Plastics are one of the biggest pollutants in our seas and oceans. Specifically, the microplastics that come from cosmetic products, detergents and soaps, drug capsules or from the breakage of larger plastics, can end up in natural environments and form part of the trophic chain.
But what are microplastics and where are they found in cosmetics?
Microplastics are defined as being less than 5 millimeters in size. In a previous post, we indicated the problems that these represent to the environment, but also to human health. New studies have highlighted this problem:·
- In 2022, a group of CSIC researchers published a study indicating how the ingestion of microplastics reduces the diversity of the colon microbiota, which could alter intestinal balance and, therefore, gastrointestinal health .
- Various studies carried out in cell cultures have shown the potential of inhaled or ingested microplastics, inducing physical toxicity that leads to oxidative stress, inflammatory reactions, and DNA damage, as well as neurotoxic and metabolic effects .
- In addition to the toxicity of microplastics, some studies suggest that they can act as vectors of microbiological toxicity, carrying opportunistic bacterial pathogens and antibiotic resistance genes that can interact with the intestinal microbiota .
- Finally, microplastics, like other elements of pollution, can cause alterations in the skin’s microbiota and disruption of the barrier function. Which can lead to dermatological problems such as atopic skin .
For all that, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) suggested that the countries of the European Union should reduce the use of microplastics. The European Commission is currently drawing up new legislation to regulate the use of microplastics, which could mean a reduction of 500,000 tons of plastic in the next two decades.
Microplastics in cosmetics industry
When we think of plastics, we usually imagine bottles or caps that are degraded until they become microplastics. But these can also be found in cosmetic products.Thus, according to the report Plastic: The Hidden Beauty Ingredient, by the marine conservation organization, Plastic Soup Foundation, 87% of cosmetic products contain microplastics. This result comes from the analysis of 7,704 cosmetic products.
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But where do microplastics in cosmetic products come from?
In general, the greatest presence of microplastics is found in exfoliating products, hand soap, and toothpaste. These products produce microplastics by requiring friction for their use.
However, other products such as shower gels or nail polishes use microbeads in their formulation that can end up in the environment, if they are not treated correctly, since rinsing is required for their use.
The future of microplastics in the cosmetics industry
The cosmetics industry is aware of the enormous problem that microplastics pose for the environment and, therefore, for human health. For this reason, in 2021, Spanish regulations prohibited cosmetic and detergent products that contained intentionally added microplastics, such as microbeads . Other countries such as the US, Canada, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan, or Thailand have prohibited the presence of microplastics in products that require rinsing.
The European Union wants to go further, which is why it is preparing a change in European regulations, which will mean a paradigm shift in the production of cosmetic products. According to this regulation, the concentration of microplastics may not exceed 0.01% p/p, considering the following considerations:
• The microplastics considered are non-biodegradable synthetic polymers. But biodegradable synthetic polymers, natural polymers or polymers that do not contain carbon in their chemical structure will not be considered as microplastics.
• Only solid polymers will be considered microplastics; liquids, gases, and those with a solubility greater than 2 g/L will be left out.
• Individual molecules will not be considered microplastics.
In addition, the regulations provide that non-biodegradable synthetic polymers with functions such as film-forming, cease to have the property of microplastic once they have performed their function.
Finally, a labelling obligation is foreseen indicating the presence of microplastics, including instructions for use to prevent their release into the environment.
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As indicated by the Beauty Cluster Barcelona, the greatest release of microplastics comes mainly from processes in which larger plastics degrade, and not so much from the primary use of these microplastics when they are added to cosmetic products .
Finally, it should be noted that the cosmetics industry has been adapting to the reduction in the use of microplastics for years. In fact, according to a study carried out by Stanpa in 2020, cosmetic companies eliminated 97.6% of plastic microspheres in rinse-off products, which is equivalent to 4,250 tons of microplastics that have not been released into the environment .
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2. Vethaak D, Legler J. (2021). Microplastics and human health. Science. 12 Feb 2021 Vol 371, Issue 6530 pp. 672-674. DOI: 10.1126/science.abe5041
3. Celebi Sozener, Z., Ozdel Ozturk, B., Cerci, P., Turk, M., Gorgulu Akin, B., Akdis, M., Altiner, S., Ozbey, U., Ogulur, I., Mitamura, Y., Yilmaz, I., Nadeau, K., Ozdemir, C., Mungan, D., & Akdis, C. A. (2022). Epithelial barrier hypothesis: Effect of the external exposome on the microbiome and epithelial barriers in allergic disease. Allergy, 77(5), 1418–1449. https://doi.org/10.1111/all.15240
Cover image by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels