Content warning: Descriptions of animal abuse.
When I was in middle school, my favorite hangout spot was the skincare aisle of CVS. The perfect weekend destination was a one-to-two-hour trip with my best friend spent poring over rows of brightly colored face washes, acne creams and animal-shaped face masks. As a 13-year-old with an ExtraCare card, I felt like royalty as I sauntered inside. It was my version of a candy store: an aisle-long, gray-carpeted heaven under fluorescent lights.
I was in an unfortunate stage of my skincare journey where I thought that if I just found the right beautifully-packaged product, all my blemishes would disappear. This belief led me to switch skincare products about once a month, which did not end up helping. I had a brief and ill-fated relationship with the classic Neutrogena Grapefruit Cleanser, as well as many other similar encounters with products that I initially had high hopes for.
Years before, I had an obsession with Lip Smacker lip balms. I was mesmerized by the shiny packaging and delicious saccharine, slightly plastic-y taste of their Sprite- and Coca-Cola-flavored balms. And right before that, I recognized my older sister’s Baby Lips lip balm, with its label written in messy, neon font, as the epitome of coolness.
Toward the end of middle school, however, I learned that some of the products I used were tested on animals and became aware of cruelty-free products. After watching a slew of YouTube videos and Netflix documentaries about the horrors of animal testing, the nostalgic products of my childhood were now marked by the cruel treatment inflicted on animals before the products reached the shelves.
In accordance with the Humane Society International’s definition, animal testing is the use of living animals for research purposes, which includes testing the safety of cosmetics. Methods of animal testing include long periods of physical restraint, force-feeding of chemicals to animals and dripping of corrosive chemicals into their eyes. These conditions and practices cause some animals to develop neurotic behaviors such as harming themselves or incessantly spinning in circles. Most animals are killed when they are done being used for experiments, and others are “re-used” for future experiments.
I was horrified to learn this, especially as a consumer who was so enthralled by the bright and happy advertising that characterizes so many beauty brands. It contrasts so sharply from the realities of how the products are made. After learning about this cruelty, I made a pact with myself to stop buying cosmetics that were tested on animals.
I soon learned that, unfortunately, breaking down what is and isn’t “cruelty-free” yields a dizzying web of contradictions that makes it extremely difficult for consumers to know if what they are buying was actually tested on animals. Because there is no legal definition for the term, cosmetic companies’ use of the term is unrestricted. Brands take advantage of a linguistic loophole: a company may label a finished product as not tested on animals, but “rely on raw material suppliers or contract laboratories” to conduct the animal testing instead.
Attempting to shop cruelty-free is further complicated by the fact that some companies advertise as though they do not test on animals, but sell in countries where animal testing is required. Aveeno, for example, states on its website that “the fact is, AVEENO® doesn’t conduct animal testing of our cosmetic products anywhere in the world, except in the rare situation where governments or laws require it.” The “rare situation” described in this statement and in those of various other brands often refers to animal testing requirements in mainland China. With China making up the second-largest market for cosmetics, fragrances and personal-care products in the world, this exception is not as insignificant as it’s made out to be.
This past month, I found myself especially frustrated by these complicated and contradictory statements while shopping in the Walgreens on State Street. My hands were cracked from the harsh January cold, and I intended to quickly stop in after class to buy a hand moisturizer. Instead, I spent about 15 minutes in the beauty section, researching the brands they sold to find a cruelty-free formula. For some companies, it was immediately clear that they tested their cosmetics on animals, with several search results stating the same claim, making me quickly move on to the next brand. For others, I got conflicting results, where the first result stated that a company was cruelty-free, and the result right after claimed the opposite truth.
As I began to feel frustrated by this ambiguity, another shopper standing next to me started coughing. Fearing COVID-19 exposure and considering the amount of time I had already spent in the store, I grabbed the tube of Aquaphor in front of me, checked out and left.
I felt irritated trying to navigate the pandemic and the animal testing industry in tandem, two colossal issues that are mostly out of my control. At points, I’ve questioned if making the effort to shop cruelty free was futile. Even Burt’s Bees, which I’ve trusted for years due to its leaping bunny certification, is owned by the parent company Clorox, which does test on animals.
Moreover, having the time to research companies like this is a luxury within itself. Many people do not have an extra 15 minutes to spend standing in a store, with work or families to attend to, or with the risk of being in a store for long periods of time during a pandemic. Many people also don’t have the economic privilege of choosing an ethical brand over the least expensive option. Others might not have the kind of immediate internet access needed to decipher the confusing information available online about cosmetic animal testing.
Looking for guidance on how to navigate these issues, I spoke with Emma Hess, a University of Michigan Class of 2020 graduate and the founder of BYOC Co. (Bring Your Own Container). BYOC is a refillery on East Liberty Street that sells home and body products as well as zero-waste essentials.
Even though the shop was empty when I first arrived before store hours, it felt very much alive. A “Meet the Makers” board on the interior wall of the shop showcases a map of the state, dotted with the stories of the Michigan businesses that supply BYOC. And toward the back of the shop, there are long orange tables and 30-gallon containers, which Hess tells me are an upgrade from the five-gallon jugs they use to store products right now.
From the beginning, BYOC has prioritized being cruelty-free and sourcing local products.
Hess explained that “if BYOC is purchasing from 13 to 15 different businesses in the area, we’re directly impacting our local economy, and if I can support them, they can support other farmers and other makers in the area because they’re also prioritizing that. So it expands so much wider than what our decision-making is.”
The shop’s public reach extends beyond supplier-business relationships.
Hess says she is “always willing to work with organizations, and businesses, co-ops … to come up with a price-point that makes it accessible for them to do refills.” She explained that they have gotten the price of their laundry detergent to a couple of cents below the price of Tide per load. BYOC tries to match these grocery store prices so it’s as easy as possible for people to make the switch from name brand to locally sourced.
Through these relationships with other businesses and their collaboration with the University of Michigan and broader Ann Arbor communities, BYOC has made itself a hub for people and organizations looking to consume more ethically.
In doing so, they have taken the isolation and frustration out of individual action.
Understanding this community-oriented way of fighting animal testing was transformative for me. It was the key to alleviating my discouragement about the impact of my individual actions. Through this closed-loop form of consumerism, people are engaging with the “makers,” small businesses, and the people in their community, rather than working as individuals to tip-toe around the different forms of cruelty entrenched in the conglomerates controlling much of the market.
Fortunately enough, progress in the fight against animal cosmetic testing is underway. There are currently 2,235 leaping bunny-certified brands — the highest-regarded cruelty-free certification for products. I also learned from Hess that because obtaining that certification can be expensive, some small businesses that don’t test on animals don’t have the certification, thus suggesting the number of cruelty-free brands is even higher. And TRESemmé and EOS, two brands that I used when I was younger, have recently earned the leaping bunny certification as well.
While these big brands do not fulfill the community-oriented form of consumerism, making cruelty-free products widely available and sold in larger retailers allows more people to access them and shop in line with their values.
Even more encouraging is that demand for cruelty-free products is increasing. This shift has been brought about by growing consumer knowledge and regulation. So, although it can feel discouraging to search for cruelty-free products, individual choices do make a difference.
In this search for cruelty-free cosmetics, my love for skincare and beauty products has not been short-circuited. I still love to walk through stores and admire the items, or share a glittery highlighter with a friend, but I now do it critically and with more thoughtfulness in mind, so that the happiness from the memories associated with these products falls in line with how they were made.
Statement Correspondent Caitlin Lynch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.