Microplastics, microbeads: What you did not know about self-care products

Bureau of Indian Standards in 2017 proposed a ban on raw materials not recognised safe for use in cosmetics from 2020. The status of the ban is unknown

By Arjunvir Kol Chak
Published: Monday 08 June 2020

The mass production of plastic has made several sectors dependent on its use for its durable nature and ease of use. But the catch, as we all know, is that plastic gets accumulated in our environment. An offshoot of the problem of such accumulation is the generation of microplastics — caused either due to reasons such as disintegration of plastic bags, PET bottles, particles from wear and tear of tyres or dumped fishing gear — among other things. 

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines microplastics as plastic particles smaller than 5 millimetre.

Microplastics are intentionally added in primary sources such as personal care products and clothing products; or secondary sources that are formed by fragmentation of plastic over a period of time.

Ugly side of beauty products

Of various sources of microplastics, primary sources that wash off microfibres and microbeads into water channels can be controlled. The release of microfibres from clothing is avoidable, as its wash off is not regular and can be reduced by mandated performance standards for domestic washing machines and industrial laundries.

But certain cosmetics and personal care products that contain abrasives and exfoliating material end up in our drains and reach water bodies.

We generally assume that plastic waste disposed into a water channel will not impact us. However, studies indicate that microplastics become part of the marine food chain and get retained in the tissue of fish, which is ultimately consumed by humans.

Many organisms in the oceans remain starved due to presence of such particles in their digestive tracts or because of a damaged stomach lining. Studies have shown a change in reproductive behaviour in fish where microplastics have caused impaired synthesis of hormones required for egg formation.

Ultimately, the shortage of marine biodiversity can end up depriving communities that are dependent on such resources for livelihood.

We have seen several instances in India of microscopic plastic reaching our taps. In a study conducted by Orb Media, a non-profit organisation based in Washington, 82.4 per cent of India’s tap water was found to be contaminated with microplastics.

State University of New York in 2018 took samples from 19 global cities including Chennai, Mumbai and New Delhi and found that 90 per cent of bottled water sold worldwide contained tiny pieces of plastic.  Even popular table salt brands were found to have microplastics as discovered by a two-member team from IIT-Bombay’s Centre of Environmental Science and Engineering.

Other than the well-known impacts of microplastics on our marine ecology and oceans, daily use of personal care products that contain microbeads pose serious harm to us. 

Cosmetics are dangerous for they open skin pores, allowing way for bacteria and other pollutants. These microbeads can get stuck in the eyes and also get lodged in the eyelid, thereby injuring the cornea.

The abrasive material used in toothpaste can get stuck in the gums and bone holding the teeth, trapping bacteria and leading to gingivitis, bleeding from the gums and weakening of teeth.

Phasing out

To combat the ill effects of intentionally added primary microplastics, many countries such as the United States, Canada and South Korea have banned the use of microbeads in the production of exfoliating materials and abrasives in personal care and cosmetic products.

The governments of countries such as Finland, France, Ireland, Luxembourg and Sweden have taken a resolve to voluntarily phase out the use of such products till June 2020 and replace them with available alternatives. 

Even before the ban on use of microbeads, the Industrial Associations in countries such as Canada (Cosmetics Alliance Canada), France (French Federation of Beauty Companies) and United Kingdom (Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association) had taken pre-emptive measures to phase out and ban its use.

Some country-specific retail groups and brands such as Sa Sa in China and The Guardian at Singapore had committed to phase out the use of microbeads in exfoliaters and cleansing products by 2018.

Many International brands such as Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson and L’Oréal claim to no longer use plastic microbeads as cleansing or exfoliating agents in their wash-off products, but there is no information of their practices in India.

The International Coalition, Beat the Microbead, runs a website and a mobile-based application that presents a product list from 42 countries that mention if the product contains microbeads and in what amount.

The initiative also offers its own eco-label, look for the zero, where products are 100 per cent free of microplastics. Not only do the European Union and Nordic countries recognise these labels, they also provide incentives that influence the choices of people buying personal care products. Other than the ‘look for the zero’ label, products have a ‘green list’ that states it does not contain microbeads. It, however, adds that the brand may not be completely free of its use.

An ‘orange list’ represents the use of ‘sceptical microplastics’ and ‘red list’ comprises products containing over 500 types of microplastics.

A Delhi-based lawyer in India, Ashwini Kumar, approached the National Green Tribunal regarding the ill effects of microbeads in cosmetics. In response, the Bureau of Indian Standards in 2017 classified a list of raw materials generally not recognised safe for use in cosmetics, and proposed a ban on them from 2020 onwards. The status of the ban is currently known.

In February 2020, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar and Norwegian Minister of Climate and Environment Sveinung Rotevan issued a a joint statement about their decision to work on minimising discharge of marine plastic litter and microplastics. The strategy adopted by the government needs to be seen.

The way ahead

Before a phase-out or ban is announced by the Union government, the industry must voluntarily start putting a label on the personal care and cosmetic products (PCCPs) that mentions that their products contain intentionally added microplastics. This will enable the consumer to take responsibility of keeping the environment free from the impacts of microplastics.

Meanwhile, until the ban is implemented in India, the Central Drugs and Standards Control Organisation, the body that administers use of drugs, must recognise the products that use intentionally added primary microplastics and equip themselves to restrict use of prohibited raw materials.

Consumers should also make a conscious effort to take informed decisions while purchasing such products. We should look for natural alternatives that international brands have committed in countries where the use of microbeads is banned.

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