Microplastics are found almost everywhere, including the oceans and the air we breathe. And according to research recently published in Environment International, microplastics have now been detected in human blood for the first time.
Microplastics are particles smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter, as defined by marine ecologist Richard Thompson. While microplastics are found in countless products, one area where countries have already pushed for legislation is in the beauty and personal care product industry.
There is a financial incentive for these companies to continue using microplastics. A proposal by the European Chemicals Agency to ban microplastics revealed that this would cost the cosmetics industry in the European Union up to 8 billion euros a year, online media outlet Business of Fashion reported. back in 2019. That equates to about $8.5 billion. In 2021, the global market for this industry was valued at $482.8 billion.
In the US, Congress has taken some action against microplastics. It passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which banned companies from making, packaging and distributing rinse-off cosmetics that contain microbeads used as abrasives. These products include toothpastes, acne scrubs, and anti-dandruff shampoos.
However, this law does not apply to other types of microplastics, nor does it apply to all microbeads, which can still be used in deodorants, lotions and makeup. “There are definitely loopholes in the law,” said Sherri A. Mason, director of sustainability at Penn State Behrend. “That was a great first step. It should never be the last.”
Environmental organizations are urging companies and legislators to take comprehensive action on the issue. For example, Beat the Microbead, an international campaign by the Amsterdam-based Plastic Soup Foundation, is pressuring major corporations and entire countries to ban the use of these materials in cosmetics.
Dealing with microplastics is a growing area, and the scientific literature on the subject has exploded in the past five years, according to Vincent Breslin, professor of environment, geography and marine sciences at Southern Connecticut University.
“Scientists and ecologists are really taking a closer look at how we deal with plastics and what the consequences are [that] Really bad management of plastic waste has had an impact on our environment over the years,” Breslin said.
In the study, published in Environmental International, researchers from Macquarie University in Australia examined microplastics in Australian homes and found that some of the microplastics they measured consisted of “potentially carcinogenic and/or mutagenic compounds” despite “the actual risk to human health remains unclear.” Studies on microplastics have mainly focused on their effects on marine life.
There are “primary” microplastics developed for use in products like cosmetics and personal care products, which include microbeads, and “secondary” microplastics, which are broken down from larger plastics. Experts also say that even clothing can shed microfibers, another form of microplastic pollution.
Amy Ziff, the founder of Made Safe, a nonprofit that certifies products without known toxic chemicals, said we have to ask ourselves how these microplastics get into our bodies.
“These plastics are everywhere. We inhale them. We breathe them in whether we can see them or not. That’s how common it is,” Ziff said. “And I’m not saying that to scare people. I say that to motivate people.”
Beat the Microbead, which originally tracked a handful of ingredients known to be used in microbeads, has since expanded its scope to raise awareness of hundreds of other microplastics used in products that the campaign says liquid, soluble and “biodegradable”. Materials.
According to Beat the Microbead, the cosmetics industry will use microplastic ingredients for film formation or as thickeners, partly because of their cheap price.
Some states are taking the initiative to pass more extensive laws on the subject of microplastics. Tasha Stoiber, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, noted that this year California introduced a bill that would ban the sale or distribution of products like cosmetics, waxes and polishes that “intentionally contain microplastics” as well as microbeads in laundry detergent.
Outside the USA, the European Commission is aiming to ban microplastics from cosmetics and detergents, among other things, but this has not yet been enshrined in law.
Mason said the beauty and personal care industry still has a long way to go when it comes to making products sustainable and rethinking their packaging.
However, Carla Burns, senior director of cosmetic science at the Environmental Working Group, noted that the clean beauty industry has grown in importance over the past decade.
“I think there is a movement away from using plastics towards being very conscious of water – be it in the formulations or in the product packaging – [and] Be more considerate of the recycling and reusability of product packaging and containers,” Burns said.
Burns added that there have also been changes in technology and formulations, with some companies pursuing plant-based scrubs. Market research firm Statista predicts that the clean beauty market will double from $11 billion in 2016 to $22 billion by 2024.
When it comes to making green choices, EWG’s Tasha Stoiber said it can’t just be left to the consumer. “There has to be a top-down solution,” she added.
Mason echoed that sentiment, saying, “If you don’t have the financial resources to make changes, don’t beat yourself up.”
However, Mason pointed to apps that can help consumers find out what’s in their products. The Beat the Microbead campaign has developed an app that can be used to scan products for microplastics. You can use an app from the Environmental Working Group to scan products and view their ratings.
“I would recommend consumers vote with their dollar and support companies that don’t intentionally add microplastics to their products,” Burns said.
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