Microplastics in Skincare: An Invisible Threat to Health and Environment

Aug 3, 2023by Heather Smith


The prevalence of microplastics in skincare products has become a significant concern. While invisible to the naked eye, these minute chemicals pose substantial threats to marine ecosystems and, potentially, human health.

This article will explore the role of microplastics in the beauty industry, their environmental and health impacts, current regulations, and the potential for eco-friendly alternatives.

It will also examine the role consumers play in combating this ubiquitous pollutant.

Key Takeaways

  • Microplastics do not biodegrade; they pose a threat to aquatic ecosystems and work their way back up the food chain.

  • Eco-friendly alternatives, such as natural ingredients and biodegradable alternatives to traditional plastic, can mitigate environmental damage.

  • Consumers play a crucial role in combating microplastics by making informed purchasing decisions and advocating for stricter regulations, like global bans on microbeads.

Defining Microplastics: An Overview

Microplastics, typically defined as plastic particles smaller than 5mm in size, have increasingly become a subject of concern. These particles can be compared to tiny grains of sand, but their impact on the environment is disproportionately larger. Nanoplastics are the same, just even smaller. 

Primary microplastics are tiny plastic pieces or fibres that are intentionally designed to be small, usually less than 5mm in size. They are often used in products like facial scrubs, toothpaste, and synthetic clothing.

Secondary microplastics are created when larger plastic items degrade over time due to environmental factors such as sunlight and wave action. These larger items fragment into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming microplastics.

Microplastics come in a variety of forms, including plastic microbeads, which are often incorporated into skincare products for their exfoliating properties. These tiny plastic particles are designed to be washed down the drain after use, but their small size allows them to bypass wastewater treatment plants and enter waterways and oceans. It is analogous to a sieve that fails to catch finer particles, allowing them to slip through unnoticed. Thankfully, this specific form of microplastic has largely been banned. Unfortunately, the ban does not extend to microplastics in makeup, like glitter, as well as other particles that don't qualify as microbeads, like abrasives in toothpaste.

When they enter the food chain, these chemicals can be ingested by marine life and, subsequently, by humans. Marine pollution is a very harmful form of environmental contamination linked to beauty industry pollution.

Common Sources of Microplastics

By far, the largest source of microplastics comes from packaging materials. Packaging materials such as plastic bags and bottles break down into microplastics over time. This happens particularly when these materials are exposed to sunlight or physical stressors, like when a plastic bag is crumpled, or a bottle is crushed. It's like a cookie crumbling into small crumbs, except these 'crumbs' are plastic particles that persist in the environment for hundreds of years.

Tiny plastic particles are also used as ingredients that are usually abrasive. They are usually found in toothpaste and exfoliants. The use of decorative elements like glitter is also often plastic. 

Microplastics are also released from synthetic clothing during washing. A single wash of a synthetic garment can release up to 700,000 microplastic fibres. This is akin to emptying a small packet of glitter into a river; the particles disperse widely, making them virtually impossible to retrieve completely.

One commonly overlooked form of microplastics in skincare is the ingredients themselves. Liquid microplastics are truly invisible to the naked eye and wash easily down the drain. These ingredients are used as texture modifiers in skincare products - usually thickening and gelling agents like carbomer, acrylates copolymer, and polyethylene.

Microplastics are ubiquitous, infiltrating all corners of the environment, from the deepest ocean trenches to the highest mountain peaks. Their sources are as diverse as their destinations, making their management and reduction a complex, global concern.

Impact on Marine Life

The proliferation of these minute plastic particles in water bodies poses a significant threat to marine life. These particles are so small that they easily bypass water treatment facilities, leading to an increased presence in marine ecosystems.

The detrimental impact on marine life is multifaceted:

    • Small but visible microplastic particles are often mistaken for food by marine creatures, leading to ingestion and potential starvation.
    • The particles can accumulate in the digestive system, causing blockages and internal injuries.
    • Microplastics can act as carriers for harmful pollutants, chemicals, and pathogens.
    • The particles can disrupt reproductive systems, affecting population dynamics.
    • Microplastics contribute to habitat degradation, impacting biodiversity.
    • They work their way back up the food chain and are also aerosolized, which are two ways they make it into the human body.

There is an urgent need to address the issue of microplastics in skincare, acknowledging the far-reaching implications on marine life and, consequently, on human health and the environment.

Potential Health Risks for Humans

Exposure to these minuscule plastic particles, predominantly through the consumption of contaminated seafood, poses potential health risks for humans. Microplastics are small enough to infiltrate the tissues of various marine species, which are then ingested by humans. This creates a direct pathway for microplastics to enter the human food system.

The potential health risks of such contamination are still under investigation. However, numerous studies suggest harmful effects. Due to their small size, akin to a grain of sand or smaller, microplastics can evade the body's natural filtration systems, potentially leading to accumulation in various organs.

Moreover, these tiny particles can carry other pollutants, acting like minuscule vessels for other chemicals. These potential toxicants can potentially be released into the body, leading to adverse health effects.

The exact amount and type of harm to humans is up for debate. The plastic and petroleum industries would like us to believe they are passive, inert bystanders. Sorry, I don't buy that! The only way to properly study this question is to be able to have a comparison group - a group of humans with no microplastic exposure. Unfortunately, this doesn't exist.

Recent studies have revealed alarming evidence of microplastics being found in fetal tissue, human placentas, human breast milk, and newborn meconium (the first poop a baby forms was developed in the womb from swallowing amniotic fluid).

The presence of microplastics in fetal tissue and placentas suggests that these tiny particles can cross the protective barrier of the womb, potentially exposing developing fetuses to harmful substances. The implications of this are yet to be fully understood, but it's concerning, particularly as these particles can carry toxins and have been shown to cause inflammation and damage to tissues in animal studies.

