What is the difference between microbeads and microplastics?
The term microbeads refers to the visible particles of plastic smaller than 5mm which are usually of spherical shape and have certain functions such as scrubbing and peeling or only rinse-off products. They are mainly made of Polyethylene (PE) and Polymethyl Methacrylate (PMMA).
Microbeads are also considered to be microplastics. Almost all cosmetic giants put microbeads in their products. That has of course changed now as the cosmetic industry “volunteered” to get them out of their products. Now the conversation is about microplastics in general. The term ‘microplastic’ is not consistently defined but is typically considered and not limited to referring to small 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 plastics particles intentionally added to personal care & cosmetic products. This definition continues to evolve in accordance with ongoing relevant scientific research.
Why are microplastics added to your cosmetics?
Microbeads 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, thickness agent or viscosity regulation. The cosmetics industry uses microplastic ingredients because of these functions and because microplastics fill up products at a low cost. In some cases, up to 90% of a cosmetic product may be comprised of microplastic ingredients.
What’s so bad about microplastics in cosmetics?
These microplastics, hardly visible to the naked eye, flow straight from the bathroom drain into the sewer system. Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to filter them out; that is how microplastics contribute to the ‘Plastic Soup’ swirling around in our oceans. Microplastic pollution is irreversible.
Sea animals absorb or eat microplastics; these particles can then be passed along the marine food chain. Since humans are ultimately at the top of this food chain, it is likely that we also ingest microplastics. Microplastics are not biodegradable and once they enter the (marine) environment, they are almost impossible to remove.
Plastics contain a complex mixture of chemicals, and some of those have been identified as hazardous to environmental and human health. Microplastics are a risk to human health and the environment. Plastic has also been acknowledged as a planetary boundary. So there is no reason to put microplastics on purpose into products millions of consumers use on a daily basis. Plastic in cosmetics is a design error.
Using body washes or cosmetics that contain microplastics can put the ocean, ourselves, and our children at risk!