Microplastics & cosmetics
Plastic isn’t exactly fantastic – even for cosmetics!
About Plastic in general, a bit of history
On the scale of global human evolution, plastics made their appearance relatively recently, with the appearance of bakelite in 1907 and PVC in 1924, for example. Most of the plastics developed in the 20th century were petrochemicals – produced from refined fractions of petroleum.
From the 1950s onwards, with the advent of « mass » consumption and a diversified range of plastics, these materials became part of our daily lives… to the point of saturation, endangering our health, that of animals and the planet.
To illustrate this point, let’s take a closer look at microplastic pollution.
credit: Unsplash. Soren.Funk
What exactly are microplastics?
Definition: microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, generally measuring less than 5 millimeters.
Microplastics usually fall into two categories:
Primary microplastics = synthesized microplastics intentionally added to products (this part concerns also the formulation of cosmetic products, for example).
Secondary microplastics = microplastics derived from the degradation of larger plastic wastes (this part also concerns cosmetics packaging, for example).
The specific case of microplastics in cosmetics
Added microplastics components are still widely present in beauty products today in the form of synthetic polymers or microbeads. Their functions are manifold: they can act as exfoliating agents (microbeads), film-formers (e.g. silicones, also known as « liquid plastics »), viscosity regulators, binders, etc…
Concerning « microbead » ingredients, which can still be found as exfoliants in scrubs, shower gels and other « rinse-off products », can account for up to 10% of the product’s total weight* – which corresponds to several thousand microbeads per gram of product!
Here are just a few of the ingredients/INCIs in beauty product considered as microplastics and « liquid plastics » such as silicones, for instance
• Acrylates Co-, Crosspolymer (AC, ACS)
• Polyamides (PA, Nylon)
• Polyacrylates (PA)
• Polymethyl Methacrylate (PMMA)
• Polyquaternium (PQ)
• Polyethylene (PE)
• Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)*
• Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
• Polypropylene (PP)
• Polypropylene Glycol (PPG)*
• Polystyrene (PS)
• Polyurethane (PUR)
And in the «liquid plastics» category we will find the whole range of silicone-based ingredients, in all their different types and forms, like for example
–Cyclo-, Di-, Amodi-, Tri-, Methicone
–Cyclotetra-, Cyclopenta-, Cyclohexasiloxane
– Dimethiconol –Di-, Tri-, Siloxane , Silsesquioxane
Microplastics – still way too common in beauty products today
While alternatives do exist, added microplastics are still very much present, as recently highlighted once again by the Rethink Plastic collective, a collective of some twenty ONGs alerting to the problem of microplastics in cosmetics.
Proof: the Plastic Soup Foundation study
In its study and project « Beat the Microbead », the Dutch association Plastic Soup Foundation has carried out a study on microplastic ingredients in cosmetics, analyzing the products of conventional « classic » brands from European top brands: L’Oréal, Nivea, Dove, Gilette and Rexona.
The full study is available on their website. Product analyses show that 9 out of 10 analyzed beauty products still contain these notorious microplastics.
Another example: those beautiful make-up glitters…. ah gee, is that microplastic too?
Most of the time, the glitter we love for to apply for our very festive parties or even use in children’s make-up is simply plastic, in form of microparticles, made from a mixture of aluminum and plastic components.
Especially when it comes to glitter products from the « conventional » cosmetics sector – plastic microparticles are not allowed in certified natural and organic cosmetics, for example. But alternatives have been available for some years now: « biodegradable » sequins, and even the Rio Carnival is turning its back on microplastics and is getting excited about these new, more environmentally-friendly sequins…
What about the health impact of microplastics?
Pollution & microplastics – everyone is concerned, in the end
Beyond the presence of microplastics as added cosmetic ingredients, these microplastic particles also come from general plastic pollution: particles of various plastics, which pass through the filters of sewage treatment plants (as they are too small to be properly filtered) and then end up in the oceans and continental waters in very large quantities. Microplastic-based pollution has already been traced in various studies throughout our immediate environment. In our oceans, soils, animals and even… in our stomachs, lungs and even our hearts.
A study from 2022 also revealed that traces of these microplastics have even been found in human blood. The study, published in Environment International, analyzed blood samples from 22 anonymous donors, all healthy volunteers, and found microplastics in 17 of them.
« For the first time, we have been able to detect and quantify » such microplastics in human blood, said Dick Vethaak, an ecotoxicologist at the Free University of Amsterdam. « This is proof that we have plastics in our bodies – and we shouldn’t, » he told AFP, deeming further research on the possible health impact necessary. According to the study, the microplastics detected could have entered the body via many routes, from air, water or food, to cosmetic products. « It is scientifically plausible that plastic particles can be transported to organs via the bloodstream », add the authors.
The big question is what happens inside our bodies, » stresses Professor Dick Vethaak. Are the particles retained in the body? Are they transported to certain organs, can they cross the blood-brain barrier? And are these levels high enough to trigger the disease? We urgently need to fund further research so we can find out. »
Pregnant women are also affected
The placenta is also contaminated by microplastics, reveals an Italian study published in the International Environment journal in 2021. This could affect the health of unborn babies, who are particularly sensitive to endocrine disruptors.
« As for the source of these microplastics, the researchers suggest two possible routes: the dietary route, as these particles are present in both food and water, and the respiratory route, as microplastics are also abundant in the air we breathe. The latter is also a source of fine particles, also found in the placenta. »
And what about animals & the environment?
