The Secret Life of Microplastics
By Beth Raffell, Guest Blogger
Microplastics are found in every area of our modern world, getting into those hard-to-reach or unexpected places ranging from our food, to our environment and are even found within the human body. Microplastics are very tiny pieces of plastic that are typically considered to be made of a synthetic polymer. They are non-biodegradable and incredibly difficult to filter out of our waste, proving to be almost impossible to remove from the marine environment and we are now learning about the dangerous effects that microplastics can have on humans.
Research shows that microplastics can impact the way species effectively reproduce, can cause physical damage and suffering such as starvation and can disrupt cellular activity. If that doesn’t sound scary enough, microplastics also release deadly toxins into our food, water and air, and can cause complications within the human body.
Microplastics have been an ingredient in our cosmetics since the 1960s and now almost 9 in 10 products from major cosmetic brands, as well as 72% of sun care products, contain microplastics. You can find microplastics – in both solid, powder or liquid form – in anything from face cream, sunscreen, lipstick, mascara, deodorant, glitter and many other products. When microplastics are added to our cosmetics and then washed down the sink after use or away in the shower, we are releasing these tiny, non-degradable polymers out into the world to further add to the environmental pollution.
Of the 7,704 products investigated, only 13% were found to be free of microplastics.Plastic Soup Foundation
A study conducted by the Plastic Soup Foundation – a foundation that works to investigate the link between human health and plastics as well as campaigning against microplastics and plastic pollution – investigated the ten most popular cosmetic brands (L’Oréal Paris, Elvive/Elseve, Garnier, Nivea, Gillette, Oral-B, Head & Shoulders, Dove, Rexona, and Axe) and studied 7,704 different products from these brands. Of the 7,704 products investigated, only 13% were found to be free of microplastics.
According to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), over seven kilos of microplastics from our cosmetics and personal care products end up in the European environment every minute. While levels of plastic-made ingredients within our cosmetics can be low, repeated, daily exposure to these plastics can negatively affect our health and allow toxic ingredients to seep into our soil, air, rivers, and oceans. With people beginning to realise the need for further investigation into the effects that these microplastics can have on us and our environment, consumer pressure and campaigns on cosmetic companies saw the banning of microbeads (another type of microplastic) in body scrubs and rinse-off, exfoliating products in the UK in 2018, however, there are still a variety of plastic ingredients used in our conventional products.
Microplastics have been used in the formulation of cosmetics for many reasons, for example, to assist with the feel of a product, for scrubbing/exfoliating purposes and can also be used as a bulking agent to assist with the thickness. They are also favoured by cosmetic companies due to their cheap production qualities.
Two of the most common ‘hidden plastics’ found in our cosmetics are Sodium Polyacrylate and Polyethylene glycols (PEGs). Sodium Polyacrylate is a polymer that is super absorbent and is used to thicken, stabilise or provide emollient type benefits. Although it was removed from tampons due to its frightening association with Toxic Shock Syndrome, it is still found in cosmetics. Additionally, Polyethlene glycols (PEGs) are a family of synthetic polymers that have multiple uses in cosmetics. PEGs are often used to help soften and lubricate the skin, aid in the mixing of ingredients and also to help ingredients penetrate deeper into our skin. However, PEGs have been found to contain impurities which include ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane which are both known carcinogens and respiratory irritants. Long-term exposure to ethylene oxide is said to lead to serious health consequences including damage to our nervous system. A chilling fact about PEGS is that this chemical was actually used as nerve gas in WW1!
The Plastic Soup Foundation urge us to question the use of these plastics in products such as our cosmetics, stating that the health impacts of plastics should be of major concern to us all.
Currently, there is a proposal to try to get intentionally added microplastics banned from cosmetics, however, at this moment in time, certain ingredients such as liquid polymers and water-soluble plastics are not included in the definition of microplastics, allowing companies to continue to use them in their products.
So, what are some of the things that we can to do help combat the unnecessary use of microplastics in our cosmetics?
- Firstly, we can look out for respected natural and/or organic certification logos on our cosmetics and opt for completely natural products instead. Switching to natural cosmetic brands is the simplest way to cut out microplastics in your beauty routine. A few of these companies include Honest by Jessica Alba, Aveda, Weleda, Earth Kind, and Wild. Making the decision to swap just one of your regular cosmetic products for a plastic-free alternative can make a difference.
- Download the Beat The Microbead app, introduced by The Plastic Soup Foundation, which is a free app that allows you to scan a product and will inform you if that product contains microplastics. The app recognises more than 500 different types of microplastics and works on a traffic light system: red for more than 500 officially recognised microplastics; orange for sceptical plastics where it is not yet proven whether they are dangerous to humans and the environment; and green to symbolise all products that do not contain red or orange plastics.
- Make your own! Get creative and inventive and make your own body lotion bar, deodorant, toothpaste and even eyeliner! There are so many wonderful recipes online and this is a fun activity to do for a girlie afternoon or with your kids.
- Explore your local eco-friendly, zero-waste stores and explore what products they have on offer.
You may feel reluctant at the prospect of giving up your favourite beauty products especially if they have been your go-to for so many years and it can be difficult to comprehend just how damaging they can be, but all it takes is one small swap at a time to make a difference. So, keep reading, keep learning and keep making those sustainable swaps.
A Red Flag list of ingredients to look out for are:
- Acrylates Copolymer
- Acrylates Crosspolymer
- Methacrylate Copolymer
- Methacrylate Crosspolymer
- Methyl Methacrylate Copolymer
- Methyl Methacrylate Crosspolymer
- Propylene Copolymer or Polypropylene
- Styrene Copolymer
- Vinyl Acetate Copolymer
- VP/VA Copolymer