Moreover, the detection of microplastics in human breastmilk is another alarming indication of our daily exposure to plastic pollutants. While breastfeeding remains the best source of nutrition for infants, the presence of these pollutants is an unwanted addition, the long-term effects of which are still largely unknown.

Identifying Products with Microplastics

The most easily identifiable culprit is plastic skincare containers.

Identification of microplastics in various products, particularly liquid microplastic ingredients, is essential in understanding their potential impact on human health and the environment.

Some organizations, like Beat the Microbead (by the Plastic Soup Foundation), are trying to make it easy for consumers to identify liquid microplastics. Even better, they help consumers identify microplastic-free brands like bareLUXE.

Numerous skincare products contain liquid microplastic ingredients. Texture modifiers and gelling agents like carbomer and acrylates are pervasive. Some others include:

    • Polyethylene, a common plastic, is utilized in exfoliants and peel-off masks for its scrubbing capabilities.
    • Polymethyl methacrylate, used for its light-reflecting properties, is found in products like foundations and primers.
    • Nylon-12, which absorbs oil and reduces shine, is a frequent component of powders and blushes.

There is an ever-growing list of liquid microplastic ingredients, which is why using apps like Beat the Microbead can be so helpful for consumers.

How to Dispose of Products with Microbeads

Should you have a product clearly filled with plastic beads or particles, disposal should be carried out in a manner that prevents them from entering water bodies.

One approach is to filter out the microbeads from products before discarding the remaining solution. This is akin to sifting flour to separate the finer particles. The collected microbeads can then be disposed of with solid waste, thereby reducing their chances of contaminating water resources. However, this approach requires considerable effort and may not be feasible in all scenarios. It also doesn't eliminate the liquid microplastics from going down the drain.

Hence, the promotion of microbead-free products is a more sustainable solution.

Eco-friendly Alternatives

Natural ingredients have gained prominence as viable substitutes for microplastics in skincare products. For instance, ingredients like jojoba beads, apricot kernels, and salt are increasingly being used as exfoliants instead of polyethylene. These natural alternatives function similarly to microplastics, offering the desired scrubbing effect without the associated environmental cost. Baking soda is a good example when it comes to toothpaste abrasives as well.

Skincare formulators have an ever-increasing list of natural gelling and thickening agents like xanthan, guar, acacia, tara, sclerotium, and locust bean gums; there's also cellulose, pectin, alginate, lecithin, and various clays. So many options that biodegrade and still make luxurious cosmetics and beauty products.

Packaging innovations and biotechnology have led to the development of biodegradable plastics derived from plant-based materials. These novel materials disintegrate and biodegrade, some are even compostable, negating the persistent pollution problem posed by conventional microplastics.

Consumer Role in Combating Microplastics

The role of consumers in addressing the environmental crisis precipitated by the presence of minute plastic particles in personal care products is paramount and multifaceted. Their actions can influence manufacturers to transition towards more sustainable practices.

Consumers can help mitigate the microplastics issue in several ways:

    • Become educated about the presence and impacts of plastic in cosmetics products. This includes understanding the terminology used on product labels and recognizing the common types of microplastics.
    • Polyethylene
    • Polypropylene
    • Polymethyl methacrylate and other acrylates
    • Nylon and other polymers
    • Carbomer
    • Make informed purchasing decisions, choosing products that are microplastics-free or use biodegradable alternatives.
    • Advocate for stricter regulations on the use of microplastics in personal care products, either individually or through joining environmental organizations. A global ban would be ideal.

Imagine a world where consumers act as watchdogs, scrutinizing product labels as diligently as they would a food menu. In this scenario, companies would be compelled to offer environmentally friendly options. This is the ultimate scenario and why we advocate for the slow beauty movement.

Consumer decision-making can stimulate industry-wide changes, driving manufacturers to abandon harmful practices. This emphasizes the power of the consumer wallet, turning it into a tool for environmental protection.

Future of Beauty: Sustainable Practices

Transitioning from the realm of consumer responsibility, it becomes apparent that the onus to mitigate the environmental impact of microplastics also lies with beauty industry stakeholders.

The beauty industry needs to step up! Small indie brands have caught on, but the impact comes when major cosmetics brands get on board. Being a 100% plastic-free beauty brand is not yet possible, but having the goal is admirable.

The cosmetics industry is gradually recognizing the environmental implications of its products, with microplastics emerging as a significant concern. This recognition is translating into a shift towards more sustainable practices, which can be seen in a growing trend of brands opting for natural, biodegradable ingredients over synthetic, non-degradable ones. This is akin to switching from plastic bags to reusable totes in an effort to reduce plastic waste.

Conscious packaging is another area where a notable shift is occurring. More brands are now choosing materials that are recyclable or, even better, biodegradable. This mirrors the shift from plastic water bottles to glass or metal alternatives.

The ubiquity of microplastics, particularly in skincare products, poses significant challenges to marine life and, potentially, human health. Regulatory measures are critical in managing this issue, but consumer choices also hold considerable power.

The shift towards eco-friendly alternatives is a promising step towards sustainable beauty practices. Continued research, innovative alternatives, and increased awareness are necessary for a future that harmoniously combines beauty and environmental responsibility.



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About the Author

Dr. Heather Smith developed her love for skinimalism and clean beauty years ago when she began making home remedies for her newborn's eczema. She is an expert in natural ingredients and active botanicals and has now launched bareLUXE Skincare - a full line of effective oil serums. She dedicates this blog to consumers who are researching ingredients and working to make their beauty ritual more natural and sustainable.


This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Smith nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content should consult their physicians about their skincare concerns and routines.