Plastic microbeads are either banned or becoming banned in over 10 jurisdictions worldwide. However, this doesn’t mean that our cosmetics and personal care products are entirely plastic-free. There are many more plastic particles present that are in your everyday products that you have not considered. According to Belgium’s Federal Public Service of Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment, there are at least 67 different types of plastics in cosmetic products. Many of which are homogenous into the product and therefore not as ubiquitous as exfoliating microbeads.
What a lot of people don’t know is that plastic particles are present in synthetic polymers. Synthetic polymers are a popular ingredient in a lot of cosmetic and personal care brands in lipsticks, mascara, deodorants, etc. These polymers (i.e. polyacrylate, polyethylene glycol, polyethylene nylon-12, etc.) are used in personal care formulations as stabilizers or rheology modifiers and contain plastic additives to modify the colour, physical properties and heat resistance of the polymer. The plastics present are rarely filtered out of our wastewater treatment plants and contributes to the growing number of plastics that accumulate in the marine environment and are ingested by small organisms in the ocean.
There are a lot of natural alternatives to the plastic-containing synthetic polymers in our cosmetic and personal care formulations. After the microbead ban, many brands have begun using biodegradable exfoliants such as apricot shells, oatmeal, salt crystals, sand and others as polyethylene replacements. The same may be done with the other polymer ingredients – silica, talc, clay and natural cellulose can be used as natural rheology modifiers and fillers that more environmentally friendly and naturally compose over time.
There should be work done to reduce all microplastics in cosmetic products – especially rinse-off products which are the primary sources of microplastics in the oceans. Its only through consumer transparency and initiative from personal care product brands where we can reduce contamination of our oceans and prevent further ecological damage to marine species.