The plastic microbeads phase out in Personal Care
In this article, I will answer questions that will help to better understand what microplastics and plastic microbeads are, where they can be found, especially in Personal Care products, why the industry is phasing them out and what the alternatives are.
What are microplastics and plastic microbeads?
Microplastics can be defined as small particles, with a dimension typically between 5mm and 100-nm, made of solid particles composed of polymers, sometimes coupled with functional additives or other substances. They are characterised by their synthetic nature and by their non-biodegradable profile or with a water solubility below 2 g/L2,3. They vary in shapes, density and sizes and can be found as beads, fragments, pellets, film, foam, and fibres.
Depending on their application, microplastics can be divided into two types. Primary microplastics can be considered as an ingredient intentionally added into products. Their small shape is a key attribute for the role that is given to them. A few examples are the pellets being largely used in the world to develop larger pieces of plastic objects or plastic microbeads used in Personal Care products. Secondary microplastics are generated through the erosion, exposure or abrasion or larger pieces of plastics. Many of you will be familiar with fragments of plastic found in the ocean, but we rarely think about car tyre abrasion on the roads or clothes fibres released into water after washing4.
Why are plastic microbeads used in cosmetic products?
Plastic microbeads have been widely used in cosmetic products for their abrasive properties, benefiting from their shape and solid characteristics that allow a good exfoliation without damaging the skin. This explains why the use of plastic microbeads is sometimes restricted to exfoliating products, but they are much more than that. According to ‘Beat the Microbeads’, there are more than 500 microplastic ingredients used in Personal Care products, with many of them being ingredients that you would never imagine being included in your cosmetic products5.
Depending on their attributes and characteristics, plastic microbeads can be used as exfoliants, but also as opacifiers, bulking agents, viscosity agents, skin conditioners, sensory enhancers or for the controlled release of active ingredients. As a result of the numerous benefits they offer, they can be found in many applications like soaps, facial and body scrubs, toothpastes, sunscreens, nail polishes, deodorants, facial or body creams and lotions, without forgetting make-up products including lipsticks, eyeliners, mascaras, foundations, eyeshadows and many more.
To give a greater idea of the amount plastic microbeads used in personal care, let’s look back at what I’ve shared in my previous article ‘Sustainability without compromise with ChromaPur CV2 and CV7’; ‘Plastic Soup Foundation’ evaluated more than 7,500 cosmetic products from some leading brands and only 13% of them did not contain plastic microbeads6. It shows how widely used they are and how much they are present in our bathrooms.
Why should plastic microbeads be banned?
We don’t necessarily think about it, but a large proportion of the plastic microbeads contained in our Personal Care products end up in our wastewater systems after being washed off. As microplastics and plastic microbeads vary in size and can be very small, some of them can’t be filtered through the treatment system and directly end up in our oceans, lakes, and rivers. ‘Environmental Science & Technology’ magazine highlighted this phenomenon, discovering that of the 808 billion plastic microbeads drained from US households each day, 8 billion of them are being directly released into the environment7.
Don’t forget, one of the main characteristics of microplastics is that they are not biodegradable. They accumulate and become a threat to aquatic life and eco system. It has been proven that aquatic flora is very sensitive to plastic pollution, with an increasing chance from 4 to 89% of coral to contact diseases if they are in contact with it8. Wildlife is not spared as they tend to be harmed when ingesting microplastics, mistaking them for food. Zooplanktons, fishes, mussels, and other sea animals eat microplastics that then enter into the marine food chain and might arrive at our plate9.
Although there is a lack of scientific evidence of the impact of microplastics on human safety, there is a rising concern. It is exacerbated by recent research that demonstrates the risk associated with microplastics for human health, especially when they become attached to other toxic components10.
Are plastic microbeads still used in Personal Care products?
Even if we can still find plastic microbeads in our cosmetic products nowadays, the cosmetic industry is going in the right direction, with some brands and governments banning microplastics. Since plastic pollution has been brought to light, some companies have voluntary begun a phase-out of plastic microbeads from their products11. More commitments have followed with the introduction of regulations like the Microbead-Free Waters Act or the restriction proposals shared by European Chemical Agency (ECHA) that are likely to be voted in by the European Commission in 202312,13.
. Beat the Microbead websiteEfforts need to continue. At a global scale, the establishment of a consistent definition for microplastics could help to get rid of some inconsistencies that can be found in existing initiatives that favour plastic microbeads phase-out. As consumers, we can be careful about products we buy, making sure no plastic microbeads are contained. More detail on the typical plastic microbeads used in cosmetic products can be found in the
What are the alternatives? Are they sustainable?
Numerous natural alternatives have started to flourish on the market in the last few years. Salt, sugar, and coffee grounds are some of the solutions offered to replace exfoliating plastic microbeads. Starches made from rice, corn, tapioca, but also silica, cellulose and clays are other options that offer similar properties to plastic microbeads. However they are not necessarily all equal. While appealing to consumers thanks to their natural and biodegradable profile, their sourcing and manufacture are not always sustainable.
At Croda, we wanted to contribute to this positive change, so we recently introduced ChromaPurTM CV2 & CV7 (Cellulose) to the beauty industry, two powders with a unique surface structure and morphology. Using wood pulp obtained from sustainably and locally harvested Black Spruce, which normally would have been disposed of and made from an environmentally friendly process, they provide a sustainable and functional alternative to plastic microbeads in skin care and colour cosmetics applications.
Learn more about ChromaPur CV2 and CV7
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What to think?
Microplastics are a large part of our lives, present in so many applications having been at the centre of product developments for numerous years. It is not easy to face this reality about their sustainable impact and to tackle it. But looking more in detail about their characteristics, properties, where they are being used and what for, allows stakeholders and consumers to push for the development of sustainable alternatives.
Public scrutiny, upcoming restrictions, more research on the impact of microplastics on marine and human lives, in addition to local and global initiatives will help to move on in the right direction.
1. Metzler, D., Simbeck, S., Microplastics: Global buzz and concern spur increased regulation, Haley Aldrich, 28 April 2022.
2. Dr Lebreux, F., Future Restriction of Microplastics in Cosmetic Prodcuts, Biorius
3. ECHA’s Restriction Proposal for the Ban of Microplastics, Intertek, March 2021
4. Microplastics, Marine Debris Program, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
5. Almost 9 in 10 products from major cosmetics brand contain microplastics, Plastic Soup Foundation, April 2022
6. Rochman, C., Kross, S., Armstrong, J., Bogan, M., Darling, E., Green S., Smyth, A., Verissimo, D., Scientific Evidence Supports a Ban on Microbeads, Environmental Science & Technology, 2015
7. Friedlander, B., Oceanic plastic trash conveys disease to coral reefs, Cornell Chronicle, January 2018
8. Barrett, T., Microplastic pollution ‘number one threat’ to humankind, Environmental Journal, February 2019
9. Microplastics in Skincare Products, Eucerin
10. Sohngen, T., Th Tiny Microbeads in Soap May Pose a Big Environmental Problem, Global Citizen, September 2017
11. All about Plastic Microbeads, Cosmetics Europe
12. Microplastiques, European Chemicals Agency
Discover how our high quality and unique cellulose powders offer a sustainable and functional alternative to plastic microbeads
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