What Are Microplastics and Why Are They a Problem?

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The problems with plastic are becoming more and more widely understood, and most people are now aware of the urgent need to reduce our collective consumption of plastics in order to protect the planet.

Plastic is cheap, versatile, and has undoubtedly made our lives easier in many ways. However, if it is not recycled or disposed of properly, it can also be hugely environmentally destructive. Worldwide, plastic is now the most common type of debris found in our oceans and lakes. 

One particular type of plastic which has been gaining attention in recent years is microplastics. But what are microplastics, why are they harmful, and what alternatives exist? 

What Are Microplastics?

Microplastics are simply tiny, sometimes (though not always) microscopic, plastic particles. Any piece of solid plastic smaller than 5mm is generally considered a microplastic. The term specifically refers to non-biodegradable plastics and does not include modern plastic alternatives made from biodegradable materials. 

Most of us use many different plastic items every day. As those plastics degrade through use or exposure to elemental forces, their particles and small pieces break away and begin to spread. 

Where Do Microplastics Come From?

Microplastics are so ubiquitous that they can now be found almost anywhere on earth. They have been identified both on the world’s highest mountains and in the deepest parts of the ocean. But how did they get there and where do they come from?

There are two main types of microplastic origins: primary sources and secondary sources. 

Primary Sources

Primary microplastics are those that are intentionally made to be very small. This includes those designed for commercial use such as in cosmetics (we discuss this in more detail below) and as fillers in soft toys, as well as microfibers from textile products such as clothing, cleaning cloths, and fishing nets. 

Any time that tiny pieces of plastic are deliberately used within a product, this counts as a source of primary microplastics. 

Secondary Sources

Secondary microplastics are those that are generated unintentionally. This includes any microplastics that are released into the environment as a byproduct of other plastic use, such as plastic bottles, packaging, containers, and even the thermoplastic rubbers used to make vehicle tires. 

Secondary microplastics are released into the environment as these items break down over time, degrading from a single whole into smaller and smaller particles. 

Why Are Microplastics Bad?

It is important to understand that there are still many unknowns when it comes to microplastics. For example, though it is now understood that microplastics are often found in fish and can be harmful to marine life, it is unclear how far up the food chain this problem extends. It is also not yet fully understood what degree of safety hazard microplastics present to many living organisms, including humans. 

To date, only the European Union has conducted an in-depth study into the problem of microplastics and how to prevent the spread of them. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has had a proposal in place since 2020 to reduce the impact of microplastics upon the environment. This proposal would ban products containing microplastics from the EU and European Economic Area (EEA) if those products resulted in the inevitable release of microplastics into the environment. Draft legislation on this issue was released in August 2022. 

One of the most pressing issues surrounding the prevalence of microplastics is that they do not biodegrade. This means that plastic can take tens, hundreds, or even thousands of years to break down, bioaccumulating in the planet’s ecological systems in larger and larger quantities over time. In other words, our current level of global plastic use and generation is environmentally unsustainable. 

How Microplastics are Used in Cosmetics

Several years ago, a trend emerged for exfoliating “beads” within cosmetic products. Ingredients with exfoliating properties help to remove dead skin cells and unclog pores, leaving the skin feeling soft and refreshed after use. However, many of these products used microplastic particles (often known as “microbeads” within the cosmetics industry) as their key exfoliating ingredient.

Microplastics also appear in many other cosmetic products, including both rinse-off and leave-in products such as shampoo, makeup, sunscreen, deodorant, and even toothpaste. 

What Sustainable Solutions to Microplastics Exist?

Since awareness began to grow about the environmental harms of microplastics, there has been a considerable push–both within the cosmetics industry and from consumers–to find safe and effective alternatives. Fortunately, their use has greatly fallen out of favor since the ECHA released its proposal and they have now been broadly voluntarily banned by businesses within the cosmetics industry. 

Despite their environmental impact, microbeads served a useful and desirable function in creating an exfoliating effect in skincare and cosmetic products. This means that there was a significant incentive for manufacturers to find an acceptable alternative. When microbead-style ingredients are still used, companies are now tending to opt for 100% biodegradable alternatives to traditional plastics.

Synthetic plastics that are not in a solid form are one great alternative to traditional polymeric particulate ingredients. . Since these liquid thermoplastics do not reform into solid particles at any point in their lifecycle, they do not present the same concerns as microplastics and cause no known environmental issues. 

Learn More

It is vital for all of us to play our role in reducing the amount of microplastics being released into the environment and in mitigating the impact of our industry on the planet. The issue of plastic use and bioaccumulation extends beyond microplastics and vital research into alternatives continues, but eliminating microplastics from our products is a critical concern for those of us in the cosmetics and personal care space. 

Here at Applechem, we are proud to offer a number of ingredients in liquid form that represent an environmentally-friendly alternative to microplastics for your cosmetic formulation needs. This includes our bestselling Sensogel rheology modifiers, Sorbithix shampoo thickeners, and our OleoFlex product line.

If you would like to learn more about any of our environmentally-friendly cosmetics ingredients, or about how the issue of microplastics does or does not pertain to your cosmetics formulations, please get in touch with us at any time. We would be pleased to offer our expertise, provide you with samples, or answer any questions you may have.

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