Monday, November 16, 1998 Published at 14:49 GMT
Rabbits give way to human guinea pigs
Patch tests show whether humans have a reaction to a product
By BBC News Online's Rachel Nixon
The testing of cosmetics and their ingredients on animals has come to an end in the UK, but consumers still need to be reassured that the beauty products they use on a daily basis will not do them more harm than good.
Now that animals may no longer be used for testing, cosmetics firms in the UK have to mobilise other safety checks.
"The primary alternative is simply to rely on ingredients which have already been proven as safe," says Steve McIvor, head of campaigns at the Body Shop, well-known for its stance against animal testing of cosmetics.
Marion Roberts, manager of product safety and evaluation at the Body Shop, says that most products contain ingredients which have been proven to be safe over the long term.
But when this safety information is not available, other tests need to be used.
One such procedure is irritection - a test-tube alternative to the rabbit eye test.
A clear vegetable protein solution - which in some respects mimics the reaction of the human eye - is placed in a phial and exposed to the cosmetic ingredient. If the solution goes cloudy, this indicates the possibility of irritation.
Ms Roberts says other in vitro tests in development might provide a closer comparison with the human eye.
The epi-ocular test uses a synthetic membrane resembling the human eye membrane to which products can be applied to test for sensitivity.
But there is often no substitute for the living, breathing, real thing, and humans can themselves take on the role of guinea pig for tests to ascertain whether products cause an adverse reaction.
These most often take the form of patch tests in which the new product is placed on the volunteer's skin alongside a control substance and a product whose safety profile is already known.
Basic screening is carried out over 48 hours, but to relate exposure to the products' everyday use, longer patch tests lasting two weeks have to be carried out, says Ms Roberts.
Even longer tests - over a six-week period - are performed to activate the volunteer's immune system and give a better response.
Patch tests are often combined with "in use" tests of products to assess the effects of actual, everyday use of a product.
But there are limits to the tests which can be carried out on humans, says Dr Penny Hawkins, senior scientific officer at the RSPCA.
Volunteers can sue for assault if they are harmed during trials, she says. And although not legally binding, under the Declaration of Helsinki any test which could be harmful to humans must first be carried out on animals.
Nor does this ban on animal testing mean that all cosmetic products in the UK will not have been tested on animals, says Mr McIvor.
Many of the brands seen in the high street may well have undergone animal testing if they have been manufactured outside the UK where such strict legislation is not in force.
The laws on animal testing vary throughout Europe but it remains especially common in countries where the cosmetics industry is strong, such as France, Italy and Spain, says Mr McIvor.
Indeed, companies in the UK could also look abroad to carry out tests.
"A lot of testing is shifting overseas," says the RSPCA's Dr Hawkins.
So while campaigners are pleased that the UK Government has decided to ban the testing of cosmetics on animals, they will continue to push for even greater safeguards in the future.