SAFETY testing of new cosmetics has long been an active front in the campaign for more humane treatment of animals. For decades, rabbits, mice, and other creatures have had chemicals daubed in their eyes or rubbed on bare skin to assess irritancy or corrosiveness. Recently, however, some major cosmetics firms have stopped that practice. They've opted for a variety of other methods to determine product safety, including in vitro techniques that approximate the chemical makeup of the human eye. They also make greater use of data bases on the effects of particular ingredients.
The companies that have dropped animal testing are Mary Kay, Avon Products, Amway, Revlon, and Faberg'e. The companies had to weigh the costs and liability issues involved in dropping animal testing against bad publicity and possible revenue loss.
Animal-welfare activists have tirelessly hammered at the cosmetics controversy, dogging corporate corridors and pushing for alternative testing methods. Their efforts - widely acknowledged as effective by industry itself - are a testament to perseverance and moral commitment.
The rejection of animal testing by a few large companies, however, is only a limited victory. Other cosmetic firms may follow their lead. But efforts to extend the rejection of animal testing to chemical producers who supply cosmeticsmakers will be much more difficult.
Cosmetics and fragrances account for only a tiny portion of all animal testing. This industry has been a target for activists because of the luxury, or ``vanity,'' nature of its products. Few would argue that benefits from the products warrant the cruelty to animals.
That argument is much harder to make in other areas where animal testing prevails, such as pharmaceuticals. But in those industries, too, scientists are beginning to recognize that testing methods other than the use of live animals can often do the job. Where appropriate, alternative techniques should be used, and, at the least, laboratory animals should be properly cared for.
Progress toward a more humane society comes all too slowly. Every step is worth noting, however. It can lead to others.