Microplastics in cosmetics

Consumers have long been aware of this issue, and have become accustomed to avoiding plastic waste, such as plastic bags and PET bottles as far as possible, or to separating waste so that it can be returned to the raw materials cycle in order to help protect the environment. What people are less aware of is that our daily hygiene routine causes plastic to flow from our bathroom sinks into the waste water system, the ground water and finally, the oceans, without us even noticing it. The main culprit here is microplastic, which cosmetics manufacturers are still using in their products even now. They cannot be broken down, and simply remain in the environment indefinitely. As a result, the plastic can be consumed by the organisms in the ocean and end up in the human body again through the food chain.
However, cosmetics play a fairly minor role in the pollution of the oceans with microplastics, as a study by the Fraunhofer Institute of Environment, Safety and Energy Technology on the issue of plastics in the environment shows. 

What are microplastics in cosmetics?

The term microplastics generally refers to plastic particles that are smaller than 5 mm, which are added to cosmetic, skin care and cleaning products. This definition originates from the United Nations Environment Programme, and it corresponds to that of the German Federal Environmental Agency. There is a distinction between primary and secondary microplastics. Secondary microplastics result from the decomposition of larger pieces of plastic, whereas primary microplastics are added during the manufacturing process. According to a study for the German Federal Environmental Agency , secondary microplastics are the most significant source of microplastics in the oceans in terms of quantity.

Special case – liquid plastics

Liquid plastics differ from solid microplastic particles in terms of their size and shape, as well as their physicochemical properties. They are even smaller than microplastics. They are synthetic polymers in liquid or dissolved form. Dissolved polymers are used in hair styling and makeup products, for example. These water-soluble polymers are not found in the products as solid particles, therefore they do not count as microplastics in the sense of the definition. Anyone who wants to prevent plastic in the oceans and the food chain should do without these products entirely. Consumers need to research this and act in a targeted manner.

Why are microplastics used in cosmetics at all?

The abrasives in exfoliating products are a classic example of microplastics. They are also used in toothpaste, although this is now mostly a thing of the past. However, microplastics and synthetic polymers also have other functions in cosmetic products, for example, as fillers, opacifiers and film-building agents. They are used to improve the glow, make the products easier to apply, support the care and protective effects of the products as a film-building agent, and increase the UV protection. The cosmetics manufacturers have voluntarily committed to eliminating all abrasive agents from their products by 2020.

How harmful are microplastics in cosmetics?

Let us begin on a positive note: The German Federal Institute of Risk Assessment (BfR) considers a health risk to human beings caused by microplastics in cosmetics to be "unlikely". The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also considers it to be "unlikely" that microplastics could pose a health risk to human beings. Possible modes of action of microplastics in the human body are currently the subject of various research projects.
According to the German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND e.V.), the decomposition channels and environmental impact of microplastics and synthetic polymers on land and the oceans have not yet been clarified. The minute plastic particles can be consumed by the organisms in the ocean and end up in the human body again through the food chain. Microplastics have already been found in seals, fish, shells and smaller marine life. 

How widespread are microplastics in cosmetics?

Microplastics are on the decline in cosmetic products: In mid-2014, researchers introduced organic wax particles as an alternative to the microplastic beads that were being used in cosmetics. Another alternative material is polylactide. Since then, the use of microplastics in cosmetics has decreased substantially. A survey published in May 2018 by the European umbrella association of the cosmetic industry, Cosmetics Europe, on the amount of solid, non-biodegradable plastic particles found in wash-off cosmetics due to their cleansing and exfoliating effects between 2012 and 2017 indicates a reduction by 97 percent (4,250 tons). According to the recommendation by Cosmetics Europe, all wash-off cosmetics placed on the market in 2020 for exfoliating and cleansing purposes should be free of plastic particles. However, the problem of liquid polymers remains.

How can microplastics or liquid polymers be recognised in cosmetics?

As is so often the case, this problem is not mentioned by name. No manufacturer indicates on the packaging that the products contain liquid polymers or microplastics. Nevertheless, they must be identified. The BUND lists the liquid polymers and microplastics most frequently used in cosmetics in its shopping guide. They are hidden behind the following descriptions and abbreviations: Polyethylene PE, Polypropylene PP, Polyethylene terephthalate PET, Nylon 12, Nylon 6, Polyurethane PUR, Acrylate Copolymer AC, Acrylate Crosspolymer ACS, Polyacrylate PA, Polymethyl methacrylate PMMA, Polystyrene PS, Polyquaternium PQ.

Which cosmetics contain no microplastics?

As already mentioned, in the personal hygiene industry, there are forerunners in the matter of environmental protection, who place great importance on preventing plastic particles from ending up in the ocean through their products. For example, Sebapharma consistently refrains from using microplastics in any of the sebamed products. 

If you would like to know what measures are implemented by Sebapharma in order to protect the environment, read the article "sebamed – waste avoidance and recycling