Microplastics in skincare: all you need to know

Microplastics in skincare: all you need to know
Image: @yanash

A scrub with microbeads for delicate skin exfoliation, a generous scoop of sunscreen, bright lipstick with glitter, a bit of pearlescent highlighter. There are lots of ways to start your day with a bit of sparkle but with it comes a daily dose of plastic. We will tell you how plastic microparts find their way into our cosmetic products and how you can avoid them.

Microplastics all around us

It might be that you have already stopped drinking coffee from disposable cups and are choosing makeup in biodegradable packaging but the chances are your proximity to plastic is closer than ever. Given that traces of plastic microparts have been found even in such remote locations as the Pyrenees, what can we expect from the air we inhale in big cities.

Incapable of biological decay, this material simply falls apart into small bits which are exponentially more harmful than their size suggests. We cannot see or feel these microscopic beads but they slowly permeate our soil, water and air. They are also found in the products we stock on our bathroom shelves.

In 2015, the US introduced The Microbead-Free Waters Act which banned the use of 0,05-1mm microbeads in such wash-off beauty products as scrubs and shampoos. A great initiative which was soon taken up by many European countries. Everything we wash off our face and hair ends up in the world ocean, where it ultimately becomes food for fish, birds and other inhabitants of our ecosystem.

Unfortunately, there is no such law in some countries and there are still plenty of products containing microbeads on the shelves of these countries. The results speak for themselves: ecologists have recently estimated that for every litre of water in Lake Ladoga there is at least one plastic particle. All we can hope for is for people to become more conscious consumers who wouldn’t buy such scrubs in the first place. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

How exactly can microbeads impact our health
Image: @yanash

The smaller, the more vicious

1 followed by fourteen zeros makes 100 trillion: this is exactly the amount of microplastic that can be found in a single bottle of sunscreen. Legally it is impeccable. SPF is not considered a product that you would rinse off. These particles are also a lot smaller than the 0,05mm mark established by the ecological norms today.

And if no rules are broken, then it is allowed. This is why, according to the Plastic Soup Foundation’s data, microplastics exist in 83% of sunscreen products. The same goes for the now particularly popular disinfecting hand products. Around 80% of manufacturers add synthetic thickeners and emulsifiers into their formulas.

These 0,0003mm particles are much nimbler than their banned counterparts and have no issue getting into the areas they shouldn’t be found in the first place such as our body’s tissues and bloodstream. The division of cosmetic products into rinse-off and stay-on is also quite vague. Sunscreen silicones that stay on the surface of our skin do eventually end up going down the drain as we rinse our face off in the evening.

The same goes for shimmering eyeshadow, glitter and other makeup with glitter which is often plastic by definition. Unlike beads, glitter has sharp edges which increases the potential risk of damaging an animal when swallowed. Recently Allure magazine carried out its own survey, selectively analysing hundreds of shimmering makeup products from a popular store. Plastic particles known as Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) were found in 32% of them.

Cause and effect

Can these frightening numbers be the result of brands’ ignorance, lack of research or rigid regulation by authorities? It is much more mundane than that. Many popular manufacturers knowingly add microbeads of plastic into makeup because it is cheaper than the existing alternatives. An average consumer is not used to reading the labels of products they use every day.

“Microbeads can potentially have an impact on soil ecosystems, harvest and livestock farming or directly through toxic substances which disrupt the functioning of the endocrine system when plastic is added in manufacturing,” – warn Norwegian scientists who have discovered plastic particles in samples of agricultural soil.

How exactly can microbeads impact our health if used continuously for many years?

We know that this kind of water contamination has an influence on the movement, hormonal regulation, digestive system and immunity of its inhabitants. It also disrupts the photosynthesis process in phytoplankton. But as to the question of how exactly these kinds of substances impact human health, when cosmetic products containing microbeads are used regularly over the course of many years, scientists are at a loss.

According to chemist Dr Sherri Mason at Penn State Behrend, research into microbeads and its influence on our health is still in its infancy. But she believes it is not too soon to state that chemical substances in plastic are associated with some forms of cancer and can lead to reproductive issues due to its influence on sperm mobility and pregnancy.

Microplastic in beauty - the smaller, the more vicious
Image: @yanash

From theory to practice

There is no need to become a cosmetic chemist in order to avoid close encounters with microbeads. It is enough to take a more conscious approach when choosing the products that end up in your makeup bag. Don’t just be critical about the price and marketing of a product, pay attention to its ingredients.

Remember these words: dimethicone, cyclopentasiloxane, nylon, PE, PP, PET, PEG – they should never be in your product’s list of ingredients. There is also another method: instal Beat the Microbead app on your smartphone and review the products on your bathroom shelf to purge it from unsafe bottles and tubes. In the future prioritise clean beauty brands which refuse to use harmful ingredients as a principle rather than as a marketing fad.

And what matters the most is taking responsibility for your choices. You might not be able to influence the global plastic pollution on your own but it is in your power to decide for yourself: are you ready for exfoliating microbeads of your favourite scrub and shiny parts of your discounted bronzer to remain in our world - literally - forever?

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