With microplastic pollution out of control, the EU is preparing a ban. A prime target are soaps, creams and other cosmetics. Small firms have pioneered natural alternatives, yet the EU agency in charge is determined to offer regulatory holidays longer than any other sector, including medicine. Jack Hunter explains.

Think microplastic and you probably also think of cosmetics. Sometimes a cosmetic product can be 90% plastic.

How do those wrinkles disappear?

Plastic, and its “optical blurring” effect.

Is there plastic in my toothpaste and my shampoo?

You guessed it. Plastic is found mostly in skin care and cleaning products, but also in toothpaste, shower gel, shampoo, creams, eye shadow, deodorant, blush powders, make-up foundation, skin creams, hairspray, nail polish, liquid makeup, eye colour, mascara, shaving cream, baby products, facial cleansers, bubble bath, lotions, hair colouring, nail polish, insect repellents and sunscreen.

Europe’s €80-billion a year cosmetics industry, the largest in the world, has no intention or way to prevent pollution from products containing microplastic – it all goes down the sink and often ends up in the environment. How much? More than 3,755 tonnes of microplastics from cosmetics end up polluting the environment every year, according to the latest official estimates. 

EU leaders label plastic pollution a health hazard needing swift action. The European Parliament requested a ban on microplastics in cosmetics by 2020, while member states wanted “significant reduction” in plastic pollution by 2020. 

Skin-deep change

Sadly, the European Chemicals Agency has other ideas. It is responsible for writing the ban, but has slashed ambition to such an extent that when the law comes into force in 2022, nothing will change that industry had not already volunteered for two years ago.

Thanks to the agency, rinse-off cosmetics, such as soap, will get four years before a ban; leave-on cosmetics, such as make-up, get six years; microplastic fragrance capsules five to eight years. Cosmetics are not life-saving products, yet they get delays more generous than any other sector, including medical devices. 

This could all be happening much faster. Henkel, Germany’s €20-billion grossing manufacturer has pledged to move away from microplastic. Natural alternatives exist and some firms use ground almond, coconut shell and olive seed where many others use cheap microplastic. 

Beauty Kitchen Cosmetics is just one example of much smaller firms that have invested in plastic-free alternatives. Its founder attended an agency meeting and pleaded for faster action, but heard officials repeat talking points from the big cosmetic companies – industry needs more time for product reformulation. This is evidently untrue. NGOs say that industry lobbyists have been playing for time and that they can be incredibly innovative when they want to be, but they just do not have the will to do so. 

Public consultation on the EU microplastic ban ends on 1 September. In December, the chemicals agency will hand it on to the European Commission for possible tweaks. Member state governments will then vote on it in 2021 and it is expected to go into force throughout Europe in early 2022.

EU Ecolabel products are already free of microplastic.

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Photo by Siora Photography.

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