What are microbeads?

Microbeads are manufactured solid plastic particles of less than one millimeter in diameter. Patents for microbeads in personal care products began around the 1960s. They were not regularly included commercially until the 1990s, when manufacturers added them to hundreds of personal care products, including cosmetics, lotions, face washes, toothpastes, shampoos, sunscreens, shaving creams, and exfoliators, for the silky texture they create. Microbeads can also function as bulking agents, exfoliants, and tooth polishers and to prolong shelf life by trapping and adsorbing degradable ingredients and as film-forming agents in leave-on products such as sunscreens and makeup (foundations, lipsticks, etc.) to improve skin texture, enhance the tinting strength of pigments, or increase the adhesion of powder. The pharmaceutical industry has used microbeads as a controlled delivery system for drugs. Microbeads are also used as infill in artificial-turf playing fields.

Are microbeads harmful?

Prior to the widespread use of synthetic microbeads, cosmetic manufacturers used naturally abrasive materials including cocoa beans, ground almonds, ground apricot pits, sea salt, ground pumice, and oatmeal, which biodegrade when released in the environment.

Microbeads are virtually impossible to remove from the environment. They are non-biodegradable, may be harmful to marine life, and have been found in the human food chain. Microbeads used in the cosmetics industry are often made of polyethylene or polypropylene, which are cheap and easy to make. However, these polymers are derived from oil, and they take hundreds of years to break down in the environment.

Are microbeads banned?

In 2013, some large cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies started to commit voluntarily to removing microbeads from their cosmetic and personal care products globally. However, prevention through legislation by banning the manufacture and sale of products containing microbeads has been the main way forward.

The Netherlands was the first country to announce its intent to be free of microbeads in cosmetics by the end of 2016, and legislated a ban on the import, manufacture and sale of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics.

In January 2018, a ban on the use of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products came into effect in the UK: the Environmental Protection (Microbeads) (England) Regulations 2017. The scope of this UK legislation far surpasses that of the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which was approved by the U.S. government in 2015. Unlike countries such as the U.S., which have loopholes in legislation to allow the use of biodegradable plastics, the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs made it clear that the ban covers biodegradable microbeads. While materials may be labeled compostable or biodegradable, they often require specific conditions to break down that are not often found deep in the marine environment. As such, many plastic items break down into smaller pieces but do not break down completely.

On April 10, 2020, China’s National Development and Reform Commission issued a draft for public consultation specifying the details of China’s pending microbead ban. China’s proposed legislation is set to ban the production of new cosmetic products containing microbeads by 31 December 2020. Sales of existing cosmetic products containing microbeads will be prohibited by 31 December 2022. The majority of large formulators and suppliers may not see this ban as much of a challenge as other countries have already banned microbeads and are adapting by either forgoing microbeads or using alternatives. However, smaller companies now have a challenge against time to remove microbeads from their cosmetic products.

In January 2019, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) proposed a wide-ranging restriction on intentional uses of microplastics in products placed on the EU/EEA market. The ECHA’s Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC) supports restricting the use of intentionally added microplastics while recommending more stringent criteria for biodegradable polymers. The Committee for Socio-economic Analysis (SEAC) agreed on its draft opinion, which will soon be available for consultation.

On June 10, 2020, RAC adopted its opinion on ECHA’s proposal to restrict the use of microplastics that are intentionally added to products on the EU/EEA market in concentrations of more than 0.01 % weight by weight. The restriction proposal was developed in the context of the EU Plastics Strategy, which aims at circular plastics economy and contributes to reaching the 2030 sustainable development goals, the global climate commitments, and the EU’s industrial policy objectives. ECHA’s proposal sets out specific test methods and pass criteria for identifying biodegradable polymers, which are excluded from the restriction.

Cosmetics Europe and its member associations will continue their argument that the ECHA’s proposal to restrict microplastics on the EU market remains disproportionately weighted against beauty and personal care. The industry association will bring forward its arguments, along with additional data and information, in an upcoming 60-day consultation period.

The consolidated opinion of both RAC and SEAC is expected to be ready by the end of 2020. The decisions on Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) restrictions are made in the European Commission. The European Commission prepares a draft authorisation decision within three months after receiving the opinions from ECHA. Following the draft decision, a minimum of three months is needed for the vote in the REACH Committee and the subsequent adoption procedure, including translations, in the Commission. The whole decision-making process therefore takes normally more than six months.

Several other countries have banned the use of microbeads, with their legislation mainly relating only to rinse-off cosmetics, including Canada, France, New Zealand, Sweden, and Taiwan. This year, Ireland, Italy, India, and Thailand all introduced bans.

Is it enough?

Even with these bans in place, a wide variety of products can continue to use microplastics, including lipsticks and sun creams. While the rules may reduce the number of microbeads entering the marine environment, significant concerns have been raised about the overall effectiveness of the bans and whether addressing individual issues like microbeads will have a significant impact on the scale of the plastics problem. Companies in all industries that use microplastics are advised to keep an eye on developing legislation in this area.