Plastic microbeads FAQs
CTPA welcomes the UK Government's ban on solid plastic microbeads in rinse-off cosmetic and personal care products. This is a step in the right direction for marine plastic litter. However, with plastic microbeads from cosmetics accounting for less than 1%* of plastic pollution in the marine environment, and 99.7% coming from a range of other sources*, Government and other industries will need to look to address the major sources of plastic pollution if we are to have a wider impact on this pressing environmental challenge.
The new, strict UK law means the manufacture of cosmetic products containing plastic microbeads is banned from 9 January 2018 and the sale of such products must not take place from 20 June 2018.
What is microplastic?
Microplastic refers to any type of tiny, solid plastic particle or fibre found as litter in oceans and other waterways. Microplastic most often starts as larger pieces of plastic debris, such as plastic packaging, cigarette filters, car tyres, or synthetic fabric that breaks down into tiny pieces over time. These particles and fibres measure 5 millimetres in diameter or less and do not dissolve in water. Microplastic that started as larger litter is called "secondary microplastic," while particles that are intentionally developed as small plastic particles are called "primary microplastic." Plastic microbeads are a type of primary microplastic. Microbeads are purposely developed to be tiny so they can be used as ingredients in products for a wide variety of purposes, from industrial boat cleaning and paints to rinse-off personal care products.
What 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.
Why were plastic microbeads used in cosmetics and personal care products?
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. However, they are no longer used in this way as a result of industry voluntary action.
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, estimated at 0.29%* prior to the voluntary action taken by industry to discontinue using these ingredients.
As an environmentally responsible industry, the UK cosmetics industry acted voluntarily to remove plastic microbeads from products as part of a Europe-wide initiative launched in October 2015.
What has the cosmetics industry used in place of 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. Companies that previously used plastic microbeads have reformulated or replaced 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.
This recommendation built on voluntary initiatives already taken by some individual member companies of Cosmetics Europe, the European personal care association. 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.
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.
* Eunomia "Plastics in the Marine Environment" 2016
** United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) "Plastics in Cosmetics" 2015
Source: With thanks to the Personal Care Products Council and Cosmetics Europe for this information. Further information may be found at the following links: