Plastic can no longer be ignored in our world. From packaging to the clothes we wear to the building materials in our homes? It’s a given: plastic is all around us.
During the development of Iconic-Elements skincare, I discovered that many consumers and skin specialists were not aware of the connection between hormone-disrupting in cosmetics and microplastics. This connection does exist and in my opinion it is important that cosmetic providers and users are aware of this!
We ingest plastics through our skin and through our food. Do you know what that means?
Microplastics in the food chain: a credit card on the menu every week
Two reports draw attention to the amount of plastic we ingest through food and drink. The first report was published by the World Wildlife Fund in 2019. This report compares data from 52 studies on microplastic uptake. This shows that people are at risk of ingesting about 5 grams of plastic per week. By comparison, that’s roughly equivalent to a credit card.
The second study appeared in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The researchers report that Americans consume an estimated 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles per year from seafood, water, sugars, salts and alcohol alone.
That’s all well and good, but what are microplastics anyway?
There are primary and secondary microplastics
Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic less than 5 mm long that pollute the environment. They are not specific types of plastic: any type of plastic fragment can be included.
At the moment there are two classifications of microplastics. Primary microplastics are all plastic fragments smaller than 5 millimeters before they end up in the environment. Think of microfibers from clothing, microbeads and plastic pellets
Secondary microplastics are created by the breakdown of larger plastic products. They enter our environment through natural weathering processes, for example, think of the pieces of plastic from a broken water gun.
The degradation of plastics is very slow and can take hundreds of years. This increases the chances of the microplastics being ingested into the body and accumulating in the bodies and tissues of humans, animals and plants.
Even smaller are nanoplastics
If microplastics fragment even further, particles that are invisible to the naked eye are formed, so-called nanoplastics. These nanoplastics pose an invisible threat to the environment and our health.
A recent study published in Nature Food (2020) shows that the polypropylene in baby bottles can release up to 16 million microplastics and billions of smaller nanoplastics per litre.
So it is clear that we ingest microplastics through our food, but what is the connection with cosmetics?
Microplastics in cosmetics
Naturally degradable exfoliating ingredients, such as scrub granules, have been replaced by microplastics by a number of cosmetic companies. You will often see this described on the label as “microbeads” or “micro-exfoliates”. These microbeads are usually composed of polyethylene, a commonly used component of plastics, but they can also be made from polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or nylon.
Microbeads are increasingly found in hand soaps and other personal care products. The result is that these tiny (plastic) particles end up in the sewer immediately after use, where they cannot be completely filtered out by wastewater treatment plants due to their small size.
Ultimately, the microbeads end up in rivers, seas and oceans. From small to large sea creatures: they all ingest particles through their food and the amount continues to accumulate. The microbeads from cosmetic products end up on your plate via a detour.
So much for the microplastics in cosmetic products, but what about packaging?
BPA and PVC (with phthalates) in cosmetic packaging
Conventional plastic packaging for cosmetics usually contains one of two chemicals: polycarbonate plastics, which contain a chemical called bisphenol-A (BPA), or polyvinyl chloride plastics (PVC), which contain phthalates.
BPA is used to harden plastic. It is also used to make various types of plastic such as polycarbonate (PC) plastic and epoxy resin.
Phthalates are used, among other things, in the manufacture of printing ink, glue, perfumed products and perfumes. They are also used as plasticizers for plastics and in pharmaceutical products they give pills a nice shine.
It is important that the ingredients contained in a cream do not react with the plastic of a packaging. If this happens, these unwanted substances may enter your bloodstream
What harmful effects can these substances have on your body?
If Bisphenol-A (BPA) enters your body, it can disrupt your endocrine system and cause damage to various tissues and organs such as the reproductive system, the immune system and the neuroendocrine system. The consequences? For example, girls reach puberty earlier or boys become less fertile.
Recently, BPA has been shown to cause cancer and DNA changes in animals. An additional concern is that unborn children and infants may be more sensitive than adults to the effects of BPA. This is because their body is still developing. The insidious thing is that babies can also ingest BPA through breast milk.
