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Everything on animal testing in China in 2021

Jopie Jopie 22 Jun 2021 Everything on animal testing in China in 2021

In July 2020, cruelty-free fans did a little happy dance, because the Humane Society International headlined: “Effective Jan. 1, 2021, imported ordinary cosmetics such as shampoo, blusher, mascara and perfume will no longer have to be animal tested for eye and skin irritation in Chinese laboratories”.

YES! That’s awesome news right? It is a big leap forward towards a total ban on animal testing, but unfortunately, we aren’t there yet. In this blog I hope to make the new situation in China a bit more transparent, and I will explain (spoiler!) why I have decided that I still won’t accept brands that are active in physical stores in China onto the Dutch Cruelty Free Cosmetics List, which is available on our Dutch website.
Note: the changes will come into effect on May 1st 2021 as opposed to Jan. 1st 2021.


In this article:


China in 2020

First of all: the situation in China in 2020 (not so) briefly explained:

Animal testing in China has decreased over the years and a lot of legislation has been loosened or abolished, and it seems that China has put the phasing out of mandatory animal testing for cosmetics on the agenda. That's very good news and of course I’m monitoring the developments closely. We aren’t there yet by far, though. To start with, I have summarized below how things were going in 2020:

  • All cosmetics that are not produced in China, such as Europe or America, must be tested on animals as a standard before they are allowed to enter the Chinese market, i.e. in physical stores. This is also called pre-market testing.

  • China has a database of approved cosmetics ingredients. If an ingredient is not listed here, it should always be tested on animals, whether they are produced in China or not.

  • Not all parts of China have mandatory animal testing laws; only in regions designated as "Mainland China”. Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau are the main exceptions. That is why you can also find cruelty free brands there and many of these brands (such as The Body Shop) also ship to China from Hong Kong.

  • China roughly divides cosmetic products into two types, the so-called "ordinary" and "special use" cosmetics. The difference lies in that the latter usually has a medical or functional claim, as is the case for certain types of skin cream, hair dye or sunscreen.

  • Cosmetic products that are already in shops but have gotten a complaint from a consumer are also subject to extra testing. This is also called post-market testing. Animal testing is not mandatory for these kinds of tests, but it does occur in some regions of China. Brands do not need to be notified of post-market tests conducted by the local Chinese government, and as such it can be hard to monitor this.

  • Foreign cosmetic brands are allowed to sell their products online in mainland China while remaining cruelty-free, on one condition: that the products are not located in mainland China during sale, but are imported from abroad, free trade regions or Hong Kong, where different regulations apply. Animal tests may be performed on these cosmetics during customs controls, but there is no evidence that this is actually happening and to what extent animals are used for this purpose.

  • There is another way to get around animal testing; by separately importing individual ingredients and formulas that are in the Chinese database and their packaging and then producing them in China. In these cases, the packaging will state "Made in China" and these products do not need to be tested on animals. Post-market animal testing may still be performed.

  • In 2020 it was announced that 9 mandatory animal tests for skin and eye irritation in China could be replaced by in vitro tests for imported cosmetics, further reducing animal testing.

The changes in 2021

1. Pre-market animal testing abolished for 'ordinary' cosmetics

Is animal testing truly abolished in China in 2021? Well… No. Partly. Roughly speaking, 4 major things are changing in the legislation. Firstly, mandatory pre-market animal testing has been abolished on foreign ‘ordinary’ cosmetics that are sold in physical stores, i.e. cosmetics without a functional or medical claim. This is the largest group of the two, but there is still a significant proportion of 'special use' cosmetics.

2. The "special use" cosmetics category has been narrowed

The second thing is, that the products classified as special use have been narrowed from 9 product groups to 6 product groups. Products intended for hair removal, breast enhancement, fitness and deodorant are now classified as ordinary and therefore do not need to be tested on animals. 

These product groups are still subject to animal testing in China in 2021:

  1. hair dye products;
  2. hair perm products;
  3. products with a skin lightening, anti-acne or blemish removal claim;
  4. sunscreen and products with an SPF factor;
  5. products  that claim to combat hair loss;
  6. and other products claiming a new function.

3. Ingredient approval legislation has been loosened

Where previously all ingredients that were not on the Chinese list of approved ingredients were required to be tested on animals, now only ingredients with a high risk need to be tested and registered - these are generally the ingredients with a functional claim that can be found in special use cosmetics.

4: The conditions brands need to meet for selling cruelty free in China

Additionally, brands must meet 2 conditions to sell cruelty-free in China; they must submit a comprehensive safety report and a GMP certificate from the local authorities. It is still unclear whether foreign safety reports will be approved by the Chinese authorities, and it is also unclear if there are any ‘cruelty free’ brands' that have been admitted to the Chinese market at all.

In the following cases, 'ordinary' cosmetics must still be tested on animals:

  • Products intended for children and babies;
  • Products with a 'new' ingredient that is not in the database and are considered high risk;
  • If the manufacturer is listed for additional supervision with the Chinese National Medical Products Administration (NMPA).

The risks and loopholes in 2021 Chinese law

All foreign cosmetics sold in stores in China are still at risk of post-market testing on animals. This is difficult to oversee and it may vary per region whether animal testing is used for this. Moreover, I think the classification for "special use" is a bit vague and it is sometimes difficult to determine to which group a product belongs. For instance, a lot of makeup has an SPF factor, and many skincare products also have a functional claim. Not to mention the risk of ingredient testing.

To check this, you would have to find out for each product whether it is classified as "ordinary", and also be mindful of all of the other variables I mentioned above. Most cosmetic products are in the ‘ordinary’ category, but since there is no public database of specific brands and products in China and how they are classified, you can never be sure whether pre-market animal testing has been carried out or not. Brands can also of course sell both ordinary and special use cosmetics, and it is also not always possible to find out which products are available in physical stores, and which are not.

My conclusion is still: avoid brands that are active in China; even if they claim to be cruelty free.

Selling online in China

Is it actually possible to sell in China and remain cruelty free?

As the Dutch-speaking cruelty-free fans who use our Dutch Cruelty Free Cosmetics List may have noticed, I have decided to admit brands that sell online in China, because they do not have to be tested on animals in advance. The distinction between ordinary and special use does not apply in this case. The mandatory testing of ingredients that have not yet been approved does not apply here either. Unfortunately, this group may be subject to customs controls where animal testing may be used - Chinese law allows this, but there is no evidence that it is actually happening, and it’s difficult to verify. 

For a long time, I doubted whether I wanted to admit this group of brands to the list, but in the end I did so to keep the animal testing list accessible. The cosmetics market in China has been growing exponentially for years, is one of the largest in the world and many well-known cruelty free brands have taken this step despite the possible risk. I would have to thin down the list significantly and make it less accessible, because many well-known budget brands at drugstores in the Netherlands also sell online in China. These brands are marked on the list with a disclaimer.

So... what is the way forward?

The 2021 legislative change has reduced animal testing in China significantly now that the largest group of cosmetic products no longer have to be tested on animals. That’s great news! But we're not there yet - the abolition of animal testing laws in China is a difficult process and it is done in small steps. I do have hope though. There has been a clear trend in recent years that abolishing animal testing is on China’s agenda, and bit by bit small pieces of legislation are being amended. I hope that eventually China will completely abolish animal testing, but I suspect that this will take several more years.

In the meantime, I will of course continue my work on the Dutch Cruelty Free Cosmetics List, and of course you can always browse through our makeup, skincare and hair care range. Everything we sell is not only cruelty free, but also vegan, so your shopping spree with us is always free from animal abuse! Only when no animals have been used in production at all, you can really be sure that a product is truly cruelty free.