What You Need to Know About 

Microplastics in Cosmetics

By Julia Beyer - April 10, 2019

The discussion about microplastics in cosmetics is not new, but a recent study from the Free University of Amsterdam University (published in March 2019) now contributes to revealing the true scope of the problem.

In a test, it turned out that a single bottle of the Olaz Anti-Wrinkle Firm & Lift SPF 15 day cream (50ml) contains about 1.48 million plastic particles.  The diameteres of the plastic particles ranged from 1.6 to 103 μm. For comparison, the average diameter of a human hair is 60 to 80 μm. Most of the particles found in the day cream where much smaller.

What Are Microplastics And Why Are They Found in Skincare Products?

Microplastics are plastic particles that measure 5 millimetres or less in diameter. Microbeads (a marketing term the cosmetic industry introduced) count as “primary microplastic” which means they’re intentionally created by the skincare industry. “Secondary microplastics” on the other hand are microplastics that are the result of larger plastic particles breaking down over time. 

Microplastics are typically used to add exfoliating properties to a skincare products. They can help remove dry, dead skin cells and unclog pores which is why they’re often found in peelings and other exfoliating products such as bath gels. They’re also a common addition to toothpastes. 

Typically you find microplastics in toothpastes, peeling and bath gels / Foto by @superkitina 

Why Are Microplastics Dangerous?

It is estimated that about 250,000 tons of plastic debres are floating in the world’s oceans, and by 2050 more plastic than fish could swim in our oceans. Microplastics form a part of this floating cload of debris and ultimately, all plastic items that end up in the ocean break down into microplastics. 

Fish and other marine wildlife swallow these tiny plastic particles and they become a part of the food chain – with us human as the final predator in the chain.  Researchers have detected measurable levels of microplastic in fish and seafood sold for human consumption.

In acquatic animals, microplastics have been shown to influence growth, development, behavior, reproduction and mortality since they accumulate in the animals’ bodies and enter their cells

Microplastics can also affect humans since they act as vehicles for toxic chemicals. They both absorb chemicals in the water (including highly toxic metals such as mercury and chemical additives such as BPA) and in some production processes, chemicals are attached to the microplastics from the start.

Ultimately, microplastics end up on our plate / Foto by Nguyen Lin

How Big of a Problem Are Microplastics in Cosmetics?

The estimated global release of primary microplastics in the ocean amounts to 15 million tons per year, which equals one plastic bag thrown into the ocean per person per week

Surprisingly, the two primary sources of marine microplastic pollution are the washing of synthetic textiles and tyre dust that gets blown into the ocean from roads. Microplastics from cosmetics are estimated to only contribute 2% to the global release of microplastics

This percentage could be brought down to zero if the skincare industry switched to natural alternatives such as clay, wax and starch since microplastics are added exclusively for convenience and profit reasons. In some products, the plastic added as ingredients equals the weight of the plastic packaging it comes in. 

In some countries such as Sweden, France and the Netherlands the use of microplastics has already been restricted and the EU has recently proposed a ban on 90% of microplastics

Car tyres and clothes release the most microplastics / Foto by Nate Dumlao

Tips To Avoid Microplastics in Your Cosmetics and Clothes

In cosmetics microplastics are typically listed as “polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, polylactic acid or nylon” in the list of ingredients. Of course all our natural cosmetics are competely free from microplastics

Since the microplastics washed off from clothes count among the two biggest sources of marine pollution, your clothes and how you wash them are another way to reduce the release of microplastics from your household into oceans and rivers. Don’t buy clothes partly or entirely made from Polyester (for example Fleece). There are also ways how you can filter microplastics out of the washing water, for example with the Guppyfriend bag or the Cora Ball. However there is a very limited offer on the market so far and contradicting scientific results as to whether these measures are actually effective so the best is to avoid buying polyesther clothes from the start! 

There also exist several NGOs that you can support to demand governmental action (for example Beat the Microbead) and a project that is focusing specifically on designing a solution to remove microplastics from our oceans and rivers, called Pacific Garbage Screening

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