Microplastics in Cosmetics & Personal Care Products

Microplastics are tiny solid pieces of plastic found in rinse-off and leave-on cosmetic and personal care products with the aim to exfoliate and cleanse the body. Among other functions are opacity and viscosity control, illumination, silky and smooth feeling.  

Microplastics appear in cosmetics in a variety of forms — Nylon-12, Polyester-8, PE, PP,  PMMA, PS, PTFE, Polyurethane, Acrylates copolymers, PET, etc.

To rinse-off cosmetics with microplastics belong hair colouring and nourishing products, shower gels, shampoos, soaps, etc. Examples of leave-on cosmetics which may contain microplastic particles, are:

  • Skin care products (e.g. body lotions)
  • Make-up: foundations, mascaras, powders, concealers, eye pencils, eye shadows, eyeliners, etc.
  • Lip care
  • Deodorants
  • Sun care
  • Hair care (e.g. leave-on conditioners, dry shampoos)
  • Nail care products (nail polish, decorations, etc.)

Both types of cosmetics’ formulations may include microplastics as encapsulators for fragrances.

According to The Association of European Cosmetics Industries Cosmetics Europe, microbeads are: “…Synthetic, water-insoluble, non-biodegradable solid plastic particles (microplastics) between 1 and 5 mm in size used for cleaning or exfoliating on cosmetic products and rinse-off…” (Cosmetics Europe, 2019).

Exfoliation is “… the process of removing dead skin cells that results in cleansing of the skin and accelerating the renewal of its cells.” (Cosmetics Europe, 2018).

Microbeads were patented in 1972 (Beach, 1972). However, by the early 2000s they had been used extensively replacing inorganic ingredients. According to (Fendall and Sewell, 2009), it was roughly calculated that every household was using at least one scrub containing microbeads, on a daily or at least on a weekly basis. There were particular reasons for microbeads’ usage, such as low price, low density, smoother exfoliation, high compatibility with other compounds, and soft skin feeling.

Thus, microbeads are used for such purposes, as:

  • exfoliating function in scrubs
  • cleansing the face and body with creams, bubble baths, soaps, etc.
  • cleaning teeth in toothpastes
  • decorative role in cosmetics

When using rinse-off and leave-on cosmetics, microplastics end up in our oceans, lakes and landfills, as they are not filtered by filtration systems after we have brushed our teeth or scrubbed our face. These microplastic particles from consumer products incorporate in the air we breathe and  in the food chain appearing on our plates without even being noticed.

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