What is it?

“Microbeads are manufactured solid plastic particles of less than one millimeter in their largest dimension. They are most frequently made of polyethylene but can be of other petrochemical plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene.”Wikipedia

What are the effects?

This substance belongs to the groups:

So, what is plastic?

So, first thing first – what is plastic? If you already know this part, feel free to jump down to microplastic pollution.

We all know plastic in its different forms and shapes. Tupperware boxes, shampoo bottles, pipes, cellophane, PET bottles, microbeads… The list of plastic products and their uses are virtually never-ending.

This is because plastic is not one type of material. Plastic is a generic group name for a wide range of human-made polymers (large molecules).

Although most plastics are made from petrochemicals (chemicals derived from petroleum), the chemists who make plastics are not following one singular “recipe”. And that is why you can find a wide variety of plastics with different stiffness, strength and density levels.

What are microplastics – definition

While it’s obvious that most of our cosmetic products are stored in plastic containers, it is not always clear that the actual formula also could contain plastic – microplastics.

The microplastics definition varies somewhat, but are generally defined as being in between 0.0004-1.24 mm wide. Which means that many of the microplastics are invisible to the naked eye.

Some are as small as nano (not visible by the eye) others are between 1 and 50 µm (micrometer). For comparison, 100 µm = average diameter of a strand of human hair.

There are two types of microplastics, divided by how they came into existence:

  • Primary microplastics are produced as small -tiny- plastic fragments. Used for example as microbeads in cosmetics or as microfibers in clothing.
  • Secondary microplastics becomes microplastics from the degradation of bigger pieces of plastic. This usually occurs in the ocean when drinking bottles, fishing nets and plastic bottles over time breaks down to smaller pieces.

Microplastic pollution

Microplastics pollution is caused by the tiny plastics enter the world’s waterways in their billions, and because of their size, are almost impossible to remove.

Some are larger pieces, that over time break down to smaller pieces until they fit the microplastics definition; secondary microplastics.

But what is also polluting our water, wildlife, and eventually us humans, are primary microplastics coming, partially, directly from our beauty and personal care products.

Microbeads, as they are often called in cosmetics, are so small that they are not caught by the filters in our sewage systems when we have rinsed them off. Instead, most of the microbeads slip through and from the wastewater plants, they are let out into the rivers, lakes, and oceans, polluting them.

A microplastic in the ocean lake or river is impossible to remove and will not degrade for hundreds of years.

There are reports that approximately 8m tonnes of plastic are being released in our oceans every year. If this trend continues, there’ll be more plastic than fish in the ocean year 2050.

So why not invent something that will ‘vacuum’ all the plastic out of the ocean? Problem solved?

Anna Kärrman, professor of Environmental Chemistry at Örebro University, says that the problem is that you can not clean the oceans from these microbeads. The idea of filtering the ocean, with a fine net or a strainer to remove the microplastics, would not be advisable as you would also take away all the microbiological life that is vital to a healthy ocean.

Cleaning the oceans, lakes, and rivers of these small plastic particles are not believed plausible among most researchers. The problem is, as professor Kärrman says, is that vacuuming the ocean from tiny particles of that size would also strip the ocean of irreplaceable microorganisms that are indispensable for a living and thriving ecosystem.

Microplastic and the ocean

Most of us are now familiar with images of marine animals, such as birds and whales, trapped in- or with bellies full of plastic. But what we do not see, due to their tiny size, is the even as present microplastics pollution in aquatic animals – also in seafood that we eat.

Without realizing, we are also likely to be eating microplastics as they are entering the food chain.  

The larger issue is of course that none of us, neither humans nor marine life, can survive on a diet consisting of plastic particles. Apart from the physical damage that the plastic causes, by being mistaken for food, there is also increasing evidence that they may bind other environmental pollutants to them.

According to senior lecturer Bethanie Carney Almroth at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Gothenburg, there is a debate among researchers whether the plastic particles in also work as vectors for chemicals. In other words, chemicals bind to the plastic particles, like buoys, and carry them further into the animals that eat the plastics. Research is currently ongoing (as of May 2017).

The microplastics may even work as buoys for other toxic chemicals such as DDT and PCBs. That are environmentally and health-damaging industrial chemicals that were released in mass during previous decades. 

Microplastic ban

There are many countries around the world that have banned the use of microplastics in cosmetics. However, most have limited the prohibition to only rinse-off cosmetics. Leave on products may still contain microplastics legally.

Make sure to use our Ingredient Scanner before you buy a product. The scanner helps you avoid hundreds of microplastics that are hidden in cosmetics.

