Here, we have summarized the most frequently asked questions.
What are microbeads and what is their function?
Microbeads are tiny plastic particles that are intentionally added to personal care products. They are commonly used in exfoliating products and toothpaste. ‘Microbead’ is a marketing term introduced by the cosmetic industry. The microbeads that the industry refers to are mainly made of Polyethylene (PE) and Polymethyl Methacrylate (PMMA).
What is the difference between microbeads and microplastics?
Microbeads are a kind of microplastic. The cosmetics industry often limits the definition to solid plastic particles that have certain functions such as scrubbing and peeling or only rinse-off products. In 2012, Beat the Microbead started campaigning against rinse-off cosmetics products which contain visible and solid microbeads of Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) or Nylon. Since then, there has been more research conducted on what “microplastics” are and how they impact the environment and people. With the term microbeads, we used to refer to the visible particles of plastic smaller than 5mm which are usually of spherical shape. The term ‘microplastic’ is not consistently defined but is typically considered to refer to small, usually microscopic, solid particles made of a synthetic polymer. They are associated with long-term persistence in the environment if released, as they are very resistant to (bio)degradation. In cosmetics, “microplastic” refers to all types of tiny plastic particles that are intentionally added to personal care & cosmetic products. This definition continues to evolve in accordance with ongoing relevant scientific research.
Are microplastics toxic?
Yes and no. As an ingredient in cosmetics, the industry claims that microplastics are not toxic and safe to use. However, there are doubts as to the human and environmental safety of plastic ingredients used in products like sunscreen. Microplastic ingredients, if ingested, could potentially be absorbed by our portal veins, may have access to our organs and transfer through our blood-brain and placental barriers. If you want to know more about the (micro)plastics and their potential health risks, visit Plastic Health Coalition website. Microplastic ingredients in the sea also attract and absorb toxic chemicals as if they were little magnets and sponges. The particles become polluted and are eaten by fish and other sea animals; the ingested microplastics can then be passed along the marine food chain. Since humans are ultimately at the top of this chain, it is likely that we also take in microplastics and/or their additives.
What are the effects of microplastics in the environment?
Microplastics have a damaging effect on marine life because marine animals often mistake them for food. They are passed along the marine food chain and since humans are ultimately at the top of this food chain it is likely that we also eat these tiny plastic particles. In addition to this, plastic is not biodegradable and once microplastics enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove. Because of this, microplastics in cosmetics ultimately contribute to the plastic soup swirling around the world’s oceans.
Is there any scientific evidence that microplastics pollute the oceans?
Yes, there is already much scientific evidence of microplastic pollution, such as the findings of Professor Richard Thompson (University of Plymouth) who also coined the term. These findings are published in journals like Marine Pollution Bulletin or Environmental Science and Technology. The full implications of microplastic pollution, including consequences for human health, are not yet entirely known. The presence of microplastics in aquatic environments is now recognized as a serious global environmental issue; however, cosmetics are not the only source of microplastic pollution. Most microplastics are the result of fragmentation of larger pieces of plastic. Other sources of microplastics include the shedding of microfibers by synthetic clothing or microplastic loss from car tires.
Is there a list of all microplastic ingredients that are used?
There are no comprehensive lists of all synthetic polymers that can be considered as microplastic ingredients. Up until 2019, our campaign was based on research conducted and published by UNEP and the Belgian Tauw. Today, with the restriction proposal by the European Chemical Agency (ECHA), we have come across more than 550 microplastic ingredients widely used in cosmetics and personal care products. This information can be quite daunting, which is why we created four product categories: Red, Orange, Green, and Zero. Have a look at our Guide to Microplastics page for more information.
Why has Beat the Microbead changed its focus?
