It used to be virtually impossible for cosmetics brands to sell their products in China and avoid animal testing. Luckily, things are looking up as China has been gradually relaxing its animal testing requirements for cosmetics.
In 2014, China chose to allow certain cosmetic products manufactured in China to skip animal testing. That gave a loophole to Western brands to move parts of their production to China (often bottling or filling process) to retain their cruelty-free status.
A bigger change happened in 2021 when China implemented the Cosmetic Supervision and Administration Regulation (CSAR). Crucially, the new framework conditionally removed the pre-market animal testing requirement from imported general cosmetics.
After CSAR, many Western brands started to rush to China only to realize the new framework was much more complicated than it seemed. While the European market is considered difficult for foreign brands to enter, the Chinese regulations are even much more stringent.
In this guide, we answer the most burning questions about the current situation in China. Can cosmetics brands enter China and be still considered cruelty-free? What is the threat of post-market animal testing? Which brands can we trust to be cruelty-free?
The most valuable information in this article comes from our conversation with Knudsen & CRC – a Shanghai-based regulatory compliance firm that helps companies stay cruelty-free in China as part of the new Leaping Bunny China Qualification Program.
Main takeaways from the article:
- Does China still require animal testing on cosmetics? Animal testing is still required for special cosmetic products (e.g., sunscreens, hair dyes, skin-whitening, and anti-freckling products) but not for most general cosmetics (daily makeup, skincare, haircare, perfume).
- How does animal testing happen in China? Animal testing may be required in the product registration phase (pre-market animal testing) as well as when the product is already being sold in stores (post-market animal testing).
- Can a brand enter China without pre-market animal testing? Yes. The products just need to meet some basic requirements to be exempt from animal testing. For instance, the product cannot claim efficacy, include unregistered ingredients, or be made for kids.
- Can a brand avoid post-market animal testing in China? Yes. Post-market animal testing is not a routine operation. It can only be required if the product is seen to jeopardize public health in which case the company can recall the product instead of performing animal tests.
- How can consumers trust the brand stays cruelty-free in China? Currently, we can only trust brands that have joined the Leaping Bunny China Qualification Program. It’s the only program that guarantees that the brand conducts no pre-market or post-market animal tests in China.
- Is there hope for an animal testing ban in China? Yes. There are multiple drivers for the ban including the government’s sustainability goals and growing interest from Chinese consumers and Chinese cosmetics brands.
How Can Animal Testing Happen In China?
Animal testing in China can happen in two different stages. There’s the possibility of pre-market animal testing as well as post-market animal testing.
- Pre-market animal testing – when a cosmetic product is tested on animals before it is sold to customers, the product registration phase
- Post-market animal testing – when a cosmetic product is tested after the product is already sold in stores, typically as a result of a widespread adverse reaction
To make one thing clear: animal testing is not something the Chinese authorities do. Animal tests also known as toxicology tests are simply the preferred method in proving a product’s safety in China. Proving product safety is entirely the brand’s responsibility.
In 2023, cosmetics brands can avoid both pre-market and post-market animal testing in China. To skip pre-market animal testing, the brands need to be ready to provide extensive paperwork to prove the product complies with the CSAR requirements.
Post-market animal tests only happen in the case of a widespread adverse reaction. In this case, the company can always recall the product instead of testing it on animals. The company can also try and prove product safety through alternative testing methods.
Staying cruelty-free in China is not exactly easy but it can be done with enough commitment. The product registration phase in China is a long and tedious process and the company might not be able to bring its whole selection to China but staying cruelty-free in China is possible.
Can Cosmetics Brands Enter China Without Pre-Market Animal Testing?
Yes. As of May 2021, cosmetics brands are able to enter China without the previously mandatory pre-market animal testing requirement. For imported cosmetics to be exempt from pre-market animal testing in China, the brand needs to comply with these five rules:
- The brand needs to have a GMP certificate – Good manufacturing practices (GMP) is an international standard that ensures that cosmetics products meet the basic principles of safety and quality. GMP certificate is issued by the country of origin.
