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Scientific Evidence About Microplastic Ingredients

In 2004, the findings of a research programme led by Professor Richard Thompson (University of Plymouth) detailed the distribution of microplastic pollution. The article was the first to conclude the spread of microplastics and plastic fibres throughout the entire marine environment1. While larger pieces of plastic break down into smaller pieces due to UV radiation and abrasive wave action, cosmetic products use microplastic ingredients as abrasive scrubbers and for cleansing purposes2. The concentration of marine microplastics is accumulating rapidly3.

In addition Fendall and Sewell (University of Auckland) found out that microplastic ingredients from cosmetics pass directly into household wastewater streams and are too small to be retained by the standard filters used at sewage treatment plants, since they are not designed to filter out microplastics. Hence the general amount of microplastics in the aquatic environment constantly accumulates4. German researchers Liebezeit and Dubaish (University of Oldenburg) hypothesised that cosmetics, and especially peelings, make up most of the microplastics they found in the Wadden Sea5.

However, it is almost impossible to pinpoint the source of origin. In terms of relative contributions to microplastic pollution, a range of studies have looked at the number or concentration of microplastic ingredients in individual products. The American non-governmental organisation (NGO) 5Gyres, found a large number of microplastics in the Great Lakes and estimates that one single cosmetic product (Neutrogena’s Deep Clean) contains 330,000 microplastic ingredients6. Dr. Leslie (VU University, Amsterdam) found that microplastic ingredients make up 10.6% of one scrub (Exofonic scrub of L’Oreal)7.

Microplastics and the Marine Life

What has been found out is that marine species are unable to distinguish between food and microplastics and therefore indiscriminately feed on microplastics. In an overview published for the Convention on Biological Diversity, it was shown that over 663 different species were negatively impacted by marine debris with approximately 11% of reported cases specifically related to the ingestion of microplastics8. Some species of fish excrete plastic easily, but others do not and so accumulate plastic internally. To cite one study: around 35% of 670 fish examined (total of 6 species) had microplastics in their stomachs. The highest number of fragments found in one fish was 839. Through that, microplastics do not only directly enter the sea, they can also enter the human food chain10.

A research study published in the science journal PNAS found out that Oysters which were exposed to polystyrene microparticles, showed to interfere with energy uptake and allocation, reproduction, and offspring performance11.

Microplastics and Toxins

The surface of microplastics has been proven to attract and absorb persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs and DDT from the marine environment. Relatively high concentrations of POPs have been found on the surface of microplastics12. The International Pellet Watch, led by Professor Takada at the University of Tokyo, is conducting research to this effect. Takada’s research indicates that certain POPs found in bird tissue were ingested together with their plastic hosts13. In theory, ingested POPs could remain on the surface of ingested microplastics and could be egested14. However, fish and seafood have been recorded with plastic fragments inside their guts and body tissues. Therefore, scientists hypothesise that over time, POPs will start accumulating in the food chain, transferring from species to species, with consequences ultimately for humans15.
Toxic chemicals added to plastic during the manufacturing process (such as plasticisers and flame retardants) leach out of plastic in the marine environment and pose serious threats to marine fauna16. The most common plasticisers have been recorded in fish, marine mammals and molluscs17. The smallest particles of plastic are ingested and retained by filter feeders such as mussels. Belgian toxicologist Colin Janssen (University of Ghent) found that on average, each gram of mussel flesh contains one particle of plastic18. Species of plankton are also found to ingest and retain plastic particles19.

As scientific understanding of the effects of microplastics on the environment continues to grow, the fate of microplastics has become an extremely important question. Increasingly, sources and impacts of microplastic pollution are being questioned and considered closely by scientists and policymakers alike.

The full extent and consequences are hard to quantify, the accumulation of plastic, including microplastics, in the marine environment is today recognised as a serious, global environmental issue20. Therefore, research into the quantity and consequences of microplastics in the environment is important. In light of growing evidence confirming the seriousness of this issue, there is a pressing need to address direct sources of microplastic pollution – something that is both unavoidable and highly necessary.

More scientific findings

  • UNEP (2016). UNEP Frontiers 2016 Report: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi. http://bit.ly/28IjpxS.
  • Rossana Sussarellu, ‘Oyster reproduction is affected by exposure to polystyrene microplastics,’ 2430–2435, in: PNAS, vol. 113 no. 9. http://bit.ly/2ad44LC.
  • Jambeck Jenna R., Geyer Roland, Wilcox Chris, Siegler Theodore R., Perryman Miriam, Andrady Anthony, Narayan Ramani, Law Kara Lavender, ‘Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean,’ in: Science 13 Feb 2015: Vol. 347, Issue 6223, pp. 768-771, DOI: 10.1126/science.1260352. http://bit.ly/1Twft9y.
  • 5000 to 95,000 microplastic ingredients are released into the environment with every single use of cosmetic products. This has been researched by various scientists and published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin. http://bit.ly/1OjVODZ.
  • Tackling plastic pollution at its source is the most effective way to reduce marine litter according to the Institute for European Environmental Policy. http://bit.ly/2atijYn.
  • Microplastics which are harmful to human health accumulate in all kinds of fish and shellfish such as mussels, tuna, oysters, salmon and anchovies. This has been confirmed by scientific research. http://bit.ly/2apvxI2.
  • Scientists have discovered that mussels which are exposed to high concentrations of plastic display signs of stress. http://bit.ly/1AkldER.
  • Microplastics are found in plankton and this is probably how they enter our food chain. Watch the video on: http://bbc.in/1J4M5ml.
  • Studies have shown microplastics can be found on almost every beach worldwide, on polar icecaps, just about everywhere in the oceans as well as in marine organisms and mammals. http://bit.ly/2aFAoq7.
  • Substantial quantities of microplastics in the ocean sink to the bottom. This is shown in a study into plastics in the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. A team of scientists researched these oceans between 2001 and 2012 to a depth of up to 3000 metres. The amount of plastic on the ocean floor is 1000 times greater than the amount floating on the surface. http://bit.ly/2arHkGj.
  • The ocean contains an estimated minimum of 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing nearly 269,000 tons of floating particles. http://bit.ly/2aGMe2K.
  • Microplastics in toothpaste are 100 times smaller than in scrubs. The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment states that the lower limit for the size of plastics should be 1 μm. http://bit.ly/2alIRvL.
  • According to the UNEP, microplastics are the most harmful pollutants currently chocking the oceans. http://bit.ly/1qvy5BM.
  • Microplastics – A Science Summary http://bit.ly/29Ordk1.
  • Dr. M. Eriksen et al., ‘Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the laurentian Great Lakes’, in: Marine Pollution Bulletin 77


