Under every metric for measuring cruelty-free status, Differin is not cruelty-free. If that is important to you then you should consider not using any product that contains retinoids or retinol read on to find out why.
Differin is a skincare product that is marketed primarily as a treatment for acne. It is reportedly so effective that a recent Cosmopolitan article included it in a list of “Holy Grail” skincare products that they recommend to all of their readers.
While its effectiveness is lauded in magazine headlines, online reviews, and late-night TV ads, some consumers have questions that go beyond the efficacy of the product. They scrutinize Differin’s various creams and gels from a different perspective: is it tested on animals? And is Differin “cruelty-free?”
“What Is Cruelty-Free?”
Skin care companies love to label their products with claims like “Cruelty-Free” or “Not Tested on Animals.”
As consumers, we need to balance those sorts of promotional claims with the reality that these terms have no legal definitions. The FDA does not require testing on animals. But, they do require that all manufacturers of cosmetics test their products.
For some manufacturers, animal testing remains the best way of substantiating the safety of both the ingredients and finished cosmetics products the produce and market.
Some companies may even currently be promoting a finished product that is indeed never tested on a single animal in any way. But, the formulation of their products or their base ingredients may rely on suppliers, laboratories, or raw materials producers who test on animals.
It can get murky and there are many millions of dollars at stake as most consumers given a choice would prefer to not use a skin care product that caused animal suffering.
Sometimes, testing is done in an inhumane way. To make things even more unclear, many of the ingredients currently used in cosmetics were tested years ago, in an era where animal testing was widespread and notoriously cruel, even in the United States.
But, that doesn’t stop a cosmetic company from claiming to be “cruelty-free.” A slick marketer can hide a product’s manufacturing past in the fine print of an advertisement: ‘Our products are not currently tested on animals.’
Animal Rights And Differin
For animal rights organizations working to protect animals and illuminate the darker corners of the cosmetics testing world, these sorts of labelling ambiguities are deeply problematic. To People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), there is no grey area.
To PETA and their devotees, any and all testing on animals is cruel and unnecessary. In their worldview, animals are not able to give consent to being used in a test, thereby rendering all testing cruel and inhumane.
They also use the term “speciesism” to encapsulate their belief that it is bigoted to treat one species of animal differently than any other. If we wouldn’t test something on a human subject, PETA believes it is immoral to use an animal instead.
PETA promotes the following ideal: “Animals are not ours to experiment on, eat, wear, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way.” To help effect their goal of eradicating animal testing, they maintain an online database of companies that have banned all tests on animals.
The Global Beauty Without Bunnies program provides consumers with a searchable database of companies that do and do not test their products on animals. They claim that there are more than 5,300 companies that meet their criteria for not testing on animals. And they use their list as a way to pressure companies into following PETA’s guidelines.
PETA also goes a step further to clarify their perception that there is even a hierarchy among companies that pledge to do no animal testing of their products. Companies and brands that have verified that they and their suppliers do not “conduct, commission, pay for, or allow any tests on animals for their ingredients, formulations, or finished products anywhere in the world” are considered to be animal test-free.
But their top endorsement of being “globally animal test-free and vegan” is only achieved when a company and its entire product line are free of all animal-derived ingredients, including common substances like honey.
For PETA and their fellow animal rights activists, deceptiveness in advertising that obfuscates the role an animal played in the development or creation of a product is a big problem. But in other countries, those standards are not even considered at all. Some nations actually require animal testing for products.
China maintains a very aggressive policy of testing most products on animals. Until very recently, all cosmetic products manufactured outside of Mainland China were required to be tested on animals. China has relaxed some of those requirements, perhaps nodding to market pressure from consumers and nations concerned about the ethical treatment of animals.
But, China still maintains a reputation as a country that cares very little for the rights of animals. For the time being, animal testing is still used to test products like Differin gel which is currently sold in China. For some animal rights activists, even if a specific product doesn’t directly relate to animal abuses, any business relationship with China is viewed as supporting cruelty toward animals.
Many large manufacturers and corporations have extensive business overseas and understanding their relationships and how they might be inadvertently supporting animal abuse is often difficult.
“So What About Differin? Is It Cruelty-Free?”
An internet search for Differin makes it obvious that it enjoys a robust market in the United States. Originally the brand name for prescription adapalene (a retinoid), Differin is now available ‘over-the-counter’ from a wide variety of both online and brick-and-mortar retailers. And, it even has a wide array of skin care products marketed under the Differin umbrella. They market a variety of products for acne prevention and care, moisturizing, cleansers, scar treatment, and toners.