When we started the Beat the Microbead campaign in 2012, our focus was solely on the five ingredients most commonly known to be used as microbeads in cosmetic products: Polyethylene (PE), Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), Polypropylene (PP), Polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA) and Nylon. That is why the BTMB app, which we launched in 2012, only focused on these five plastic ingredients. Now, thanks to the extensive research done by the European Chemical Agency, we know there are more than 550 microplastic ingredients widely used in cosmetics and personal care products. You will find microplastic ingredients not only in scrubs but also in products like lipstick, eyeliner, sunscreen and other everyday products. The Beat the Microbead campaign grows wider in scope to accommodate research surrounding microplastic ingredients.
What are rinse-off and leave-on products?
Rinse-off products are intended to be washed off after application on the skin and hair. These include shower gels and shampoos. Leave-on products are intended to stay on the skin and include body creams, sunscreens, hair sprays and oils, etc. Currently, the majority of bans on microplastics pertain only to rinse-off products and disregard leave-on products. We want to restrict the use of microplastics in all consumer or industrial products. That is why Beat the Microbead does not refer to rinse-off or leave-on products, but to cosmetic products in general.
Are there any microplastic-free products?
It is vital for conscious consumers to know that the cosmetics they buy are free of all microplastic ingredients. Otherwise, they might still be polluting the seas without realizing it. We decided to challenge the burden of proof. Instead of consumers having to check labels that are difficult to understand, we ask producers to sign a statement asserting that their cosmetics are completely free of microplastic ingredients. Companies that make a public statement that their products are 100% free of microplastic ingredients are allowed to use our Look for the Zero logo.
Has there been political activity seeking to put a ban on microplastic ingredients?
Yes and No. In December 2015, President Obama signed US-wide legislation after a number of states had introduced a ban. Since then, France, the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland, Wales, England, and Scotland), Taiwan, South Korea, Sweden, and New Zealand have also banned microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics. Following these countries, India recently announced a microbead ban which will enter force in 2020. Italy, too, has drafted legislation to ban microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics as of 1 January 2020. In addition, Italy is the first country to ban plastic cotton buds starting in 2019. The European Commission will hopefully introduce a ban as well. As optimistic as this progress sounds, most of these statewide initiatives refer only to rinse-off cosmetics and not to all microplastic ingredients used in cosmetics. Many countries, like Australia, still prefer to rely on voluntary industrial commitments rather than enacting binding legislation. For more information on which countries are banning microplastics, check out our Impact timeline.
What about so-called liquid plastic ingredients?
So-called liquid plastic ingredients encompass any type of synthetic polymer in liquid or water-soluble form. Currently, it is not entirely known if liquid synthetic polymers pose a risk to the environment. We call upon the industrial and scientific sectors to prove that liquid plastics do not pose risks to the aquatic environment.
Why do manufacturers add microplastic ingredients to cosmetics?
Tiny plastic particles are considered pleasant-feeling skin-scrubbers and tend to have a smoother effect than natural ingredients, like nut shells or salt. Different microplastic ingredients in cosmetics have different functions, for example film formation or viscosity regulation. The cosmetics industry uses microplastic ingredients because of these functions and because microplastics fill up products in at a low cost. In some cases, up to 10% of a cosmetic product may be comprised of microplastic ingredients.
Are manufacturers phasing out microplastic ingredients from cosmetics?
In December of 2012, Unilever was the first multinational to announce the phasing out of plastic microbeads from their products worldwide. Other multinationals soon made similar statements. However, the industry uses many loopholes, such as using so-called 'biodegradable' alternatives (see Plastic Soup Foundation's opinion on biodegradable plastics). Most company statements do not refer to the many microplastic ingredients they still use.
How do I dispose products that I already have at home which contain microplastics?
Unfortunately, there is no 'correct' way to dispose of products containing microplastic ingredients. We always recommend two options: the first is to send the product back to the manufacturer and describe why you decided not to use it and that you will stop buying this product as long as it includes microplastics; the second option would be to dispose of your products in the regular house-trash. It will be taken to a landfill or will be incinerated. These are not very environmentally friendly options but at least the microplastics will not end up in the ocean. Check out our ZERO products lists to see which products are 100% free of microplastics!