  1. R.C. Thompson, et al. ‘Lost at Sea: Where Is All the Plastic?,’ in: Science, 304 (May 2004).
  2. P.K. Roy, et al., ‘Degradable Polyethylene: Fantasy or Reality’, in: Environmental Science and Technology, 2011, pp. 4217–4227.
  3. M.C. Goldstein et al., ‘Increased oceanic microplastic debris enhances oviposition in an endemic pelagic insect’, in: Biology Letters, published on line 9 May 2012; C.J. Moore, ‘Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing, long-term threat’, in: Environmental Research 108 (2008), pp. 131-139.
  4. L.S. Fendall, M.A. Sewell, ‘Contributing to marine pollution by washing your face: microplastics in facial cleansers’, in: Marine Pollution Bulletin, 58 (8) (2009), pp. 1225-1228; M.A. Browne et al., ‘Accumulations of microplastic on shorelines worldwide: sources and sinks’, in: Environmental Science &Technology 45 (2011), pp. 9175/9179; H.A. Leslie et al., ‘Verkennende studie naar lozing van microplastics door rwzi’s’ in: H2O 14/15 (juli 2012), pp. 45-47
  5. G. Liebezeit, F. Dubaish, ‘Microplastics in Beaches of the East Frisian Islands Spiegeroog and Kacheloplate,’ in: Bulletin environmental contamination and toxicology, 89 (2012), p. 213-127.
  6. https://www.5gyres.org/microbeads/
  7. Leslie, H.A., Microplastic in Noordzee zwevend stof en cosmetica. Eindrapportage W-12/01, IVM Institute for Environmental Studies, Amsterdam, 2012.
  8. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel—GEF (2012). Impacts of Marine Debris on Biodiversity: Current Status and Potential Solutions, Montreal, Technical Series No. 67.
  9. Chr.M. Boerger et al., ‘Plastic ingestion by planktivorous fishes in the North Pacific Central Gyre’, in: Marine Pollution Bulletin 60 (2010), pp. 2275-2278.
  10. L.S. Fendall, M.A. Sewell, ‘Contributing to marine pollution by washing your face: microplastics in facial cleansers’, in: Marine Pollution Bulletin, 58 (8) (2009), pp. 1225-1228
  11. Rossana Sussarellu, ‘Oyster reproduction is affected by exposure to polystyrene microplastics,’ 2430–2435, in: PNAS, vol. 113 no. 9. http://www.pnas.org/content/113/9/2430.abstract.
  12. Y. Mato et al., ‘Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium of Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment’, in: Environmental Science & Technology, 2001, 35(2), pp.318-324.
  13. H. Takada, et al., ‘Accumulation of plastic-derived chemicals in tissues of seabirds ingesting marine plastics,’ in: Marine Pollution Bulletin 69 (2013), pp 219-222.
  14. E.M. Foekema et al., ‘Plastic in North Sea fish,’ in: Environmental Science & Technology, 47 (2013), pp. 8818-8824.
  15. P. Farrel en K. Nelson, ‘Trophic level transfer of microplastic: Mytilus edulis (L.) to Carcinus maenas (L.),’ in: Environmental Pollution 177 (2013), pp. 1-3.
  16. D. Lithner et al., ‘Environmental and health hazard ranking and assessment of plastic polymers based on chemical composition,’ in: Science of the total environment 409 (2011), pp. 3309–3324.
  17. STAP. ‘Marine Debris as a Global Environmental Problem: Introducing a solutions based framework focused on plastic,’ in: A STAP Information Document, p. 40. Washington, DC: Global Environment Facility, 2011.
  18. L. Van Cauwenberghe, ‘Occurrence of microplastics in mussels (Mytilus edulis) and lugworms (Arenicola marina) collected along the French-Belgian-Dutch coast, in: J. Mees, et al. (ed.), Book of abstracts – VLIZ Young Marine Scientists’ Day. Brugge, Belgium, 24 February 2012. VLIZ Special Publication, 55.
  19. Cole M., et al., ‘Micro-plastic ingestion by zooplankton’, in: Environmental Science & Technology, 2013 47 (12), pp. 6646-6655.
  20. W.J. Sutherland et al., ‘A horizontal scan of global conservation issues for 2010’, in: Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 25, pp. 1-7.

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