Go into any beauty store and you will see shelves full of products that promise to fix every problem with your appearance that you didn’t realize you had. Is your hair too oily or too dry? There’s a shampoo for that. Got flaky skin? Take this exfoliator. Is your skin discoloured? Use this colour-correcting foundation or check out this blusher.
Distracted by choices about which products to choose, consumers may not take time to consider the environmental impact of these products.
Many people are not aware of just how much plastic is hidden in their beauty and personal care routine. Take a look at your bathroom. At first glance, depending on where you live and your purchasing habits, you may notice the plastic used to package your shampoo, make-up, shower gel, and almost every personal care product you own. At second glance, you may start to pay attention to the everyday plastic products that you have always used without consideration of their plastic footprint—your toothbrush, your razor, your disposable face wipes and your cotton buds. Perhaps when you look even closer, you will notice that the tiny spheres in your face scrub are made of plastic, and your favourite eyeshadow also has plastic glitter in it.
But not all plastic is visible to the naked eye. Whilst microplastics are any piece of plastic under 5 mm in size, microbeads are a type of microplastic smaller than 1 mm. Even smaller than that are nanoplastics, which are so small that they can pass through human skin.
Microplastics are intentionally added to all kinds of products and not limited to exfoliants. Products that contain plastic polymers are deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, lipstick, hair dye, shaving cream, sunscreen, insect repellent, anti-wrinkle cream, moisturizers, hair spray, facial masks, baby care products, eye shadow, mascara and more. In some cases, these products are made of more than 90 per cent plastic.
Plastic ingredients are so prevalent because they can be added for the following functions: skin conditioning, exfoliants, abrasives, glitter, tooth polishing, viscosity regulators to make the products flow, emulsifiers, film formers, opacifying agents, liquid absorbents binders, bulking agents, and more.
Microplastics in personal care products can go effortlessly down the drain as you wash. Because they are so small, wastewater filtration cannot treat them, and they can easily enter rivers and seas.
Since microplastics are not biodegradable, when in the sea they attract waterborne toxins and bacteria that stick to their shiny surface and look similar to food items. They can then be eaten by fish, amphibians, insects, larvae and marine animals. Plastics can block digestive tracts, or enter the food chain where they may eventually end up on our dinner plates.
The health impact of microplastics on humans is not fully known and more research is needed to understand their effect on our bodies.
“The presence of plastic litter and microplastics in the marine environment is a rapidly increasing serious issue of global concern,” says Heidi Savelli-Soderberg, who works for UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) on issues related to marine litter. “We need an urgent global response, by all stakeholders including consumers, to discharges of litter and microplastics into the oceans, taking into account a product life-cycle approach.”
The good news is that you don’t need to contribute to the mass of microplastics entering the ocean through personal care products. You can help to reduce plastic pollution by giving your bathroom a plastic-free makeover. To find out if your product contains microplastics, you can scan it using the “Beat the Microbead” app, or look for the following commonly used plastic ingredients: polyethylene (PE), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), nylon, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene (PP). For a full list of plastic ingredients, go to www.beatthemicrobead.org
Sustainable, ocean-friendly alternatives are available, and by demanding plastic-free products and materials, the industry will have to respond. Be mindful of the plastic ingredients in your bathroom. Switch to plastic-free packaging where possible, pledge to stop using products that contain hidden plastics, and demand change from the beauty brands that use them excessively.
The United Nations Environment Programme launched the Clean Seas Campaign in 2017 with the goal of galvanizing a global movement to Beat Plastic Pollution. Since then, 60 countries have pledged to do their part to reduce the prevalence of single-use plastics. Click here to learn more about the campaign and how you can help (www.cleanseas.org), consider joining the global partnership on marine litter and follow our social media campaign @UNEP on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
This November, we invite you to reduce the plastics in your bathroom by taking our “What’s in Your Bathroom?” challenge. Take a video or photo of the plastics in your bathroom and pledge to make switches to reduce your plastic footprint. Be sure to share on social media and tag @UNEP and #CleanSeas.