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Microbeads: The hidden plastics in your cosmetics

Dr. Ruta Almedom, Head of Science at CodeCheck, reveals what’s hidden in food and cosmetics products.

image: microplastics in makeup cosmetics eyes lips rouge

Microplastics, or microbeads, are all around us, in the air, in the water and in our soil. Recently, researchers found that the London air is especially polluted with microplastics: more particles are raining down on its citizens than in any other city in the world.

On a global average, a human being absorbs up to five grams of plastic per week, which is roughly the weight of a credit card. In Germany alone, around 1,000 tons of solid microplastic particles and almost 50 times more liquid polymers are released each year from the contents of our cosmetics and detergents into the wastewater and soil.

Codecheck’s Microplastics and Polymer Report from 2020 took a closer look at more than 50,700 personal care products and found that microplastics are prevalent in cosmetics products, posing a risk to the environment and for our health.

Invisible microplastic particles and other poorly biodegradable synthetic polymers make eyelashes more intense, foundation stay on the skin for longer and lipsticks become ‘kiss-proof’.

An introduction to microplastics

We are now only beginning to understand the impact of microplastic particles. Our latest research found that substances such as Polyethylene and Nylon-12 were regularly found in products ranging from lipsticks and rouge to foundation and eye shadows.

In fact, we found that every third lipstick contained microplastics, meaning that many women are literally eating it.

Once in our body these particles pose potential health risks to humans. Animal studies have confirmed that micro- and nanoplastics are able to pass into the blood or lymphatic systems though the gastrointestinal tract.

Depending on their characteristics, the plastic particles spread and accumulate in various organs, cause the blockage of small blood vessels and, potentially, inflammation responses. The development of new testing methods are necessary to fully understand the consequences.

The recent UK ban on microbeads

The UK ban on microbeads in rinse-off products (such as shampoo and shower gel) only solved half the problem, since it does not cover leave-on cosmetics, such as make-up. But, many consumers regularly wash off their make-up, flushing the microplastic particles in those products directly into the wastewater systems.

Several controlled experiments have shown that microplastic particles can damage the environment and ecosystems having a negative effect on the food consumption, growth, reproduction and survival of some aquatic organisms. However, it is difficult to confirm similar effects in real-world locations mainly due to limitations in the measurement methods currently available.

While regulatory bodies wait for more obvious results and better methods before restricting these ingredients, microplastics continue to accumulate over time in soil and open water, where they will persist and accumulate over many years.

image: liquid polymers hidden plastics in our face masks skin care shampoo shower gel

Liquid polymers: Practically everywhere!

Poorly biodegradable liquid polymers such as acrylates copolymer or carbomer are also prevalent and found everywhere, from sun protection to nail polishes and all kinds of hair styling products, and yet, they go unnoticed by the public and largely ignored by the media or regulatory bodies. In contrast to solid microplastic or microbead particles, they come in different forms: liquid, wax, or gel.

They have a plethora of uses including as thickeners and fillers in styling products. Every second product in the skin-care and hair-care categories contains at least one environmentally concerning synthetic polymer. These ingredients do not stay on the body, however, but flow directly into the wastewater.

Once in the environment, they are also poorly biodegradable and remain for years in our ecosystem with unknown consequences. Because the polymer structures are diverse, many research groups will be needed before the full extent of their effects is understood.

Now that we know about microplastics and some of their impacts, what's next?

Addressing this topic requires scientists, politicians, manufacturers, and activists to agree on the severity of the problem.

The lack of a standard definition for microplastics and liquid, poorly biodegradable polymers, as well as limited available data or testing methods inhibit this, and therefore the decision-making process becomes difficult and new regulation impossible.

Our partners from Friends of the Earth, Ocean. Now! and BUND consider all solid and liquid poorly biodegradable polymers in cosmetics a threat for the environment and potentially our health.

Armed with the evidence we now need to convince lawmakers of the dangers, so that they can use the precautionary principle to legislate to ban these harmful chemicals until their impacts can be properly assessed and found to be safe.

Find out more about microplastics

Read the full ‘Hidden Polymers’ report. CodeCheck’s app is a shopping guide for health and sustainability in German-speaking countries and the UK. The app identifies microplastics and liquid polymers in products by scanning the barcode. It then suggests suitable polymer-free alternatives.

How we rated the companies

In our company ratings we looked for a policy that prohibited the use of microplastics and liquid polymers. Without any such policy the company lost half a mark in the Pollution & Toxics category.

There were sixteen companies in the guides in our toiletries guides that outperformed the others and were not marked down. These companies, classed as having a positive policy, made it clear they were not using non- biodegradable liquid polymers, nor were they using microplastics in any products: Amazinc!, Bio-D, Friendly Soap, Hain Celestial, Honesty Cosmetics, Laverana, Little Soap Company, Lucy Bee Ltd, Neals Yard Holdings Limited, O Way, Pravera (Earth Aid Group), Pure Nuff Stuff, Triangle Wholefoods (Suma), Wala-Stiftung and Weleda AG.

You can find out how well these brands performed in other areas such as palm oil, toxic chemicals and animal testing in our guides to: