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All about plastic microbeads

What are plastic microbeads?

Plastic microbeads are defined as any intentionally added, water insoluble, solid plastic particles   (5 mm or less in size) used to exfoliate or cleanse in rinse-off personal care products.

Why are plastic microbeads used in cosmetics and personal care products?

Historically, manufacturers have added plastic microbeads to wash-off personal care cleansing products because of their safe and effective exfoliating properties—these help remove dry, dead cells from the surface of the skin as well as help unclog pores. Many consumers value plastic microbeads for their ability to produce clean, smooth skin.

What is the concern over plastic microbeads?

There is concern that the quantities of plastic litter in our marine environment can harm eco-systems and, in particular, microplastic particles that enter the marine environment can be consumed by sea-life.  Plastic microbeads are one type of microplastic that are said to contribute to this problem. It must be noted that plastic microbeads from cosmetic and personal care products represent a very small potential contribution to the overall marine microplastic litter. A study conducted in 2012 estimated the potential contribution of the European cosmetics and personal care sector to be between 0.01 % and 1.5 % of the total amount to aquatic plastic litter. However, this contribution has reduced significantly between 2012 and 2015 as a result of the industry’s voluntary commitments.

What actions has the cosmetics industry taken on plastic microbeads?

Many companies that previously used plastic microbeads are looking to replace them, or have already done so, with alternatives including those made from beeswax, rice bran wax, jojoba waxes, starches derived from corn, tapioca and carnauba, seaweed, silica, clay and other natural compounds.

In October 2015, Cosmetics Europe recommended to its members to discontinue, by 2020, the use of synthetic, solid, plastic particles (microbeads) used for exfoliating and cleansing, that are non-biodegradable in the aquatic environment; this was despite the extremely small role they play in microplastic litter. This recommendation built on voluntary initiatives already taken by individual member companies of Cosmetics Europe.

 A Cosmetics Europe survey, conducted in 2016, and covering use during 2015, assessed the effectiveness of these industry voluntary actions. The Cosmetics Europe membership survey found a rapid and substantial 82% reduction in the use of plastic microbeads for exfoliating and cleansing purposes in wash-off cosmetic and personal care products when comparing use in 2012* with use in 2015.

As part of the industry’s commitment to a more sustainable future, we continue to work with various stakeholders to find real solutions to plastic debris in waterways, for the benefit of our consumers and the marine environment we all share.

* Gouin et al, 2015, “Use of Micro-Plastic Beads in Cosmetic Products in Europe and Their Estimated Emission to the North Sea Environment” found that in 2012 4360 tons were used.

Microplastics

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What are microplastics?

The term microplastics refers to any type of tiny, solid plastic particle or fibre found as litter in oceans and other waterways. Microplastics most often start as larger pieces of plastic debris, such as plastic packaging, cigarette filters, car tyres, or synthetic fabrics that break down into tiny pieces over time. These particles and fibres measure 5 millimetres in diameter or less and do not dissolve in water. Microplastics that come from the breakdown of larger plastic litter are called “secondary microplastics,” while particles that are intentionally developed as small plastic particles are called “primary microplastic”. Plastic microbeads are a type of primary microplastic.

What is a plastic?

Plastics are defined as synthetic, water-insoluble polymers that are repeatedly moulded, extruded or physically manipulated into various solid forms which retain their defined shapes in their intended applications during their use and disposal.

The potential concern is with plastic microbeads that may reach the aquatic environment. Importantly, you can’t determine whether cosmetic or personal care product contains plastic microbeads just by looking for an ingredient name on the label: ingredients sharing the same name may be used as plastic microbeads in one product or as a liquid in another, depending on the manufacturing process of the polymer. Polyethylene is an example of such ingredient that can be found in solid or liquid form. The names on the label do not mean they are plastic microbeads.  

What is a polymer and does it contribute to microplastic marine litter?

A polymer is a substance, that can be natural or man-made, which has a molecular structure consisting chiefly or entirely of a large number of similar units bonded together e.g. A-A-A-..., A-B-A-B-..., A-A-B-B-C-C, ...* Polymers come in many forms, including solids, liquids and waxes. The same polymer of the same chemistry, may be used as a liquid in one product and a solid in another. Plastics are an example of solid, man-made materials consisting of polymers. While all plastics are polymers, not all polymers are plastics. The vast majority of polymer ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products are not plastics. Furthermore, these polymer ingredients are in liquid or other form that cannot become microplastic marine litter.