Beauty products containing microplastics

Microplastics used in cosmetic products* are usually called “microbeads”. They can be found in a wide variety of rinse off- and leave-on products, not only in scrubs or exfoliating cosmetics.

All while they are very small in size, they are produced on a large scale. Only in the EU, it was used a total amount of 4360 tonnes of microplastic beads in 2012, according to Cosmetics Europe. The majority being polyethylene beads.

There’s a common misconception that microplastics in beauty products are only present in scrubs, where they are visible to the eye and is supposed to create an exfoliating effect. The reality is in fact, that they can be found in virtually any kind of cosmetic.

The amount of microparticles in a product formulation can range from less than 1% to 90 %, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report Plastic in Cosmetics.

“In a typical shower gel analyzed in a laboratory for poly (ethylene) particulates (plastics), there was roughly as much plastic material in the gel by weight as there was in the plastic container it came packaged in.” – UNEP

All while they are very small in size, they are produced on a large scale. Only in the EU, it was used a total amount of 4360 tonnes of microplastic beads in 2012, according to Cosmetics Europe. The majority being polyethylene beads.

Depending on the plastic, or polymer, type, size, and shape, they all have different functions in the products, well beyond the well-known scrubbing effect.

Microplastics can function as

  • Fillers
  • Viscosity regulators
  • Emulsifiers
  • Film-formers
  • Opacifying agents
  • Liquid absorbents binders
  • Bulking agents
  • For an ‘optical blurring’ effect (e.g. of wrinkles)
  • Glitters
  • Skin conditioning
  • Exfoliants
  • Abrasives
  • Oral care such as tooth polishing
  • Gellants in denture adhesives
  • For controlled time release of various active ingredients
  • Sorptive phase (for delivery of fragrances, vitamins, oils, moisturizers, insect repellents, sun filters and a variety of other active ingredients)
  • Prolonging shelf life by trapping degradable active ingredients in the porous particle matrix (effectively shielding the active ingredient from bacteria, which are too big to enter particle pores).

Microplastic cosmetics

Basically, think of any type of personal care or cosmetic product and you can almost be certain that one example of the kind contains plastic.

As microplastics for example function as fillers, you can find them in conditioners, shampoo, and lotions. Manufacturers add plastics to cosmetics to create a rich and dense consistency, something we consumers have come to believe equals nourishment.

The same goes for microplastics in toothpaste. The microplastics are added to create a sandy effect, add ‘creaminess’ or as glitter.

Few of us are able to see the health benefit of adding microplastics to toothpaste, and therefore not many of us are suspecting that we are daily (morning and evening) releasing microplastics straight into the waterways.

Plastic ingredients have, to mention a few, also been found in:

  • face washes
  • scrubs
  • makeup (mascara, eyeshadow, lipstick, etc)
  • nail polish
  • deodorants
  • sunscreens
  • aftershave and shaving products
  • creams
  • hairspray
  • facial masks
  • baby care products
  • insect repellants.

Also, clothing made of synthetic fibers, such as fleece, releases plastic particles in the water systems when being washed.

Why plastic is so popular and what we can do

Even though plastics in consumer products only been around since the beginning of the 19-hundreds, they have replaced many of the natural polymers and materials that we previously used, such as wood, glass, and metal.

The reasons why plastic, in all the different shapes, are so widespread is because they are cheap, waterproof and easy to produce and it will not react with other chemicals. For all of these reasons, plastic containers have become the foremost choice for many products. Including storing cosmetics.

While you, in the best scenario could recycle a plastic container, the microbeads are-non-recyclable. You can neither catch them going down the drain nor can the wastewater facilities hinder the tiny, sometimes nano-sized, microplastics from going out in nature.

Microplastic pollution is an issue today and for the next hundreds of years to come. The sad realization is that the microplastics that enter our waterways, will most likely stay there until it’s degraded. Which we know can take hundreds of years. The other way it could leave the ocean is if the microplastics moves up the food chain. And if we’re unlucky it ends up on our plates.

The larger issue is that without a living and thriving ocean, life on this planet will be difficult or even impossible.

This is why we need a ban. Companies producing products containing microplastics seem reluctant to do the responsible thing to change their formulas.

But until there is a ban on using all kinds of plastic ingredients in cosmetic products – use the ingredient scanner.

Add the Free Ingredient Scanner now

We use the European Commissions definition of Cosmetics:
“Cosmetics range from everyday hygiene products such as soap, shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste to luxury beauty items including perfumes and makeup”.

Read about the other ingredients.


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