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Why we need to say goodbye to plastic microbeads in cosmetics

Everyone knows plastics contribute to turning our oceans into a big plastic soup. But have you heard of microplastics? Microplastics are present in some cosmetics and personal care products, often as plastic microbeads. Here’s why it’s important to find natural alternatives to replace them.

Person picking up plastic items on beach
Photo by: Daria Shevtsova

The environmental damages of plastics are known nearly to all. We have been overwhelmed with images of polluted oceans and marine animals swimming in plastic, if not worse. The fight against plastic pollution is more present than ever on political agendas. The EU set a European strategy for plastics in a circular economy in January last year, and several countries such as Kenya, Mali, Ethiopia, Scotland, Hong Kong or Indonesia have either banned or imposed taxes on plastic bags.

Actors from the private sector seem to take their part of responsibility too: in October 2018, over 250 organisations responsible for 20% of the worldwide production of plastic packaging signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They commit to strive towards more circularity in plastic packaging and to promote its reuse and recycling (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2018).

Plastic caps are sorted for recycling
Photo by: Krizjohn Rosales

The invisible enemy turning oceans into plastic soup: Microplastics

But an important part of the fight against plastic pollution involves facing an invisible and challenging enemy. Besides plastic bags, straws and bottles, a substantial amount of the plastic pollution actually comes from microplastics. Microplastics are defined as plastic particles with a diameter inferior to 5mm (National Geographic, 2018). They can take the form of fibres, microbeads, fragments, nurdles or foam, and come from various sources such as deteriorating plastic items, clothing fibers or microplastics found in cosmetics and personal care products (Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, 2016; Law & Thompson, 2014).

Plastics often end up polluting seas and rivers
Photo by: Brian Yurasits

Like other larger plastic items, microplastics often end up in the seas and rivers, but contrary to them, collection, recycling and clean-up of microplastics is not possible due to their small size (Kentin, 2018). Recently, scientists have discovered over 500,000 microplastic particles per square meter in the River Tame (The Guardian, 2018). Microplastics either stagnate in deep sea, where they let out toxins, or they make their way into the food chain when ingested by small marine animals due to their small size (Law & Thompson, 2014).

Whether it is via the food chain or via water circuits, microplastics are ingested by humans, as a study has evidenced the presence of microplastics in human stools (The Guardian, 2018). Effects of microplastics on human health are for now unknown as they are still being investigated.

Researchers are focusing on their possible impact on the human digestive system, as it has been found that microplastics negatively affect the digestive system of birds (The Guardian, 2018).

Microplastics in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products

Microplastics are found in cosmetics and personal care products under different forms but frequently as plastic microbeads, i.e. round plastic particles. They are included in formulations because of their exfoliating and polishing effects (Amec Foster Wheeler, 2017).

Person washing hands with a soap containing plastic microbeads
Photo by: Burst

The law distinguishes between two types of cosmetic and personal care products containing microplastics: rinse-off products and non-rinse-off products (Baltic Ban, 2018). Toothpaste, shower soap, face wash, body scrub, shampoo and conditioner are considered as rinse-off products, while makeup, sunscreen, nail polish, lotion and sunscreen are categorised as non-rinse-off products. As rinse-off products inevitably end up in water, they are in the crosshairs of legislative authorities aiming to reduce plastic pollution. Non-rinse-off products remain largely non targeted in legislation, even though some of them contain microplastics as well.

The US Microbead-Free-Waters Act came into force back in 2017, prohibiting the production of rinse-off cosmetic products containing plastic microbeads (ChemSafetyPRO, 2017). Following this, the UK ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetics was enforced in early 2018 (The Guardian, 2018). In July 2018, the government of Sweden established a ban of microplastics in rinse-off products (KEMI, 2018). Concurrently to this, several personal care companies have decided to replace plastic microbeads in their product formulations by natural alternatives, such as LUSH (LUSH, 2017).

Spoon containing salt, a natural alternative to plastic microbeads in cosmetics
Photo by: Jason Tuinstra

Natural Alternatives to Plastic Microbeads in Cosmetics

Exfoliation is great for the skin. Using exfoliating products removes dead skin cells, leading to a brighter skin, to an increased production of collagen, and to a better absorption of skincare, such as moisturisers (Prospector, 2019). There are two types of exfoliation: mechanical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation. Chemical exfoliation works/ via the action of acids like alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) or lactic acids. Mechanical exfoliation requires the use of an abrasive material, such as plastic microbeads (Ibid).

The good news is, there exist plenty of natural alternatives to plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products. The exfoliating role of plastic microbeads can be taken over by natural components such as sugar, salt, jojoba beads, grounded oats, bamboo spears, or even coffee flour. On top of doing a very good job as mechanical exfoliating agents, natural particles are biodegradable and do not contribute to marine pollution. Natural options for chemical exfoliation exist as well: milk and fruit powders are great substitutes to synthetic exfoliants (School of natural skincare, 2018).

When choosing the right personal care products and cosmetics, it’s important to pick formulations that are great for health, but also some that are great for the environment.


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