Europe has banned microplastics in cosmetics, but some products have up to 12 years to make the change. These natural brands argue the beauty industry is ready to change now. 19 cosmetic brands, including Weleda and Beauty Kitchen, signed a letter urging the EU to consider a faster timetable for the banning of microplastics in cosmetics. They left microplastics behind, they argue, and the rest of the industry should follow.
Dangers of Microplastics
We’ve been concerned about microplastics for a while. Microplastics don’t degrade, and they secrete into the environment and our bodies. In March of 2022, microplastics were detected in human blood for the first time. Studies conducted on fish found microplastic particles inside commercial fish we eat and in the air we breathe.
Why are Microplastics in Beauty Products
Miami dermatologist Dr. Deborah Longwill explains how microplastics ended up in cosmetics in the first place. “Microplastics are used in cosmetics to thicken the product and for exfoliation to remove dead skin cells,” Dr. Longwill explains. “However, these microplastics are a concern due to environmental impacts when they enter the waterways.”
In 2015, the U.S. passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act to curb the pollution these plastics cause. This ban addressed rinse-off products and established a timeline of four years for them to be completely off market and removed from products. It takes this long so there is time for safety testing on replacements.
Europe’s ban gives the industry four years to eliminate microbeads, just like in the United States, but their ban is more far reaching. The E.U. also wants to address other plastics in beauty products. This would address the plastics in a lot of products we leave on our skin, including in lipsticks.
For these products, though, brands would have a longer timeline of 6-12 years to find and test replacements.
New Jersey dermatologist Aanand Geria, MD added that these additive plastics come from over 500 different polymers. Some of these are still left out of regulations. If you want to remove products containing microplastics from your routine, there are more ingredients you need to watch out for. “You want to avoid products that contain polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate, and nylon,” Dr. Geria says.
Brands in the Fight
Spearheaded by Weleda, Beauty Kitchen and Naïf, this group of cosmetic brands claims to already be free of microplastics. They say their products prove there are already alternatives to microplastics.
“For years now, we have worked tirelessly and successfully to remove microplastics from our products, whilst some brands have never used microplastics in any of their formulations,” the letter states. “We have demonstrated that microplastics are not essential in producing a wide range of cosmetic and beauty products. It is about the willingness to do so.”
They argue that consumers want clean and natural products. The growing natural beauty market means the research to find alternatives to plastics has been ongoing for over a decade. Safe and effective alternatives have already been found, and there therefore doesn’t need to be an extended timetable for the rest of the industry to transition fully away from microplastics.
Dr. Longwill notes that you can find alternative exfoliators right now in your linen closet and in the products you seek out. “I recommend gentle washcloths,” Dr. Longwill says. “And enzyme peels such as the Papaya enzyme peel by Doctor’s Daughter Skincare which naturally exfoliates the skin gently over time without harmful chemicals to oneself and the environment.”
Dr. Geria adds that chemical exfoliates are another option for consumers. “Chemical exfoliators such as AHAs and BHAs are very popular,” Dr. Geria notes. “For example, look for ingredients like glycolic, salicylic, lactic and mandelic acid.“
State of Microplastics in Beauty
The 2015 ban on microbeads in the U.S. certainly went a long way towards reducing microplastic pollution and exposure, but the fight is a long way from over. Microplastics are still commonly used in products like anti-aging creams, nail polish, and even lipstick to achieve the smooth feel and to stay on longer, according to environmental activist group Beat the Bead. They reference a study by Greenpeace Italy that found microplastic particles present in 79 percent of the products.
“Some concerns may include exposure to harmful chemicals, allergic reactions, environmental pollution, and ingesting microplastics,” Dr. Longwill explains.
Brands like the ones urging the E.U. to act faster have established that the formulas for makeup don’t need to include plastic, which should in turn lead to a faster period of transition away from microplastics.
Dr. Longwill suggests considering the packaging of your product as well as what’s inside it, when attempting to avoid microplastics. “I recommend buying products packaged in glass and avoiding products containing small particles, such as plastic exfoliant beads,” she says.
While many brands are aiming to be microplastic-free, it’s important to note that there are ways microplastics can enter a product unintentionally during the processes of production and transportation. Tires wear down, synthetic textiles degrade over time.
In the end, safety from the effects of microplastics will involve substantial change in more than just the cosmetic industry. But at present, they aim to lead the way.
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