Microplastics can be found almost everywhere, including the ocean and the air we breathe. And, according to a recent research paper published in Environment International, microplastics have now also been detected in human blood for the first time.
Microplastics are particles less than 5 millimeters across, as defined by marine ecologist Richard Thompson. While microplastics are found in countless products, the beauty and personal care products industry is an area where countries have already pushed for legislation.
For these companies, there is a financial incentive to continue using microplastics. For example, a proposal by the European Chemicals Agency on banning microplastics found that it would cost the European Union cosmetics industry up to €8 billion a year, Business of Fashion reported. , an online media company, in 2019. This is equivalent to about $8.5 billion. In 2021, the global market for this industry was valued at $482.8 billion.
In the United States, Congress has taken action on microplastics. This happened the microbead-free water act of 2015 which prohibited companies from manufacturing, packaging and distributing rinse-off cosmetics containing microbeads, which are used as a cleaning tool. These products include toothpastes, acne scrubs, and dandruff shampoos.
However, this law does not apply to other types of microplastics, nor to all microbeads, which can still be used in deodorants, lotions and makeup. “There are definitely gaps in the law,” said Sherri A. Mason, director of sustainability at Penn State Behrend. “It was a great first step. It was never intended to be the last.
Environmental organizations are pushing businesses and lawmakers to take drastic action on the issue. For example, Beat the microbead, an international campaign by the Amsterdam-based Plastic Soup Foundation is lobbying big companies and entire countries to ban the use of these materials in cosmetics.
Managing microplastics is a burgeoning field, and the scientific literature on the subject has exploded over the past five years, according to Vincent Breslin, professor of environment, geography and marine science at Southern Connecticut University.
“Scientists and environmentalists are taking a closer look at how we interact with plastics and the consequences [that] the very poor management of plastic waste has had on our environment over the years,” Breslin said.
In the study published in Environmental International, researchers from Macquarie University in Australia microplastics studied in Australian homes and found that some the microplastics they measured were composed of “potentially carcinogenic and/or mutagenic compounds”, although “the actual risk to human health is unclear”. Studies on microplastics have mainly focused on their effects on marine life.
There are “primary” microplastics designed for use in products such as cosmetics and personal care products, which include microbeads and “secondary” microplastics that break down from larger plastics. Experts also say that even clothes can shed microfibers, another form of microplastic pollution.
Amy Ziff, the founder of Made Safe, a nonprofit that certifies products free of known toxic chemicals, said we need to ask ourselves how these microplastics enter our bodies.
“These plastics are everywhere. We inhale them. We breathe them in, whether we can see them or not. That’s how widespread it is,” Ziff said. “And I’m not saying that to scare people. I say that to motivate people.
Beat the Microbead, which initially tracked a handful of ingredients known to be used in microbeads, has since expanded its reach to raise awareness of the hundreds of other microplastics used in products which, according to the campaign, encompass solid, liquid, soluble and “biodegradable” materials.
The cosmetics industry will use microplastic ingredients for film formation or as thickening agents, among others, due to how cheap they are, according to Beat the Microbead.
Some states are taking the initiative to enact broader legislation on the issue of microplastics. Tasha Stoiber, senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, noted that California tabled a bill this year this would prohibit the sale or distribution of products such as cosmetics, waxes and varnishes containing “intentionally added microplastics”, as well as microbeads in detergents.
Outside the United States, the European Commission aims to ban microplastics cosmetics and detergents, among other products, although it does not yet have the force of 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 Task Force, noted that the clean beauty industry has gained momentum over the past decade.
“I think there is a movement away from the use of plastics, being very conscious of the use of water – whether in formulations or in product packaging – [and] be more mindful of recycling and reusing product packaging and containers,” Burns said.
Burns added that there have also been changes in technology and formulations, with some companies looking for herbal exfoliators. Market research firm Statista predicts the clean beauty market will double to $11 billion in 2016 at $22 billion by 2024.
When it comes to eco-friendly 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 can’t afford the financial means to be able to make changes, don’t worry.”
But Mason pointed to apps consumers can use to find out what’s in their products. the Beat the Microbead Campaign has developed an application that allows you to scan products for microplastics. An Environmental Working Group app lets you scan products and review their ratings.
“I would recommend that consumers vote with their dollar and support companies that do not intentionally add microplastics to their products,” Burns said.
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