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Plastic microbeads

ou may have read reports in the media about the use of very small plastic beads (often referred to as plastic microbeads) in cosmetic products, how they can affect the environment and proposed action by the UK Government.

The topic of small plastic debris particles in the marine environment and waterways has become an issue of increasing public debate, and CTPA would like to provide an assurance that the cosmetics industry is committed to tackling this issue.

Responsible industry action

While the contribution from plastic microbeads in cosmetic products to the total environmental load is likely to be very small, the cosmetics industry is taking action ahead of any proposed legislative ban as part of its commitment to its customers' safety and environmental responsibility.

The European personal care association, Cosmetics Europe, has issued the following recommendation regarding the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products where those microbeads are likely to enter waterways and ultimately the marine environment:
In view of the public concerns expressed over plastic debris in the marine environment, and given the availability of alternative materials, Cosmetics Europe recommends its membership to discontinue, in wash-off cosmetic products placed on the market as of 2020: The use of synthetic, solid plastic particles used for exfoliating and cleansing that are non-biodegradable in the marine environment.

This initiative is being supported by the CTPA and its members, and companies are working to reformulate as necessary. We believe that this course of action will have an impact far more quickly than waiting for any legislative ban. Formulations will take some time to change and this is not always an easy task. Importantly, all products must continue to be safe as required by strict European safety laws. The date for final voluntary removal is stated as 2020, but the majority of use is likely to be discontinued long before then.

The UK cosmetics industry has been working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on this issue and is not opposing any proposed UK ban on the solid plastic microbeads that have been found to enter waterways. Whilst voluntary action will have taken effect earlier, a ban will apply equally to imported cosmetics.

What are plastic microbeads?

The micro-size plastic present in the environment originates from a variety of sources, primarily from the breakdown of larger plastics (e.g. disintegration of plastic waste in marine waters, breakdown of synthetic clothing during machine washing) and not from microbeads from cosmetics. All sources of plastic waste have to be adequately identified and addressed in order to tackle the problem properly.

Plastic in the context of microbeads is a synthetic material (called polyethylene) that can be processed into various solid forms (in the case of microbeads, into small spheres) which then retain their defined shape during their use and after disposal.

How and why are they used in cosmetic products?

Plastic microbeads may be used in a variety of cosmetic and personal care products such as scrubs, peeling creams, shower gels and toothpastes. They are used as mild exfoliants to help remove dry cells from the surface of the skin or as mild abrasives to help clean and polish the teeth.

Not all plastics are microbeads

Confusion surrounds the word 'polyethylene' when used in the ingredients list. Seeing polyethylene in the list does not necessarily mean that the cosmetic product contains microbeads.

It is important to stress that there is a difference between the plastic beads themselves and other ways in which common plastics such as polyethylene can be used in cosmetic products. Other polyethylene-based ingredients which may form part of a cosmetic ingredient have very different properties and do not raise any environmental concerns. Many such ingredients are actually liquids to help products spread smoothly and evenly on the skin and are not relevant to the current discussion over the environmental fate of plastic microbeads.


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