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The microplastics dodge

Loopholes and double standards: why mainstream cosmetics are still full of plastic, despite the ban on microbeads
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Silicones in cosmetics

This article first appeared in our winter ’19 issue of MyGreenPod Magazine, The Love Revolution, distributed with the Guardian on 22 February 2018. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

From June 2018, retailers across England, Scotland and Wales were banned from selling rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products that contain microbeads – the tiny pieces of plastic used in products such as face scrubs and toothpaste.

This ‘tough’, ‘robust’, ‘comprehensive’ and ‘world-leading’ ban was welcomed by campaigners, who saw it as evidence of the government’s commitment to cleaning up the environment. But what if microbeads aren’t the end of the issue?

While some forward-thinking beauty brands are constantly improving their products and packaging to reduce their environmental impact (see box, below), the mainstream sector is reluctant to change – particularly when it comes to plastics in cosmetics.

Who defined microplastics?

We’re all by now familiar with microplastics: they’re the tiny pieces of plastic that are either deliberately manufactured for a specific purpose, as is the case with microbeads in cosmetics, or unintentionally created through wear and tear – of anything from plastic bags to synthetic clothes.

Microplastics get confused for food and end up in the stomachs of fish, birds and turtles, among many other creatures. They persist in the food chain and end up on our plates: they have even been detected in 90% of our table salt.

Beyond watertight recycling there’s no obvious, single solution to the ‘secondary’ microplastics that are caused by wear and tear, but the intentional manufacture of ‘primary’ microplastics would be curbed if we lost the products that use them. By banning microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics, we’re on our way to preventing primary microplastics from entering the environment. But we can’t stop there: we have only scratched the surface of this problem. To tackle it head on we need a better understanding of the term ‘microplastic’.

The first people to sound the alarm about microplastics were scientists exploring the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of marine debris that sprawls across 1.6 million sq km between Hawaii and California. The scientists observed tiny pieces of plastic in the ocean and called for action on these ‘microplastics’; informed by the scientific community, the UN defined microplastics as pieces of solid plastic measuring no more than 5mm in diameter.

Removing microbeads

The revelation that cosmetics contain these solid plastics in the form of microbeads – which are added to products for exfoliating purposes – came as a shock, and it clearly required action.

In Germany, the government asked the biggest players in the cosmetics industry two questions: whether they had a definition of microplastics and whether they had any existing plans to drop them from their formulations.

The big brands marked out the lines of their own battlefield to ensure they committed to a crusade they could win. Adopting the existing UN definition of microplastics, they agreed to ban microbeads from rinse-off formulations that are washed off the skin and down the plug hole. In the UK, the ban on microbeads in rinse-off products was lauded as the toughest in the world; it came after a Greenpeace petition calling for a UK-wide ban on microplastics became the largest environmental petition ever presented to government.

So what’s the problem?

It all sounds great so far, but as awareness around microplastics grows, so too does the body of research. Now it seems our action around microbeads represented a small battle in a much larger war.

We think of plastics as solids, but some plastics are mixed into liquids to create a solid, liquid, waxy or gel-like substance, which can legally be used in everything from the rinse-off products covered by the UK’s microbeads ban to leave-on products that remain on our skin.

Moisturisers, hair sprays, makeup, body creams – you name it. If the product is conventionally produced, it’s more than likely that it contains plastic of some sort. The plastic can be powdery and so fine it’s at the lower end of the micro-scale, going into the nano-scale. Manufacturers don’t regard these suspended or emulsified plastics as solids because they’re mixed into liquids – meaning they escape the UN (and now common) definition of microplastics.

Synthetic polymers

Manufacturers have a history of dropping specific ingredients that cause isolated public outcries. When consumers called for silicones to be dropped from cosmetics, for example, big brands scrabbled for a silicone-free logo that would show customers that they were listening. But when silicone was simply replaced with polyquaternium, a synthetic polymer with an unknown environmental impact, one problem was simply swapped for another.

Synthetic polymers are still used in the majority of mainstream cosmetics because most people are simply unaware they’re there and haven’t called for change. In body creams and conditioners, synthetic polymers give the appearance of smoother hair and skin. But the plastic glossiness is only temporary – it’s like wrapping your body in cling film.

Manufacturers know that synthetic polymers can be avoided, and this is where double standards come in. Some brands have two formulations of the same product, one organic and one conventional. In the organic product, the synthetic polymers are entirely absent, but the product is no less effective.


