Are the Ingredients in my Beauty Products Safe for the Environment?


There was a time when it was popular to add small solid plastic particles called “microbeads” to beauty products for decoration or exfoliation.  Due to environmental concerns about what happens to microbeads after they are washed down the drain, they were banned by many countries, including the United States, many years ago. But it’s important for consumers to know that the personal care and cosmetic products they use every day don’t contain these or other types of “microplastics” that might end up polluting our waterways and causing harm to the environment.

Are Polymers in Beauty Products the same as Microplastics?

No. While all plastics are made up of polymers, not all polymers end up as plastics.

In personal care and beauty products, polymers act as the building blocks of the product’s ingredients.  Polymers can end up in many physical forms, including liquids and gels. For example, some polymers are hygroscopic, which means they swell in water.  When used in cosmetics and beauty products, this type of polymer acts a binder that holds the ingredients together. They can end up as thickeners for shampoos, conditioners and lotions so that they don’t flow out of the bottle all at once, like a liquid would.  Watch this video to learn more. Because the polymers used in personal care and beauty products typically are in gel or liquid form, they are not microplastics.

Microplastics are generally considered to be any type of tiny, solid plastic particle – usually defined as being 5 millimeters or less in size. They come from all kinds of sources, and if they are not caught by wastewater treatment plants, they could be ingested by marine life.

What's on the Label?

Those funny names that appear on the labels of personal care products, names like Acrylates Copolymer and Acrylate Crosspolymer, are assigned their names according to the International Nomenclature for Cosmetics Ingredients. They are commonly referred to as the INCI name. The end use and physical form of an ingredient is not a factor in assigning an INCI name.  In fact, the same INCI name will apply to a polymer regardless of whether it ends up being used as a liquid, a gel or a solid in a personal care product. In other words, the ingredient name on the label does not tell you whether the ingredient is being used in the product as liquid, a gel or a solid.

Some groups have tried to use INCI names to identify personal care products that contain microplastics. They make the wrong assumption that all ingredients with the term "poly" in the INCI name means microplastic. These groups are not asking the next and most important question: is the polymer being used in the product as a liquid, a gel or a solid?  Without knowing the answer to that question, INCI names on a product label will not tell you whether the product contains microplastics or not.  Read More from industry experts Cosmetics & Toilietries.

The Committee that assigns INCI names to ingredients has acknowledged this confusion. In August 2019, the committee issued a statement, warning against the use of INCI names to identify microplastics in cosmetic and personal care products.  As the INCI committee states:  "The assumption that all polymers are microplastics is inaccurate and misleading...the single most distinguishing feature is the fact that a microplastic material is a solid particle. This characteristic cannot be identified or implied simply by reading the ingredient's INCI name and drawing the inference that the term 'poly' means microplastic."