* Oxford Dictionary definition.

What are the sources of microplastic litter?

Studies have shown the main sources of microplastic marine litter to include the breakdown of plastic packaging, such as bags and bottles; tyre dust washed from roadways; plastic pellets used in manufacturing; and synthetic fibres from garments and textiles. Perhaps surprisingly though, the largest contributor to microplastic litter is car tyres. Ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products are among the smallest potential contributors to plastics aquatic pollution.

A number of studies have identified different sources of marine litter and their relative contributions. Moreover, a very significant proportion of microplastic litter can be effectively removed from water by wastewater treatment plants. In studies conducted in Europe and the U.S., treatment facilities were found to remove 99 percent of microplastic particles.

Is microplastic harmful to marine life or to humans?

There is no peer-reviewed research showing that microplastic litter harms fish or other aquatic life at environmentally relevant levels. (“Peer review” is a widely-accepted scientific validation process in which studies are reviewed and critiqued by fellow scientists.) In addition, a report on plastic litter by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), found no evidence to conclude that microplastics pose a threat to humans.

One proposed theory is that microplastic particles and fibres act as a means of transport for substances called persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the environment, leading to an increase in exposure of aquatic and marine life to toxic pollutants. However, a number of independent studies have found that microplastic does not increase the exposure of wildlife to these attached toxins. They also found that laboratory studies reporting concern about exposure of marine life used unrealistically high levels of microplastic, producing results that do not reflect what actually occurs in the environment.

What is the cosmetics and care products industry doing to combat microplastic marine litter?

As an environmentally-responsible industry our sector has taken voluntary action to remove plastic microbeads from wash-off cosmetics products. In October 2015, Cosmetics Europe recommended to its members to discontinue, by 2020, the use of synthetic solid, plastic particles (microbeads) used for exfoliating and cleansing purposes, that are non-biodegradable in the aquatic environment, despite the extremely small role they play in microplastic aquatic litter. This recommendation built on voluntary initiatives of individual member companies of Cosmetics Europe.

A Cosmetics Europe survey, conducted in 2016, and covering use during 2015, assessed the effectiveness of these industry voluntary actions. The Cosmetics Europe membership survey found a rapid and substantial 82% reduction in the use of plastic microbeads for exfoliating and cleansing purposes in wash-off cosmetic and personal care products, when comparing use in 2012* with use in 2015.

The industry continues to work with various stakeholders to better understand and find ways to reduce plastic debris in oceans and waterways.

Any action to tackle plastic marine litter must address the leading sources of plastic litter both large and small, if is to be effective – especially the large plastic litter that forms massive “litter” islands in oceans. This material harms wildlife that ingest or become entangled in it, as well as ultimately breaking down into microplastic litter.

Finally, answers to this issue must reach well beyond Europe as this is a global issue, which requires all stakeholder across the globe to come together to find solutions based on science and evidence.

* Gouin et al, 2015, “Use of Micro-Plastic Beads in Cosmetic Products in Europe and Their Estimated Emission to the North Sea Environment” found that in 2012 4360 tons were used.

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Polymers

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A “polymer” is a large molecule made up of repeating sequences of smaller molecules. Polymers are essential for life. Thousands of different polymers exist in nature – including in our own bodies, e.g. proteins, sugars, fats, carbohydrates, things we eat on a daily basis. Many other polymers have been developed by humankind to perform a wide variety of functions that are central to modern living.

Polymers come in many forms, including solids, liquids and waxes. In fact, the same polymer may be used as a liquid in one product and a solid in another. Plastics are an example of solid, man-made materials made from a combination of different polymers. But while all plastics are polymers, not all polymers are plastic. The vast majority of polymer ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products, for example, are not plastic but are in liquid or other form.

Polymers in nature

The human body contains many natural polymers -- even DNA and proteins that determine our genetic makeup are polymers. The body is estimated to contain 100,000 different polymer-based proteins. Protein is a main component of skin, organs, muscles, hair and fingernails. The most common protein in your body, collagen, is used for support and structure. Another polymer important in the skin is hyaluronic acid, which is the main molecule that provides structural support and also helps lubricate our joints.

