Plastic microbeads are defined as any intentionally added, water insoluble, solid plastic particles (5 mm or less in size) used to exfoliate or cleanse in rinse-off personal care products.
Why are plastic microbeads used in cosmetics and personal care products?
Historically, manufacturers have added plastic microbeads to wash-off personal care cleansing products because of their safe and effective exfoliating properties—these help remove dry, dead cells from the surface of the skin as well as help unclog pores. Many consumers value plastic microbeads for their ability to produce clean, smooth skin.
What is the concern over plastic microbeads?
There is concern that the quantities of plastic litter in our marine environment can harm eco-systems and, in particular, microplastic particles that enter the marine environment can be consumed by sea-life. Plastic microbeads are one type of microplastic that are said to contribute to this problem. It must be noted that plastic microbeads from cosmetic and personal care products represent a very small potential contribution to the overall marine microplastic litter. A study conducted in 2012 estimated the potential contribution of the European cosmetics and personal care sector to be between 0.1 % and 1.5 % of the total amount to aquatic plastic litter. However, this contribution has reduced significantly between 2012 and 2015 as a result of the industry’s voluntary commitments.
What actions has the cosmetics industry taken on plastic microbeads?
Many companies that previously used plastic microbeads are looking to replace them, or have already done so, with alternatives including those made from beeswax, rice bran wax, jojoba waxes, starches derived from corn, tapioca and carnauba, seaweed, silica, clay and other natural compounds.
In October 2015, Cosmetics Europe recommended to its members to discontinue, by 2020, the use of synthetic, solid, plastic particles (microbeads) used for exfoliating and cleansing, that are non-biodegradable in the aquatic environment; this was despite the extremely small role they play in micro plastic litter. This recommendation built on voluntary initiatives already taken by individual member companies of Cosmetics Europe.
A Cosmetics Europe survey, conducted in 2016, and covering use during 2015, assessed the effectiveness of these industry voluntary actions. The Cosmetics Europe membership survey found a rapid and substantial 82% reduction in the use of plastic microbeads for exfoliating and cleansing purposes in wash-off cosmetic and personal care products when comparing use in 2012* with use in 2015.
In 2018, the strength and effectiveness of the Cosmetics Europe recommendation and the industry voluntary action were re-confirmed. New data gathered by Cosmetics Europe in 2018 shows that 97.6% of plastic microbeads used for exfoliating and cleansing purposes in wash-off cosmetic and personal care products were phased out between 2012* and 2017.
As part of the industry’s commitment to a more sustainable future, we continue to work with various stakeholders to find real solutions to plastic debris in waterways, for the benefit of our consumers and the marine environment we all share.
* Gouin et al, 2015, “Use of Micro-Plastic Beads in Cosmetic Products in Europe and Their Estimated Emission to the North Sea Environment” found that in 2012 4360 tons were used.
Do cosmetics and personal care products contain plastic ingredients besides microbeads?
Other than the plastic microbeads used for cleansing and exfoliating purposes, no ingredient used in cosmetics and personal care products has been associated with marine plastic litter.
The vast majority of ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products are in the form of liquids or waxes, not solid particles. Unless an ingredient is in a solid form, it is not plastic and will therefore not contribute to marine plastic litter. Importantly, you can't determine whether cosmetic or personal care products contain plastic just by looking for an ingredient name on the label: Ingredients sharing the same name may be used as solid particles in one product or as a liquid in another. Polyethylene is an example of such an ingredient that can be used as a solid plastic or a liquid polymer. The names on the label do not mean they are plastic.
What are the sources of microplastic litter?
A number of studies have identified different sources of marine litter and their relative contributions. Moreover, a very significant proportion of microplastic litter can be effectively removed from water by wastewater treatment plants. In studies conducted in Europe and the U.S., treatment facilities were found to remove 99 percent of microplastic particles.
A report* prepared for the European Commission includes a chart showing different sources of microplastic litter and their relative contributions.
This chart clearly shows that most plastic litter comes from land-based sources of larger plastic items. All of these will eventually break up, adding to the micro plastic burden of the marine environment.
What is a polymer and does it contribute to microplastic litter?
You may hear that products containing 'polymers' are sources of microplastic litter, but that is misleading. Polymers exist in many forms, including solids, liquids and waxes. The same polymer may be used as a liquid in one product and a solid in another. Plastics are an example of solid, man-made materials made from polymers but while all plastics are polymers, not all polymers are plastics. For example, starch, protein and DNA are solid polymers but they are not plastic.
The vast majority of polymer ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products are not plastics but are in liquid or other form that cannot become microplastic litter. Polymers provide important benefits in products, such as making products water-resistant or longer-lasting.
What is glitter made from?
Glitter is often used for visual effects in cosmetic products. Such glitter effects are achieved in a number of ways.
Some glitter is made by fixing colours between thin layers of plastic. These glitters would be classed as a plastic. If these types of glitters are used in rinse-off cosmetic products they will be covered by the UK ban on plastic microbeads.
However not all substances that provide a glittery effect are based on plastic. Some glittering effects are provided by coloured mica, which is a naturally mined mineral. Other glitters are minerals based on silica (a constituent of sand) mixed or coated with colours.
Source: With thanks to the Personal Care Products Council and Cosmetics Europe for this information.
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