Legislation is lagging behind
BPA is not banned in the Netherlands. RIVM follows the advice of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). It states that a person may ingest 0.004 milligrams of BPA per kilogram of body weight per day. For an adult weighing 75 kilos, that means 0.3 milligrams per day. What this means for unborn children and for babies who ingest BPA through breast milk is unknown. In addition, new research, published in early 2021, shows the presence of microplastics in the placenta. In other words: it seems inevitable to get these substances from conception!
Unfortunately, the urgency of these research results has not yet reached EFSA. The organization seems to be guided by the fact that there are no good alternatives to these plastics yet and has only taken the (very small) step to ban the use of thermal paper with BPA from January 2, 2020.
Back to phthalates. Phthalates in cosmetics can enter the body through the skin. Several cell and animal studies suggest that phthalates may also cause hormone and developmental disorders. Once in the bloodstream, phthalates can cross the placental barrier and thus affect fetal development.
Should we opt for sustainable biodegradable plastic?
It seems logical to choose biodegradable plastics as an alternative. These plastics use corn starch and sugar cane as raw materials. That sounds ideal, but in practice it turns out to be useless.
The biodegradable plastic only breaks down under very specific conditions. In practice, it still ends up in the environment as a microplastic where it is not broken completely and has the same consequences for the environment as ‘ordinary’ plastic.
Natural ingredients and the best packaging
Iconic-Elements has taken into account the (possible) negative effects of microplastics in cosmetics and cosmetic packaging since its foundation. That is why our skin care containers has BPA-free dispensers and we use glass packaging where possible.
For products that you prefer not to transport in glass (such as sunscreen), we use packaging with the best papers.
A bright spot is a study published in 2021. It has been possible to convert polystyrene microplastics from sewage water into water and CO2 in the laboratory. This is a step in the right direction that needs to be followed. We keep an eye on these and other developments and promise our skincare users that we always choose the best solution.
More attention is needed for the negative consequences of microplastics
I am glad that more and more attention is being paid to this problem via (social) media. If you want to know more about it, this episode of the Keuringsdienst van Waarde is worthwhile:
Do you want to know if your cosmetics contain microbeads?
Do you think this topic should be more prominent?
Share this article or the links above with your own network and help to start the conversation!
About Francis Wu
“In my dermatology practice, people often ask me about skin-enhancing products. Because I want you as a user to be able to rely on the product you are applying, I have developed my own skincare line: Iconic-Elements. A complete skin care line that stands out because it works (evidence-based)!
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Ma Y, Liu H, Wu J, Yuan L, Wang Y, Du X, Wang R, Marwa PW, Petlulu P, Chen X, Zhang H. The adverse health effects of bisphenol A and related toxicity mechanisms. Environ Res. 2019 Sep;176:108575.
Li, D., Shi, Y., Yang, L. et al. Microplastic release from the degradation of polypropylene feeding bottles during infant formula preparation. Nat Food 1, 746–754 (2020).
Sheng Z, Wang C, Ren F, Liu Y, Zhu B. Molecular mechanism of endocrine-disruptive effects induced by Bisphenol A: The role of transmembrane G-protein estrogen receptor 1 and integrin αvβ3. J Environ Sci (China). 2019 Jan;75:1-13.
Koniecki D, Wang R, Moody RP, Zhu J. Phthalates in cosmetic and personal care products: concentrations and possible dermal exposure. Environ Res. 2011 Apr;111(3):329-36.
Kiendrebeogo M, Karimi Estahbanati MR, Khosravanipour Mostafazadeh A, Drogui P, Tyagi RD. Treatment of microplastics in water by anodic oxidation: A case study for polystyrene. Environ Pollut. 2021 Jan 15;269:116168.
While you are here
Dermatologists Francis Wu and Petra Dikrama of Erasmus MC and co-founder of dikrama clinics were recently interviewed for Trosradar doctors of tomorrow. Our daily skin care is discussed. Questions about, among other things, SPF in day cream: does it work, and what should you pay attention to if you are looking for a day cream that also protects against the sun? And: because we are heading towards winter time and have less to do with sun protection, what makes sense. More about Dokters van morgen – Trosradar