Microplastics : the invisible pollution of the Ocean


Stay Inside, Stay Inspired #5 Plastic pollution is a major scourge well known to all. Microplastic pollution is invisible to the naked eye, lesser known, but just as dangerous for the ocean. This pollution impacts water quality, ocean users, biodiversity and ultimately all humans. Take the opportunity to learn more about these problematic particles. Surfrider Europe explains why they are massively found in cosmetic products and futures in the ocean. 

Microplastics: kings of cosmetics

Measuring less than five millimetres, microplastics have been found in the presence of the air, water, and every element of the marine environment.  One of the causes of this pollution? Cosmetics, and a range of other goods including personal health products, detergents, paints and even industrial products such as fertilizers. Although plastic microbeads intentionally added to product formulations have been banned in some countries, our cosmetics are still not plastic-free. In their ingredients, we find, for example, synthetic polymers like silicones, which are used in the liquid state as emulsifiers. As an emollient, they help control formula thickness, and contribute to moisturizing effects of skin and hair products. Silicones are found in everything from soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, and lotions to cosmetic foundations, perfume, eye shadow, lipstick and make-up remover.  

In February this year, Surfrider Europe launched the campaign  Bad cosmetics to denounce the presence of microplastics in cosmetic products.

Plagues for the ocean, filling the bottles, hidden on the label

We cover our bodies with these products on a daily basis. The extent of human health consequences are unknown, but the impact on the marine environment is certain. While it is true that some silicones are biodegradable on land, once they enter the waterways the environmental factors needed to break down the polymers are not as readily present so it is harder for them to biodegrade, if possible at all. To this end, for cosmetic product use, silicones have raised concern due to their impact on the aquatic environment, especially since silicones are commonly found in rinse-off products.

On closer inspection, most cosmetics don't claim to contain plastic, or at least make sure they don't show it. They prefer to display their so-called "vegetal" properties. For example, a bottle of shampoo will display its sweet natural vanilla scent. However, it contains 90% water, foaming industrial surfactants and silicones. The trend is therefore still towards "greenwashing" in the world of cosmetics.

How can we avoid them?

Clean packaging and green slogans do not guarantee a product without microplastics. So, here are a few clues to help you spot them when making future purchases. First of all, avoid products with ingredients containing ‘-cone’ or ‘-siloxane’ endings, large letters such as PPG and PEG, poly- and -cellulose. Two of the ingredients of notable concern are cyclopentasiloxane (D5) and cyclotetrasiloxane (D4) which are associated with health problems and cause harm to the environment.  Secondly, you can rely on products with the Slow Cosmetics label, named after the same association that is campaigning for a total ban on plastics in cosmetics. Also, applications such as Beat the microbead, help guide your product purchasing. Finally, because you are never better served than by yourself, you can learn how to make your own lip balm and solid shampoo on Ocean Campus.

Although microplastics are found in large quantities in cosmetic products, this is not their only source of pollution. Indeed, clothing fabric and car tires also release particles that end up in the ocean. To better understand the vectors of microplastic pollution, Surfrider Europe invites you to (re)discover this Ocean Campus video.

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