The choice of products we buy and use on a daily basis, whether for cosmetics or any other products (ingredients, packaging and everyday products) never only concerns our very own, narrow personal surroundings – the circle of our personnel health, and the health of our children – but always affects the entire system, as well…
And sooner or later, these consumer choices come back to us « like a boomerang effect » with the accumulation of chemical pollution in the oceans, which then finds its way onto our plates – for those of us who aren’t vegan. Microplastics are already widely present in the environment, affecting flora and fauna, as numerous studies attest.
In an article in Le Monde (french newspaper) published on the 29th of April 2021 entitled « Dans les océans, la pollution chimique menace toute la chaîne alimentaire » (In the oceans, chemical pollution threatens the entire food chain), scientists detail the food chain problem, for example:
« Fertilizers, pesticides, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, drug residues, thousands of tons of sunscreen and plastic in all its forms, not to mention sediments laden with various chemicals, juxtapose or synthesize their deleterious effects. The report by the International Pollutant Elimination Network notes that human discharges impact all ocean life, from plankton to birds. Over two hundred of these studies are summarized in a report on Aquatic Pollutants in Oceans and Fisheries, published on Tuesday April 27. The survey was carried out for the International Pollutant Elimination Network (IPEN), which brings together over 600 NGOs in more than 120 countries, with the Australian organization for a toxics-free future (National Toxics Network, NTN). »
What is the current status of legislation concerning « added » microplastics in cosmetics?
In Europe, the restriction or ban on microplastics in cosmetics is not governed by the cosmetics regulation (1223/2009 EC) but regulated independently in the various countries.
This restriction only applies to microplastics intentionally added to products intended for rinsing, e.g. in France, where the Biodiversity Act of 2018 bans plastic microbeads from « rinsed cosmetics » (shower gels, peels, shampoos, etc.) used for cleansing or exfoliation. This ban therefore only covers a fraction of the microplastic problem.Other countries around the world have introduced similar restrictions (USA, Canada, India, Korea…). But harmonization of legislation at European, and even international, level is still some way off.
At 7 kg of plastic discarded every minute because of cosmetics, the situation is quite dramatic and needs to be tackled urgently…
The Rethink Plastic Alliance, which brings together some twenty environmental associations (Plastic Soup Foundation, No Plastic in my sea, Client Earth and Surfrider), highlights the « negative and irreversible damage to our ecosystems » and the risk to human health. « In Europe alone, 7 kg of plastics from cosmetics are released into the environment every minute ».
A particularly slow ban & a transition phase … mostly in favor of the global plastic industry and manufacturers
On March 1, 2023, the European expert committee that was to decide on the restriction of « intentionally added » microplastics under the Reach regulation postponed its vote. This has also prompted reactions from brands committed to speeding up the process of banning microplastics. A group of around twenty brands and environmental ONGs, led by Weleda, Beauty Kitchen and Naïf, has sent an open letter to the European Commission calling for a faster and more comprehensive ban on microplastics in cosmetics.
Under the current proposal for a ban on microplastics in cosmetics (which, incidentally, represent only one aspect of this global pollution), transition periods would vary from four years for rinse-off products to 12 years for certain make-up products. Encapsulated fragrances would benefit from five to eight years, and leave-on cosmetics would have six years to adapt.
These are not reassuring figures
Of course, the cosmetics sector is not solely responsible for microplastic pollution, but the cosmetic industry is also part of the problem. The industry as a whole therefore needs to accelerate the process of change. It’s also up to us, as informed and enlightened consumers, to support all those brands that have been committed to environmental protection from the outset, and not just the ones who hopped on the wagon recently, under the greenwashing flag.
And what about plastic packaging?
Again, this aspect doesn’t only concern the cosmetics sector, but the cosmetic industry is part of the problem… and will therefore also have to be part of the solutions.
According to the OECD, global plastic waste is set to almost triple by 2060
At current rates, the amount of plastic waste produced worldwide will triple by 2060, with around half ending up in landfill and less than a fifth being recycled, according to a new OECD report (…) Even with aggressive measures to reduce demand and improve efficiency, plastic production would almost double in less than 40 years, the organization projects. However, such globally coordinated policies could significantly increase the share of future plastic waste recycled, from 12% to 40%.(…) Since the 1950s, some 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced, over 60% of which ended up in landfill, or was burnt or dumped directly into rivers and oceans.
credit : Unsplash. Alexander.Grey
How to avoid microplastics in beauty products
*Choose certified natural and organic cosmetics, as added microplastics are not authorized by the different labels.
* Read the labels and formulation of your products using the site’s INCI search to rule out microplastics,
* On the packaging side: encourage the initiatives of brands that make a real commitment in these directions, such as Überwood and Dr. Bronner’s. Ask your favorite brands – even those in the organic sector – the « tough questions » to find out what they have planned to speed up the process of finding alternatives to plastic packaging.
*Invite the « zero waste » mouvement into your bathroom; so many products now exist in solid versions, it’s up to you to find the brand or product that suits you. As long as the solid version is not certified organic, continue to check its composition, as some brands still contain too many controversial ingredients.
* Focus on the essentials: do we really need 4 different creams, with their promise of miraculous ingredients, when a good night’s sleep, a real moment of relaxation, a great surfing session or a laugh shared with girlfriends, releasing tons of endorphins… will give us that instant « healthy glow » effect envied by the world’s best cosmetic formulas? Even certified organic creams? In short, degrowth makes sense, even in the bathroom… and can also turn into a fun process.
As far as other everyday products are concerned, the web is full of alternatives and tips on how to get as far away as possible from our current plastic-laden lifestyle.
And even if the biggest lever remains the industrial sector, our daily spending choices remain a truly crucial lever, which can also inspire those around us to do the same. We can’t repeat it often enough: the choice of our everyday consumer products matters… at every level…
« Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want. » (Anna Lappe)