- The brand needs to appoint a Responsible Agent (RA) – Domestic Responsible Agent is a local Chinese entity that is held accountable for the safety of the products. Responsible Agent is the pre-requisite to apply for an NMPA Product Registration.
- The products cannot claim new efficacy – ‘General cosmetics’ can enter the Chinese market freely. ‘Special cosmetics’ claiming new efficacy, e.g. sunscreen, hair dyes, skin-whitening, and anti-freckling products are still subjected to animal testing.
- The products cannot include new ingredients – To skip animal testing, imported cosmetics cannot contain any ‘New Cosmetic Ingredients.’ These are ingredients not registered in the Inventory of Existing Cosmetics Ingredients China (see China CosIng).
- The products cannot be marketed to children – Childcare and babycare cosmetic products are still subject to pre-market animal testing. No exceptions there.
The official GMP certificate is the primary requirement for avoiding pre-market animal tests for general cosmetics. As the GMP certification can only be issued by the authorities of the country of origin, Knudsen & CRC works with governments in helping cosmetic brands to obtain it.
Appointing a Domestic Responsible Agent is another must for cosmetics companies to be able to register their products in China without animal testing. Responsible Agents, typically Chinese distributors or consultants, are legal entities registered in China.
Responsible Agents are held to rigorous standards by the authorities and are subject to serious liability regarding product safety. If a responsible agent has violated the laws governing product quality and safety in China in the past, the RA cannot be exempted from the animal tests.
While appointing RA is not easy, the biggest challenge for companies is to avoid any ‘New Cosmetic Ingredients’. The current list of ingredients allowed in China is under 10 000 which is a huge limitation for companies. In comparison, the US list entails around 30 000 ingredients.
If the ingredient has been on the Chinese market for longer than 3 years, it is not considered “new” anymore and will be automatically added to the IECIC list (registered list). That’s currently the best way of getting ingredients registered without animal tests.
The future goal of Knudsen & CRC is to enter new cosmetic ingredients into the database without animal tests. The company is presently looking for ingredient suppliers who wish to enter into a pilot project with them on this.
Can Cosmetics Brands Stay In China And Avoid Post-Market Animal Testing?
While China’s pre-market animal testing is quite well understood, post-market animal testing is causing quite a lot of concern. Since there are many fears and myths surrounding post-market animal testing, we want to clear up the most important thing:
Yes. It is possible for imported cosmetics to avoid post-market animal testing in China. Chinese authorities do not perform any routine animal tests on cosmetics themselves. The company will always have a choice of whether to test its products on animals.
If a product is seen to jeopardize consumer health, China can demand proof of product safety from the company. If that happens, the company will always have a choice to recall the product instead of testing it on animals.
The main misconception about post-market animal testing is that Chinese officials perform routine animal tests on products without the company’s awareness or permission. That simply does not happen.
Animal testing is an expensive method of ensuring product safety and it requires around 10-20 product samples. The Chinese government has no incentive in performing these tests themselves. The liability to prove the product’s safety lies entirely with the company.
How Can Post-Market Testing Happen?
Post-market animal testing in China is a rare thing, especially for general cosmetic products. The threat of post-market animal testing can only be triggered by a widespread adverse reaction (harmful effect) from using the product.
For post-market animal testing to become a threat, many different customers need to report an adverse reaction to the product (e.g. allergy, rash). According to Knudsen & CRC, an isolated case is not enough, it takes multiple testimonies for the government to act.
In the new regulatory framework, retailers and distributors are required by law to report all adverse reactions experienced by the consumer. Chinese customers are also very active in monitoring product safety. In fact, Knudsen & CRC states that around 90% of all adverse reactions are prompted by Chinese consumers.
If officials have gathered sufficient evidence to doubt the safety of a cosmetic product, they will have a right to demand proof of product safety from the company. If that demand is issued, the company has three options:
- The company can recall the product – Recalling a product is the best way to ensure the product will not be subjected to animal testing. Since widespread adverse reactions against a product are usually quite public, it’s also probably the best for the brand’s reputation.