Neither Differin nor its trademark owner, Galderma Laboratories, appear on PETA’s database of cruelty-free products and companies. A deeper dive into the far corners of the FDA’s database reveals that Differin was at some point, tested on lab rabbits and rats. Even though those tests were done in the past, Differin was derived from them, and to PETA, that is a red flag.
Further, even if you can shrug off some concerns about buying Differin now because the tests were done in the past, those tests revealed teratogenic effects in those animals at certain dosages.
More simply put, these animal tests indicated that at high dosages, Differin (adapalene) caused malformations of physiological structures in some rats and rabbits, including cleft palates, abnormal eye development, umbilical hernia, and skeletal abnormalities like the growth of supernumerary ribs.
This makes it clear that by any of PETA’s definitions, Differin is certainly not cruelty-free. It is also pretty easy to say that animals did suffer as a direct result of the research into Differin. So even if you don’t ascribe to PETA’s philosophy, you may be conflicted by using the product.
Science vs. Activism With Differin
Galderma Laboratories’ line of products marketed as Differin is very popular. There may even be other products on the market that use Differin in their name or contain adapalene or similar retinoids as an ingredient. Retinoids are a class of drugs that are commonly used in acne medications, skin treatments, and other health applications.
Differin remains approved by the FDA for over-the-counter use to treat acne and for some other treatments.
More than 50 million people in the United States alone suffer from some form of acne, and Differin is proven to be effective at calming acne. So, it’s easy to see why Differin is popular. And, since gaining FDA approval, Differin has enjoyed a place on countless top 10 and “best of” lists for anti-acne products, helping to surge its popularity.
It has also gained a reputation for providing anti-ageing benefits and reducing the appearance of scars, dark spots, and blemishes on the skin. It is also not expensive, especially when compared to other products that make similar claims.
But how did we get here? Judging by the market’s accolades and the widely positive word of mouth that surrounds Differin, consumers have determined that this product is helpful in treating certain skin conditions, including acne. But, what about the animals who were used to test its efficacy and potential harm to humans? Weren’t they treated cruelly?
Even if Differin was never tested on a single animal, it is a retinoid. Retinoid is an umbrella term for describing substances that contain retinol a vitamin A derivative. Retinoids bind to specific receptors in the skin called retinoid receptors.
Research into these substances didn’t stop upon the discovery of their potential benefits to acne sufferers. On the contrary, the extraordinary potential of retinoids is the basis of ongoing and extensive research today. And, some of that research is still being done on animals.
Consumers are right to be concerned about the treatment of animals. But those concerns often have to play second fiddle to the reality that animals play a vital role in sustaining humanity. Should Cornell University be considered as somehow immoral for researching the “irrefutable pharmacological potential of retinoids for treating cancers, diabetes, and other disorders” because they use mice as part of their research?
Should potentially life-preserving research be discontinued by government decree to preserve animal rights?
It is accurate and fair to say that the health and well-being of some animals were sacrificed to bring Differin to market in a manner that is safe for humans. Some of that research, though done in the past, manifested results that by any measure could be considered cruel.
Pumping an animal full of a retinoid cocktail until its offspring develop congenital abnormalities like shrunken eyes or extra ribs is certainly not a great example of humane treatment.
The Bottom Line
Taken as a whole, Differin is not cruelty-free. Its origins as a chemical that was tested extensively on lab animals are undeniable, and some animal testing of similar chemicals continues today.
Its value as a treatment option for acne suffers is also without debate. And, taken in a wider sense, retinoids like Differin hold a remarkable amount of potential for treating other diseases and disorders. But Differin’s success comes with a price: It is sold in markets overseas that require it to be tested on animals.
This duality is often inherent in medical research and pre-market testing of cosmetics and other consumer products. That means that cosmetic consumers have decisions to make about how they view the products they purchase in the context of not just their lives but the lives of everyone else-and even the animals that share our planet with us.
Animal research is a tool that some say continues to allow humanity to strive for progress, but others say that we pay too much of a price when we make use of it.
If you’re interested in using Differin, and you’re committed to maintaining the ideals of PETA, you should look elsewhere for skincare products or acne treatment. You may end up feeling conflicted if you develop a disease or disorder that could be treated by a retinoid.
This is information that if cruelty-free is important to you, then you should consider all the facts about whatever products you use.