85% of the glass in its 100% recyclable glass bottles comes from recycled glass – the highest share of recycled glass possible.

The product cartons are printed using mineral oil-free colour inks.

In 2017, four tonnes of materials were saved when the screw cap weight was optimised for the aluminium tubes.

The babycare PET bottles and the new roll-on deodorant containers are being redesigned; the new packaging will contain 50% and 70% recycled plastic, respectively.

Weleda sets new targets every year. By 2022 its goal is for at least 65% of the weight of all primary packaging produced to come from bioplastics
or recycled plastic.

Click here to find out why Weleda Skin Food is a Hero

Unknown impacts

Very little is known about how synthetic polymers react in nature, in terms of persistence, toxicity or bioaccumulation; their widespread use underlines the urgent need for more research. When challenged, cosmetics giants say they’ll remove synthetic polymers from formulations if anyone proves they’re dangerous – but this is a complete violation of the precautionary principle. The burden of proof shouldn’t be on campaigners, it should be on the manufacturers.

Reformulating pretty much every mainstream cosmetic product would be a mammoth task, but if we all avoided synthetic ingredients and chose only natural cosmetics, our shopping habits would spur manufacturers to change their formulations.

The simplest and most effective thing you can do is opt for completely natural products, that meet the strict NATRUE or COSMOS standards and definitions of natural and organic cosmetics.

Switching to clean beauty

At My Green Pod we’ve always supported Weleda. We love small suppliers and local products, but Weleda provides a simple, affordable and accessible high street solution that supports the mainstream change we so desperately need. Weleda is a pioneer of clean beauty; its products don’t contain synthetic polymers or synthetic anythings. They’re authentically natural and carry the certification to prove it. A pioneer of conscious business, Weleda is also in a constant cycle of reinvention; year after year it measures existing targets and sets new goals to ensure it doesn’t miss a chance to reduce its impact.

With Weleda your entire beauty routine is covered – from shower gel to deodorant and from head to toe – which makes the switch to clean beauty products extremely easy. You don’t need to do everything at once, but when one of your mainstream products runs out, simply replace it with a clean alternative. Before you know it you’ll have a bathroom vibrating with natural, healing energy.

All Weleda products are packed with nurturing ingredients that promote the real health of your skin and hair, without simply covering you with an illusory film. They work in synergy with your body, encouraging it to find its own balance and make itself healthier without relying on quick external fixes.

Plastic packaging

Due to Weleda’s natural formulations, you don’t need to worry about any primary microplastics being washed down the drain when you have a bath or shower. Weleda is also setting a fantastic example when it comes secondary microplastics – the small fragments that packaging breaks into when it’s not properly recycled.

There are more than 50 different types of plastic available, making it more difficult to sort and reprocess than other materials. Nearly all can be recycled, depending on whether the recycling facilities to sort and process are available in your area. Mixed plastic polymers, that consist of more than one polymer type, are more difficult – and therefore more costly – to recycle.

Weleda has teamed up with recycling experts TerraCycle to ensure that all Weleda packaging can be recycled within the UK, even if some county council kerbside collection schemes don’t collect certain mixed plastics. The soft plastic Weleda tubes that are problematic for some regional kerbside collection schemes are made from 50% recycled HDPE. Using post-consumer recycled waste is just one example of how Weleda is constantly adopting new strategies to be part of the solution – not the problem – in the cosmetics sector.

Customers who can’t recycle some Weleda tubes locally can return their empties to their local Weleda Wellbeing Advisor or collection point, and the packaging will be returned to TerraCycle using a prepaid address. Downstream, the recycled plastics are made into new products such as garden furniture.


The upside to working with TerraCycle is that Weleda will be able to raise funds for a charity that is protecting penguins, whose plight has been shared through Sir David Attenborough’s incredible new series Dynasties. Every 10kg of Weleda packaging recycled with TerraCycle in 2019 will raise nearly £10 for the Global Penguin Society, a conservation charity founded and run by marine biologist Pablo Borboroglu. It’s the world’s first coalition for the protection of penguins.

Pablo Borboroglu combines science, management and education to protect penguins across the Southern Hemisphere and use them as a flagship for wider conservation of the marine environment.

If you want to do your bit, make sure your money only goes to brands with ethics – that are transparent about the issues, honest about how they’re addressing them and genuine in their efforts to change the world for the better.

Click here for more about Weleda’s campaign with TerraCycle and the Global Penguin Society.

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