The increasing concern over marine litter and the presence of these debris in a wide range of marine organisms – thus entering food chains – has brought the attention towards the problem of microplastics and on their presence in daily products such as cosmetics, detergents and personal care products (1).
Microplastics are small particles of different typologies of plastic materials (thermoplastics, sylicones...), and they are thought to be the most abundant plastic item currently found in our seas. Unfortunately, due to the normal degradation process of plastic over time (it takes centuries!), the amount of particles in the environment will unavoidably increase (2). The term microplastics usually indicates plastic fragments and debris smaller than 5 mm (2), that originates from land-based like residual wastewater effluents from sewage treatment plants - not always effective in filtering microplastics (3) and polymer fibres from clothes and aquatic-based sources - for example from the decomposition of plastic waste in the oceans (4). Studies proved that when exposure to sufficiently high doses of  microplastics occurs, particle toxicity in several biological systems can occurr – affecting the whole cycle, from marine invertebrates to mammalians (1). The concern around the harms of microplastics derives from their small size, that makes it accessible for ingestion for organisms as small as plankton (at the base of the food chain) (2).
In the last years, strong attention and concern developed around cosmetics, pharmaceutical and personal care products as pollutants due to their constant release in the water associated to the large quantities of these typologies of products used every day at a global scale (3). An example on the change of scale of this problem, it is interesting to reflect on how in the 1990s only a small percentage of microplastic pollution  was caused by liquid hand cleansers, while 20 years later (2009) the average induvidual is using on a daily basis products - such as facial cleansers - containing microplastics (5). The cosmetic and personal care industry uses plastic ingredients to achieve the desired texture or properties (stabilization, film formation, viscosity regulation) in products like shower gels, sunscreen, makeup and toothpaste. The particles used in personal care products are extremely small - often invisible to the naked eye, and they are non degradable, non soluble in water and impossible to recycle due to their small size and their direct disposal into wastewater at the end of their life cycle (1).
Kosuth, M., Wattenberg, E.V., Mason, S., Tyree, C., Morrison, D. (2017) OrbReport, Synthetic Polymer contamination in global drinking water, Final report, May 16, 2017 (
Cosmetics constitute a huge ecological problem as they are used in large quantities along the whole course of a person´s life, and they are introduced unaltered into the environment by simple daily gestures like showering, washing our face or rinsing our hands (3). The so called „rinse-off“ products enter directly the household wastewater streams and the microplastics are often retained in sewage sludge or discharged directly into the sea by the effluents of wastewater treatment (1). Many European countries have started to take action against this problem by assessing its impacts and by planning contrasting measures in order to reduce pollution trough plastic ingredients in personal care products (6).Source:
So which are the cosmetic ingredients that are harming our planet – and consequently our health?
- UV-filters are chemicals that have the property to absorb or reflect ultraviolet radiation, and they are used in sunscreen, as well as in personal care products with UV-filter or a protecting action against sun damage
- Parabens: preservatives used for their antimicrobial properties, that help preventing the formation of mold, yeast and bacteria in the cosmetic formula
- Triclosan: similarly to Parabens, it is an antimicrobial and antiseptic agent used as a preservative also in medical devices, households, packaging and functional textiles
- Plastic microbeads: used as scrubbers in a varierty of products such as face cleansers, toothpaste, bubble-baths and peelings (3)
Responsibilities lay on manufacturers who should be more thoughtful when creating their formulas, as well as on consumers that with their daily choices can really make an impact not only on the preservation of our environment and health, but also on pressuring the cosmetic industry to develop more informed and sustainable products.
1 - Leslie, H. A. (2014). Review of microplastics in cosmetics. Institute for Environmental Studies [IVM], 4.
2 - Law KL, Thompson RC (2014), „Microplastics in the seas“, Sience, n. 11, Jul 2014, vol. 345, issue 6193,144-145
3 - Juliano, C., & Magrini, G. (2017). Cosmetic ingredients as emerging pollutants of environmental and health concern. A mini-review. Cosmetics, 4 (2), 11
4 - Ziajahromi, S., Neale, P. A., Rintoul, L., & Leusch, F. D. (2017). Wastewater treatment plants as a pathway for microplastics: development of a new approach to sample wastewater-based microplastics. Water research, 112, 93-99
5- Fendall, L.S., Sewell, M.A. (20029). Contributing to marine pollution by washing your face: Microplastics in facial cleansers, Marine Pollution Bulletin, n.58, 1225–1228E
6 - European Environment Agency, Reporting Obligations Database for Deliveries for MSFD reporting on Initial  Assessments (Art. 8), Good Environmental Status (Art.9), Env. targets & associated indicators (Art.10) & related reporting on geographic areas, regional cooperation and metadata (