- The company can use an alternative testing method – Alternative methods such as in-vitro testing may or may not be accepted by the government but it’s a viable option to try and keep the product on the shelf while avoiding animal testing.
- The company can perform toxicology tests (animal tests) – Toxicology tests are still the surest way to show the product is safe, Chinese officials can even specifically demand toxicology tests. But brands choosing this option are not cruelty-free anymore.
The good news is that China has started to accept alternative testing methods for proving product safety. But as it is still not a guarantee, recalling a product from the market is still the surest way to stay cruelty-free in China.
How Can Consumers Trust The Brand Stays Cruelty-Free In China?
While companies can avoid animal testing in China, consumers are still faced with a problem: how do we trust the company has not tested on animals? How do we know they have recalled a product instead of providing animal tests?
The only way to trust the company stays cruelty-free in China is if they enter China through the Leaping Bunny China Qualification Program. It’s the only program that performs an extensive pre-market audit and yearly post-market audits to make sure the company is fully cruelty-free.
The Leaping Bunny China Qualification Program is a partner program between the Leaping Bunny Certification Program and Knudsen & CRC – a Shanghai-based regulatory compliance firm that works to end animal testing in China as part of their CSR efforts.
So if a Leaping Bunny-certified brand chooses to enter China, Knudsen & CRC oversees all their paperwork to see whether the market entry is being done without animal tests. Knudsen & CRC will also be able to advise the brand on how to navigate the CSAR framework.
As the most crucial part, Knudsen & CRC will gain access to China’s Adversary Action Reporting. They see if the Chinese government has demanded proof of product safety from the company and how the company has responded to it. These post-market audits are performed every year.
Hopefully, we will see many more similar qualification programs in the future even though the entry threshold to the program is high. External certification programs are essential to maintaining customer trust – especially when a brand operates in a highly regulated industry like China.
Is There Hope For An Animal Testing Ban In China?
Along with the open policies implemented in China since 2023, the hope for an animal testing ban is very much alive in China. Countless organizations, including Knudsen & CRC, are working relentlessly to end animal testing in China for good.
With its new Clean Beauty Standard, China is showing its commitment to sustainable cosmetic products that are eco-friendly and animal-friendly with an open and transparent product cycle. Social equality is also an important part of China’s sustainability efforts.
The drive towards an animal testing ban comes also from young Chinese consumers who much prefer cruelty-free cosmetics. According to Knudsen & CRC, Chinese cosmetic companies are also interested in obtaining a cruelty-free certificate to stay competitive in the global market.
“Chinese companies want to become the world leader in cosmetics. They want “made in China” products to become synonymous with quality and sustainability. They know they cannot achieve that when they test on animals,” says Mette Knudsen, the founder of Knudsen & CRC.
According to Knudsen & CRC, the Chinese government has been actively seeking alternative testing methods to animal testing. Some labs in China are already working with US-based Institute For In Vitro Sciences in replacing toxicology tests with alternative non-animal tests.
To predict the future, we also need to look into the past. The animal testing requirement for imported cosmetics was also established to stop the entry of kitchen sink cosmetics brands that were hazardous to public health.
Once alternative testing methods can prove a product’s safety as well as animal-based toxicology tests, animal testing will surely be a thing of the past in China.
For more information about animal testing in China and the Leaping Bunny China Qualification Program, see our full interview with Knudsen & CRC and Leaping Bunny.
China is the second-largest cosmetics market in the world and we understand the pressure on brands to enter this country rather sooner than later. Thanks to the new regulations of 2021, cruelty-free brands can now enter China and stay cruelty-free.
Cosmetics companies can avoid pre-market animal testing if they comply with the new requirements. Companies can also avoid post-market testing if they are ready to recall the product if the government should demand proof of product safety.
For customers to trust the brand has stayed cruelty-free in China, we recommend companies enter China per Leaping Bunny China Guidelines. It’s the only program that ensures the company avoids animal testing when entering China and while they are there.
We hope our guide gave you useful insight into the animal testing laws in China. Contrary to what Westerners might assume, the laws and regulations in China are changing lightning-fast. We will keep this article updated with all the newest information.