China's cosmetics industry will enter uncharted waters at the end of the month when the rules requiring live animal testing will be relaxed for certain products.
Although the move has won applause from animal rights groups and industry insiders, some laboratories are expected to struggle to adapt.
A regulation released in December by the China Food and Drug Administration stated that, from June 30, domestically manufactured "non-specialised cosmetics" - including shampoo, soap, nail products and some skincare products - can be sold even if they haven't been tested on animals.
The change follows blanket bans on animal-based testing in a number of countries and regions, including the European Union, India and Israel. But insiders say the success of the move is contingent on a number of factors, such as cost and the availability of the appropriate technology and scientific expertise.
Animal rights groups have hailed the move as a major step forward in the push for humane testing in Chinese laboratories. The lifting of the requirement is also expected to boost exports to the European Union, the world's largest cosmetics market, which banned the sale of products developed via animal testing in March 2013.
"It will be a very good thing for domestic manufacturers in China, because it will enable them to sell their products in the EU, as long as no new testing has been done for their products since March 11, 2013," said Troy Seidle, director of the Research and Toxicological Department with the United States-based Humane Society International.
However, experts said China still has a long way to go before it can match international standards in the use of in vitro methods - tests conducted on cells grown in petri dishes or test tubes - and other alternative methods. "It is not simply a shift in testing methods from animals to in vitro methods. There is still much more work to be done at the infrastructure level and in technological standards," said Cheng Shujun, director of the Toxicology Department with the Technology Center at the Guangdong Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau.
Cheng said a total ban on animal testing would be premature, in part because in vitro testing procedures are very demanding in terms of ground research. "We are not totally opposed to certain testing methods. We can only try our best to catch up," he said. Zhang Quanshun, a senior scientist and programme manager with the Institute for In Vitro Sciences in the United States, said it could take a long time for Chinese laboratories to change the way they conduct research. "Undoubtedly, the country's cosmetics industry has undergone robust growth, yet in terms of testing methods and technology, it still lags far behind," he said.
According to Zhang, only two Chinese cosmetics companies have the ability to produce 3D cultures - artificially created environments that allow cells to grow and interact with the environment in all three dimensions - for testing, while in the US there is a whole industry chain. "After all, the priority is to guarantee the safety of consumers," he said.
A late start
Compared with European countries and the United States, China had a late start in the development of in vitro methods, and the country's scientists only started researching the procedures about a decade ago, according to Cheng, who said very few scientists conducted research into alternative testing in the early part of the century.