Cellulose, another natural polymer, is the main structural component of plants. Cellulose is the most abundant organic compound on Earth and its purest natural form is cotton. The cellulose in vegetables and grains is the fibre in our foods. Chitin, a “polysaccharide” polymer similar to cellulose, is the fundamental substance in the exoskeletons of crustaceans, insects and spiders.

Other natural polymers that we eat a lot of are proteins; protein is an essential nutrient for health. Meat carries a lot of protein; nearly all vegetables, beans, grains, nuts and seeds contain some; and gelatin is made of water soluble protein. Protein also forms some of the materials humans wear: leather, silk and wool.

Polymers in medicine

Polymers are used in scores of industries for countless beneficial purposes, but no advances in polymer science are more striking than those in modern medicine. Medical applications range from important day-to-day products such as latex gloves, bandages and tubing, to applications as advanced as self-tying sutures, implantable medical devices and artificial joints.

Advancements in biodegradable polymers have created biomedical “scaffolds” that support tissue growth and then degrade slowly once implanted in the body.

Polymers in personal care and cosmetics

The addition of polymers has led to better performance for many personal care and cosmetic products, providing benefits not available before, such as water-resistance or “sweat-proof” characteristics and other long-lasting properties. A broad spectrum of natural, organic and synthetic polymers is used, often in very low levels, in a wide range of cosmetic and personal care products to serve a variety of functions, such as thickening, emulsifying (keeping ingredients mixed together), creating protective films or barriers and making products feel either “drier” or more moist, smoother or more pleasant in use.

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References

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Plastic microbeads from personal care products are a minor contributor to aquatic plastic debris:

Essel, R. Engel., L., Carus, M., Ahrens, R.H. 2015. Sources of Microplastics Relevant to Marine Protection in Germany. Report for the Federal Environment Agency, Germany.

Gouin, T., Avalos, J., Brunning, I., Brzuska, K., de Graaf., J., Kaumanns, J., Konning, T., Meyberg, M., Rettinger, K., Schlatter, H., Thomas, J., van Welie, R., Wolf, T. 2015. Use of Micro-Plastic Beads in Cosmetic Products in Europe and their Estimated Emissions to the North Sea Environment. SOFW 141: 40-46.

Lassen, C., Hansen, SF., Magnusson, K., Norén, F., Bloch Hartmann, N.I., Jensen, P.R., Nielsen, T.G., Brinch, A. 2015. Microplastics: Occurrence, Effects and Sources of Releases to the Environment in Denmark. Report for Ministry for Environment and Food of Denmark Environmental Protection Agency Environmental, Project No. 1793, 2015.

Sundt, P., Schulze, P.E., Syversen, F. 2015. Sources of Microplastic Pollution to the Marine Environment. Report for Norwegian Environment Agency (Miljødirektoratet), Report No: M-321|2015.

Removal of microplastics by waste water treatment plants:

Carr, S.A., Liu, J., Tesoro, A.G. 2016. Transport and Fate of Microplastic Particles in Wastewater Treatment Plants. Water Research 91: 174-182

Murphy, F., Ewins, C., Carbonnier, F., Quinn, B. 2016. Wastewater Treatment Works (WwTW) as a Source of Microplastics in the Aquatic Environment. Environmental Science and Technology 50 (11): 5800-5808

Microplastics are not a significant threat to the wildlife:

Kaposi, K.L., Mos, B., Kelaher, B.P., Dworjanyn, S.A. 2014. Ingestion of Microplastic has Limited Impact on a Marine Larva. Environmental Science and Technology 48 (3): 1638–1645

Mazurais, D., Ernande, B., Quazuguel, P., Severe, A., Huelvan, C., Madec, L., Mouchel, O., Soudant, P., Robbens, J., Huvet, A., Zambonino-Infante, J. 2015. Evaluation of the Impact of Polyethylene Microbeads Ingestion in European Sea Bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) Larvae. Marine Environmental Research 122: 78-85

Microplastic does not increase the exposure of wildlife to toxins:

Gouin, T., Roche, N., Lohmann, R., Hodges, G. 2011. A Thermodynamic Approach for Assessing the Environmental Exposure of Chemicals Absorbed to Microplastic. Environmental Science and Technology 45 (4): 1466–1472

Koelmans, A.A., Nakir, A., Burton, G.A., Janssen, C.R. 2016. Microplastic as a Vector for Chemicals in the Aquatic Environment. Critical Review and Model-Supported Re-interpretation of Empirical Studies. Environmental Science and Technology 50 (7): 3315-3326

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