Step-by-step farewell to microplastics in cosmetics
6/3/2024 Energy and raw material base in transition Article

Step-by-step farewell to microplastics in cosmetics

Microplastics in scrubs and shower gels deserve a red card. It has been banned in the EU since October 2023. Manufacturers have managed the switch to alternative ingredients well. However, many other products such as shampoo, detergent, hair gel, lipstick and nail varnish are still to be phased out.

A little girl in a big hat smears her mouth and the area around it with bright red lipstick.

Microplastics do not belong in the environment. If they do end up in water, they accumulate in fish and shellfish - and end up back on our plates. According to an EU regulation from October 2023, it may therefore no longer be deliberately added to products where it is released during use. Secondary microplastics, which are created by the decomposition of larger plastic products, are not covered by the regulation. Primary microplastics are banned: synthetic polymer particles that are smaller than 5 millimetres (fibres up to 15 millimetres), insoluble and difficult to break down. Granules on artificial sports surfaces are the largest source. However, numerous cosmetics and detergents, pesticides and pharmaceuticals also fall under the restriction. It is estimated that 42,000 tonnes of microplastics are released in the EU every year.

The ban already applied to some of the products mentioned when the regulation came into force. For example, loose plastic glitter, scrubs and shower gels to which microbeads have been added for an exfoliating or cleansing effect may no longer be placed on the market since 17 October 2023. The manufacturers of microbeads have delivered. They are now using walnut shells or apricot kernels, mineral substances, wax, cellulose capsules or jojoba beads to replace the plastic particles. A number of manufacturers announced the switch much earlier.

Blue containers are filled with white cream on an industrial filling line.   The ban on microplastics will not apply to creams until 2029, but some manufacturers have already made the switch.

Roadmap for phasing out shampoo, creams, make-up and co.

But the phase-out scenario is only just beginning. Microplastics will also be gradually banned in other products:

  • from October 2027 in rinse-off products such as shampoo or shower gel;
  • from October 2028 in washing, care, cleaning and polishing products, air fresheners and waxes
  • from October 2029 in leave-on products such as creams and hair gel that remain on the skin or hair
  • and from October 2035 in make-up products, lipstick and nail varnish.

Producers are therefore being granted a really long transition period in some cases. L'Oréal, whose rinse-off products have been free from microplastics since 2020 according to its own information, shows that things can happen faster than required by law. Beiersdorf has also announced that all Nivea products, including rinse-off, will be free of microplastics by the end of 2021.

Portrait picture of Birgit Huber. Birgit Huber, IKW: ‘Make-up and lipsticks are very complex product formulations. Manufacturers need the long deadlines granted to find suitable alternatives for microplastics.’
But for other products, the years-long changeover phases are also necessary. Birgit Huber, Deputy Managing Director of the German Cosmetic, Toiletry, Perfumery and Wax Association (IKW), assures: ‘The cosmetics industry is using the time to implement the changeover to the applicable legal requirements where necessary.’ However, the replacement of microplastic particles poses a real challenge, especially for some leave-on products such as make-up, lip and nail care. ‘These products involve very complex product formulations,’ says Huber, adding: ‘Manufacturers need these periods of time to find alternatives for the affected products that not only offer adequate product performance and are technically suitable. The alternative solutions must also be available in the appropriate quantity and quality. And finally, the alternatives must also fulfil the high safety requirements for people and the environment.’ Changes in production technology are also often necessary. Dr Beate Pfundstein, whose association ICADA represents around 400 European small and medium-sized cosmetics manufacturers, also points out the high demands placed on the substitutes and adds: ‘In addition, the switch to new materials may require extensive changes to the existing formulation. The development and testing of new substitutes is costly and time-consuming, which is particularly challenging for smaller companies.’

High demands on replacement products such as Opacifier

Manufacturer L'Oréal explains on its website that microplastics are used in cosmetics as opacifiers or mattifying agents, among other things. It also provides a soft, silky feel and allows the texture of formulations to be customised. ‘Furthermore, these substances have the advantage of being chemically and physically inert,’ it says. These requirements also apply to existing and future replacement products. But this is not rocket science either. Clariant, for example, offers a microplastic-free, biodegradable opacifier for rinse-off products.

Such products can also bring the consumer on board. This is because the properties and appearance of products often change when microplastics are replaced. Shower gel, for example, is no longer white; creams are somewhat harder to spread on the skin. The category with the longest transition period is likely to be tricky: according to IKW, there are currently only a few alternative solutions for make-up products, lipstick and nail varnish. What might these be? That is still a secret of the individual manufacturers and their product developers.

Health risks from microplastics? Risk institute gives the all-clear

Only in a good ten years will make-up and lipstick users be able to assume that they are not applying microplastics to their facial skin at the same time. Isn't that unhealthy? In fact, it is already possible today without it, as the company Cosnova proves with its completely microplastic-free products from the cosmetics brands Essence and Catrice. It is surprising that brand manufacturers such as Lancome and Maybelline, whose beauty products, according to a Greenpeace study, often contain plastic, do not provide any information about microplastics. After all, the tiny particles from lips and skin often end up in the body. Greenpeace warns that microplastics can penetrate cell barriers and trigger inflammation.

Birgit Huber from IKW disagrees: ‘The manufacturers of cosmetic products attach particular importance to ensuring that the ingredients they use are harmless to human health. This also applies to the microplastic particles used in cosmetic products.’ She refers to an article published by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) in July 2022, according to which microplastics are too ‘bulky’ to be absorbed by human cells to any significant extent. It is indigestible and is largely excreted again. The situation is different for plastic particles in the sub-micro and nano range. These could actually cause inflammatory processes. However, according to the BfR, follow-up tests are needed to conclusively assess this. ‘However, research has now recognised that there are probably nanoplastics where there are microplastics,’ Pfundstein admits. She knows: ‘Thanks to considerable progress in the detection of particles, detection is becoming increasingly successful. However, research is still in its infancy; it is currently completely unclear how high the exposure is from which source and, above all, what effect it has.’

Consider packaging in the microplastic footprint

The discussion about the microplastic footprint is relatively new. This refers to a comprehensive consideration of the introduction of microplastics into the environment through a product, including production, packaging and proper disposal. Dr Pfundstein thinks little of this with regard to the cosmetics industry: ‘Compared to other sectors, the input is negligible - and collecting data on the amount of microplastics released by various activities and products is most likely very time-consuming.’

IKW is monitoring the current discussion very closely, says Birgit Huber. In general, intensive work is also being done to avoid or reduce the use of plastic in the packaging sector. Huber goes into more detail: ‘From our survey of member companies in 2022, for example, we know that 70 per cent of companies are planning solutions for lighter and smaller packaging (2020: 67 per cent) and 57 per cent intend to replace plastic with renewable raw materials in the future (2020: 55 per cent). 81 per cent also want to increase the recyclability of packaging (2020: 73 per cent).’ Refill solutions and alternative materials based on cellulose, for example, could help to sustainably reduce the use of microplastics in cosmetics in the future.


Ulla Reutner

Dr. Ulla Reutner

Chemist and freelance specialised journalist