outcome of the use of animal subjects is very much a part of the justification process within animal research. Animal use protocols require a great deal of discussion of the potential outcome of the research that is being proposed.
And to be honest I am sympathetic to one part of the attacks on cosmetics testing. I'm perfectly happy with the available products that I use and do not require any novel ones. So I could do away with the entire industry which generates new cosmetics and personal hygiene type product. The justification for additional products is poor, in my personal evaluation, hence the justification for the testing is poor. However, and this is a big distinction, if we are going to keep making new formulations than I for dang sure want them tested for toxicity. Insist that new products are justified and I am totally on board with toxicity testing. Using the best available models- which in some cases are going to include the use of nonhuman animals.
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*by which I mean the "always okay" / "never okay" absolutist positions which do not care one whit for the purpose of the use of animals.

14 responses so far

  • Catharine says:

    Don't forget the other kind of perfume toxicity: Women and men who bathe in it. Can be worse than second hand smoke, especially at a restaurant.

  • becca says:

    Anyone who doesn't think fashion mags are hazardous to their health has never seen anyone with an eating disorder up close.
    Also, who *doesn't* get headaches and unplesant sinus effects and the like from the smelly mags? You don't need an allergy to suffer from them, and it should be illegal to scent magazines that way- I don't care how you 'prove' the scents are 'safe'.

  • As I have said before, I think it is very important to draw a distinction between cosmetics testing and animal research. The ARA movement is highly invested in conflating these two issues because they know that people are much less supportive of cosmetics testing than they are of scientific and medical research.

    Speaking of which, can someone please explain to me what fucking moron at "Pro-Test" chose that abysmally stupid fucking name for a pro-research advocacy organization?? It's hard to imagine a worse name.

  • WMDKitty says:

    I'm allergic to perfumes and colognes, and absolutely -loathe- magazines that put "samples" in.
    Why can't they just stop doing that?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    CPP, if you are talking about the "test" aspect it appears to me to be the case that British scientists who use animals are far more willing to call their work "testing" than are US scientists. This may be a British/American usage difference that in this particular case has important implications.

  • Dario Ringach says:

    I also dislike the implication of the word "test" in "Pro-Test". Of course, none us do any "testing" as normally understood, but "research"... and that is one big difference.

  • Paul says:

    That's a little harsh PhysioProf. As far as I'm aware the name Pro-Test was coined by a supporter in the run up to Laurie's original rally and caught on simply because it was catchier than anything else.
    Personally I can see the disadvantage of including "test" rather than "research" in the name, but overall I think it works.

  • David Jentsch says:

    Drugmonkey is absolutely right about the desire of anti-research activists to link academic research with the "testing industry", even though the goals of the two endeavors (discovery versus safety evaluation) are often very different. To that end, the name "Pro-test" does play into the attempts to conflate these two areas of work that involve animal subjects. I agree with that...
    That being said, experiments performed by academic scientists are tests of hypotheses. What we do in academic research is, in fact, testing... it's often testing of ideas and thoughts ... rather than of products. So, formally, 'Pro-test' is correct.

  • Vast Right Wing Conspiracy says:

    If it's not tested on animals, it means that it's tested on humans. The "cruelty-free" band should be properly branded as proponents of human experimentation, to deny them the position of moral superiority.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    The "cruelty free" brands buy things that other companies have done the animal testing for ... it's like claiming to be vegetarian because you buy your chickens from the butcher'sn shop already dead instead of killing them yourselves.
    That's not an unusual reaction for some of the ingredients used in extremely expensive perfumes. I can't stay in the same office with someone wearing any of several perfumes in the same general group as that "Alien" stuff.

  • neurolover says:

    I stopped reading fashion magazines when they started putting those inserts in, and they lost me as a customer forever.
    But, I think saying "And to be honest I am sympathetic to one part of the attacks on cosmetics testing. I'm perfectly happy with the available products that I use and do not require any novel ones. So I could do away with the entire industry which generates new cosmetics and personal hygiene type product" is dangerous ground.
    You are advocating a litmus test of how important the new "product" will be. We don't really do that now, do we, for research? We do judge how important the product will be intellectually, but we don't judge how important the ailment it's addressing is. Would we then judge whether animals really should be harmed, say, to treat a skin rash that causes irritation, but not extreme pain?
    I think that people should be able to develop new products if there are other people who want them (even if you nor I are one of them), and that if products are going to be sold and bought, that they should be safe for humans to use. That means some degree of testing on animals.

  • LadyDay says:

    Definitely agree with those who want the perfume ads (and more) stopped. I know a few people with asthma who have serious reactions to perfume, and few people seem to consider that they may be harming someone else's health when they wear heavy perfume/cologne.
    Also, let me just say - the reason companies don't aren't required to justify the existence of new products is precisly because the vast majority of these new cosmetic products are NOT necessary, unless they are being generated to replace defective/toxic older products.
    But, to add something to your analysis: I think that a distinction should be made between products created for hygienic vs. cosmetic purposes. Hygiene is about cleanliness, health, and maintaining sanitary conditions. Perfume doesn't fit into that category - it's purely cosmetic and serves absolutely no hygienic purpose. It's sad that the modern consumer confuses these two concepts.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    You are advocating a litmus test of how important the new "product" will be. We don't really do that now, do we, for research? We do judge how important the product will be intellectually, but we don't judge how important the ailment it's addressing is. Would we then judge whether animals really should be harmed, say, to treat a skin rash that causes irritation, but not extreme pain?
    Yes, we sure as heck do. The approval process for animal research at both the local institutional IACUC level and the NI*Health* grant approval level in the majority of cases requires statements about the potential end result of the proposed research.
    But I object to your premise here which seems to be trying to draw a distinction between health-related research and basic science knowledge-is-the-outcome research as if it is not possible to justify the latter. Many would disagree with you on that score. Most specifically because of the historical knowledge that scientific understanding of basic organismal biology ends up being health-relevant at some point. Or at least as (unpredictably) relevant as more obviously health-directed research. Others would justify it simply because they credit the pursuit of knowledge itself.
    I will point out that it is not necessary for everyone's personal justification votes to be allocated identically. I choose to do the research I do because I find it justified. There is much other work I don't find justified and I wouldn't do it. Some work that, should I get in a position to be voting (say on IACUC or grant review), I would object to on justification grounds. That's the system. If a given idea cannot garner the funding or protocol approval votes, it doesn't get done. As I have to say repeatedly, the idea that animal research under current regulation (in the US anyway) permits just anyone to do anything they want to any animal at any time is as false as it could possibly be.

  • Canada Guy says:

    Cosmetics are clearly unnecessary and are produced by a massive and wasteful industry. We can choose to change our cultural values. After all, Natural is Green.
    http://www.selfdestructivebastards.com/2009/12/cosmetics.html

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