Research prompts calls for stricter legislation and deeper research to curb the prevalence of tiny synthetic polymer particles

Consumer goods giants continue to face growing scrutiny over their reliance on plastics, with fresh research published yesterday having found microplastics in products manufactured by almost 90 per cent of the top-selling cosmetics brands.

Touted as a first of its kind study, researchers from campaign group the Plastic Soup Foundation assessed over 7,700 products from household cosmetics brands – such as L’Oréal Paris, Garnier, Nivea, Gillette, Oral-B, and Head & Shoulders – and found 87 per cent contained microplastics.

Little is known about the impacts of microplastics on human health, nor the biodegradability of such small pieces of synthetic polymers on the environment.

However, growing numbers of studies have found traces of microplastics almost everywhere, including in oceans, rivers, water supplies, food, animals, and even in human blood, prompting growing concerns over the scale of pollution from plastic particles around the world.

Earlier this week, a scientific study for the first time found traces of microplastic pollution lodged deep in the lungs of living people, with particles discovered in almost all the samples assessed.

Given the prevalence of microplastics discovered through its study of leading cosmetics products, Plastic Soup Foundation called for all synthetic polymers to be examined for their potential harm before they are allowed to be included in products sold in the European market.

Every minute, it is estimated over seven kilograms of microplastics deriving from personal care products end up in the environment across Europe, according to the campaign group.

“Far too little is known about these synthetic polymers to allow them unregulated access to people living across Europe,” said Plastic Soup Foundation founder Maria Westerbos. “What we do know is that these products, used day-in day-out, contain plastic. We are seeing a wealth of emerging evidence that plastic poses a risk to not just the environment, but human health also.”

The 10 brands investigated as part of Plastic Soup Foundation’s study are manufactured by just four major firms – L’Oreal, Beiersdorf, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever – with the campaign group accusing the multinationals of failing to do enough to tackle microplastics in their products.

It also raised concerns that proposals from the EU to introduce new restrictions on the addition of microplastics to products, such as cosmetics, detergents, and pesticides, could prove to be too weak and ineffective to tackle the problem.

The legislation is expected to be debated in Brussels in June with a view to it being adopted by the end of 2022, but Plastic Soup Foundation said there was a risk of the new rules being based on the European Chemicals Agency’s (ECHA) definition of microplastics, which it said excludes the majority of synthetic polymers. 

Westerbos said it would mean the legislation would apply to less than four per cent of the microplastics used in cosmetics products in Europe.

“The current proposed definition by ECHA will only tackle a fraction of the problem as long as it does not cover all types of microplastics,” she said. “The EU must urgently re-think how it defines microplastics, and make sure its legislation is as robust as possible to protect both people and the planet.”

L’Oreal had not responded to requests for comment at the time of going to press, but P&G denied that any of its cosmetics products named in the report contained microplastics.

“At P&G we don’t use plastic microbeads in any of our products,” the firm said in a statement. “None of the ingredients in the report with respect to our brands are microplastics as they are liquids, nor are they plastics by any regulation globally.”

Beiersdorf, meanwhile, referred BusinessGreen‘s request to its industry association Cosmetics Europe, which said Plastic Soup Foundation’s report “paints a highly misleading picture of the situation of microplastics and cosmetics and personal care products”.

Cosmetics Europe claimed all plastics and polymers used in their products were subject to stringent EU safety and biodegradability standards, and that the ECHA’s definition of microplastics had been through a rigorous process of approval from experts.

“Plastic Soup Foundation is more interested in unduly alarming consumers than providing them with meaningful information,” the trade association said in a statement. “It is crucial to underline that intentionally added microplastics from cosmetic and personal care products represent an extremely small contribution to overall microplastics emissions. Based on figures included in the ECHA proposed restriction, intentionally added microplastics from leave-on cosmetics are estimated to contribute to only 0.28 per cent of all microplastic releases in the EU.”

It added: “Cosmetics Europe would like to emphasise that cosmetic products are safe for consumers. All cosmetic and personal care products available in the EU have to comply with very strict EU legislation requiring thorough safety assessments. The EU Cosmetic Products Regulation governing cosmetic products is one of the most stringent and respected regulatory frameworks in the world.”

Unilever, meanwhile, highlighted a range of efforts it was making to tackle microplastics and shift towards biodegradable materials, and pointed to a section on its website offering further details of its microplastics policy.

It also pointed out that there is currently no agreed definition for what constitutes microplastics.

“We recognise that microplastics are a growing concern and we choose to take a cautious approach to this issue,” Unilever said in a statement. “As part of our commitment to make our formulations biodegradable by 2030, we’re in the process of removing microplastics from our home, beauty and personal care products and replacing them with natural or biodegradable alternatives. We have also chosen to go beyond what has been set out by the European Chemicals Agency and UN Environment Programme by working to a higher standard of biodegradability.”

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