There is sometimes confusion in the terminology used in this important topic and the terms ‘plastic microbead’ and ‘microplastic’ are often used interchangeably. This is incorrect as they mean different things. Plastic microbeads are the hard, solid plastic beads that may be used in a variety of products, including cosmetics and personal care products such as scrubs, shower gels and toothpastes. Microplastic is the micro-sized pieces of plastic of all kinds present in the marine environment. This microplastic originates from a variety of sources, primarily from the disintegration of larger plastics. Plastic microbeads from cosmetic products are a very small fraction of microplastic marine litter.
Marine plastic litter is a global issue and this infographic, developed by the trade association for the American cosmetics industry, the Personal Care Products Council, explains the origins and fate of microplastics in the marine environment.
What exactly are plastic microbeads?
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.
What is the concern over plastic microbeads?
Plastic microbeads are one type of microplastic contributing to the problem of plastic marine litter. There is concern that the quantities of plastic litter in our marine environment can harm ecosystems and, in particular, microplastic particles that enter the marine environment can be consumed by sea-life. It must be noted that plastic microbeads from cosmetic and personal care products are a very small contribution to the wider marine microplastic litter.
Why were plastic microbeads used in cosmetics?
Plastic microbeads were used in some cosmetic and personal care products to help clean the skin by exfoliation and to remove stains and plaque from teeth. Exfoliation removes dirt and helps to unclog pores. Dead skin cells are loosened and removed to leave a surface layer composed of fresh, younger cells. This leaves the skin feeling soft, smooth and looking brighter.
The small plastic beads were originally selected for use as exfoliating or teeth-cleaning agents because they are clean, safe, can be produced to be a uniform size and have no sharp edges to scratch the skin.
It is possible to tell whether a product contains microbeads because they give a grainy appearance and texture to the product. It will not necessarily be possible to determine whether the microbeads are made from plastic or naturally derived material just by looking at, or feeling, the product. Companies that previously used plastic microbeads have already replaced or are looking to replace them 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.
Leave-on cosmetic products like blusher, lipstick or foundation are meant to be smooth in texture, not gritty. Those products may use polymers to ensure smooth flow, easy spreading and even dispersion of other ingredients such as colour: polymers are not there in the form of plastic microbeads to provide an exfoliating effect. There is no evidence linking ingredients in leave-on cosmetic products to plastic litter in the marine environment.
Only solid, plastic microbeads have been found to contribute to marine litter. There are other ingredients in cosmetics which can have similar names on the ingredient list but have very different physical properties and therefore pose no environmental concern.
Many people have made the understandable mistake of thinking that any mention of an ingredient which can be used as a hard plastic microbead automatically means that ingredient is being used in such a way. In fact, polymers vary in their properties from solids to liquids yet may have the same ingredient (INCI) name used on labels, for example polyethylene. It is important to remember all plastics are polymers, but not all polymers are plastics. Also, the word ‘poly’ in an ingredient list does not mean that the ingredient is a plastic.
Plastics are defined as synthetic, water-insoluble polymers that are repeatedly moulded, extruded or physically manipulated into various solid forms which retain their defined shapes in their intended applications during their use and disposal.
Essentially, plastics are man-made materials which are made from a wide range of organic polymers that can be moulded into a specific shape while soft, and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form. The properties of a plastic can be affected by the number of single units in the polymer structure (known as monomers) and how they fit together. However, whilst all plastics are polymers, not all polymers are plastics. For example, DNA and complex carbohydrates such as starch are both polymers, but are not plastics.
Polymers made up of one type of monomer unit are called homopolymers e.g. A-A-A-... and polymers made up of more than one type of monomer unit are called co-polymers e.g. A-B-A-B-....
Polymers can have different properties depending upon the type of monomer unit, the number of monomers in the polymer, how the monomers fit together and whether the monomers have any additional chemical groups. They can be elastic, durable, flexible, hard, soft, solid or liquid.
Therefore, it is impossible to determine from the name of a polymer on the ingredients list whether it is natural, synthetic, liquid, solid, soft, hard etc.
Owing to the range of properties a polymer can bring to a product, polymers have a wide use in cosmetic products.
A common example of a plastic is polyethylene, which is based on the monomer unit of ethylene. Polyethylene is used in products ranging from bulletproof vests and artificial joints for knee and hip replacements to milk jugs, packaging film, bubble wrap, hoses and tubing.
There is a difference between plastic microbeads themselves and other ways in which common plastics such as polyethylene can be used in cosmetic products. Many such ingredients are actually present as 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. Just because a cosmetic product contains the word ‘polyethylene’ in the ingredients list on-pack does not mean that the product contains microbeads of plastic which are associated with the environmental concern.
For example, another polymer which is commonly used in cosmetic products is polyethylene glycol. Polyethylene glycol is made from the monomer ethylene glycol and is usually a liquid or low melting-point solid. The properties of the polyethylene glycol polymer can be tailored by the number of monomer units and the addition of other chemical groups, resulting in a wide range of potential functions. Ingredients based on polyethylene glycol are used in a variety of products from pharmaceuticals to cosmetics and food. In cosmetic products their functions range from surfactants to emollients in many different product types including skin creams, eye shadows, foundations, deodorants and hair conditioners.
If a polyethylene glycol-based ingredient is used in a cosmetic product, the word ‘polyethylene’ will be seen in the ingredients list on-pack. However, it is important to stress that this does not mean that the product contains plastic microbeads.
What action has the cosmetics industry taken on plastic microbeads?
As an environmentally responsible industry, the UK cosmetics industry has been acting voluntarily to remove plastic microbeads from products as part of a Europe-wide initiative launched in October 2015. The recommendation from Cosmetics Europe, the European Personal Care Association, was to discontinue, by 2020, the use of synthetic, solid, plastic particles (plastic microbeads) used for exfoliating and cleansing, that are non-biodegradable in the aquatic environment; this was despite the extremely small role plastic microbeads play in the total microplastic litter.
This recommendation built on voluntary initiatives already taken by individual member companies of Cosmetics Europe. As a result, the vast majority of UK cosmetics manufacturers were already well on the way to removing plastic microbeads completely from products, prior to the introduction of the legilsation in the UK during 2018. This legislation banned plastic microbeads in rinse-off cosmetic and personal care products from mid-June 2018.
It has been acknowledged by many, including the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) that the contribution from cosmetic products to the huge problem of microplastic litter in the marine environment is extremely small, between 0.01% and 4.1%. Overwhelmingly, the micro-size plastic (microplastics) present in the environment originates from a variety of sources, primarily from the disintegration of larger plastics (e.g. disintegration of plastic waste in marine waters, breakdown of synthetic clothing during machine washing). However, while the contribution from plastic microbeads in cosmetic products to the total environmental load of plastic marine litter is likely to be very small, the cosmetics industry is taking this issue seriously and acting responsibly.
Although companies have decided to move away from using plastic microbeads, we must remember that it will some take time before all rinse-off products on shop shelves are completely free from plastic microbeads as reformulation needs to take place.
Cosmetics Europe membership survey
A Cosmetics Europe survey, conducted in 2018, and covering use from 2012 until 2017, assessed the effectiveness of these industry voluntary actions, which showed an impressive decrease of 97.6% in the use of plastic microbeads for cleansing and exfoliating purposes in wash-off cosmetic and personal care products. Use, of course, continues to decrease.
For further information about the voluntary action across Europe, please see the section ‘All about plastic microbeads’ on the Cosmetics Europe website.