Overcoming the Microplastics Crisis: Navigating the Polymer Transition in Beauty

cosmetics and personal care products with synthetic polymers and microplastics

Plastics have been in the spotlight for many years now for the damage they cause to the environment. Recently, microplastics have been gaining recognition since several studies and posts sharing just how present microplastics are in the environment and humans have surfaced. What is really going on?

What are microplastics, and how are they harmful?

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that measure less than 5 mm in length, come in various forms, and are now becoming a topic of widespread concern. 

Two types of microplastics exist: manufacturers intentionally produce small plastic particles to be added into products which are called primary microplastics, while environmental conditions lead to the formation of secondary microplastics through the breakdown of large plastic items.

While secondary microplastics come about due to the breakdown of large plastic items due to environmental factors like sunlight, heat, mechanical action, and weathering, primary microplastics have applications in various day-to-day products in cosmetics, personal care, and home care items, such as skin care items, detergents, soaps, toothpaste, among others. Manufacturers intentionally add microbeads, microfibers, and liquid polymers as examples of primary microplastics in beauty products for performance, function, or other specific needs.

These microplastics enter the environment and can cause ecosystem disruption and impact biodiversity. They also impact the food chain by moving up the chain through bioaccumulation in organisms, reaching up to higher level organisms like humans, causing toxicity and health issues. 

Microplastics are difficult to detect and remove from the environment because of their small size and widespread distribution, ultimately ending up in the environment where they persist for a long period. 

Researchers have found their presence to be everywhere – in human lungs, in excrement, in blood, in placentas, and now, also in packaged bottles of water.

In Germany, researchers uncovered that a whopping 97% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 years have plastic and microplastic debris in their bodies, likely from being exposed in their homes, via their clothing, food, and in their surrounding environment.

However, microplastics are not the only synthetic polymer-based ingredients around.

Other non-renewable ingredients in daily-use products

Silicones in conditioners

Conditioners are a very common product in most homes, used several times a week by people. But do you know what helps conditioners impart silkiness and shininess to our hair? Silicones and polymer ingredients in conditioners contribute to enhanced hair texture, shine, and manageability resulting in the appearance of healthier, more polished hair. These ingredients form a protective coating around the hair shaft, smoothing out cuticles and preventing moisture loss.

However, their use has raised safety, health, and environmental concerns. Over time, these substances can accumulate on the hair, leading to a build-up that may weigh down strands and reduce volume. Additionally, some individuals may experience adverse reactions, such as irritation or allergic responses, to specific silicones. From an environmental perspective, silicones do not easily biodegrade, and when they wash down our drains, they contribute to long-term ecological impact.

PEGs in skincare and cosmetics formulations 

An example of a non-renewable polymer ingredient used in daily care products is Polyethylene Glycol (PEG). PEG is a petroleum-based polymer that is commonly found in skincare and cosmetic formulations. It is used for various purposes, such as thickening, and moisture retention, and as a solvent for other ingredients. 

While PEG can offer functional benefits in personal care products, it is derived from non-renewable fossil fuel sources, raising concerns about sustainability and environmental impact. 

Other examples of non-renewable ingredients in skincare and cosmetics products

Another example of a non-renewable polymer ingredient used in daily care products is Polyacrylamide. Polyacrylamide is a synthetic polymer that is often used in hair care products such as styling gels and creams. It provides benefits like enhancing texture, improving product consistency, and aiding in the styling process. However, like other non-renewable polymers, it is derived from petrochemical sources. 

Contribution to the cosmetics and personal care industry

A lot of the beauty and personal care products we use today wouldn’t be possible if not for these polymer ingredients. These synthetic polymeric ingredients impart a lot of benefits to our products: 

  • They enhance texture, improve product consistency, and contribute to the overall performance and efficacy of various personal care items.
  • Enhance the stability and shelf life of formulations, ensuring that the products maintain their desired qualities over time.
  • In skin care, certain polymers may provide a luxurious feel, aiding in the application and absorption of lotions or creams.
  • Microplastics contribute to the texture and exfoliating properties of skincare and personal care products. They offer a smooth and polished feel during application, aiding in the removal of dead skin cells. They also offer product stability properties and abrasive properties. 

Harmful effects on humans and the environment

However, there are drawbacks to synthetic polymers. We’ve seen just how harmful microplastics are for humans and the environment, and these lesser-known synthetic polymer ingredients are just as hazardous. They wash down our drains and enter our aquatic systems, posing potential health risks through absorption or ingestion.

Moreover, as petroleum-based, these polymers contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and wastage.

Challenges for the beauty industry

Consumers are becoming more aware and demanding eco-friendly, sustainable products. Specifically, consumers are: 

  • demanding transparency regarding product ingredients, sourcing, and manufacturing processes. This has prompted cosmetic companies to provide detailed information to meet consumer expectations. 
  • showing a growing interest in clean beauty, favoring products with minimal use of synthetic ingredients, preservatives, and harmful chemicals. 
  • Their preference for ethical sourcing and clean beauty has sparked the rise of certification labels and eco-friendly brands.
  • Their demand for eco-friendly products has stimulated innovation in the cosmetics industry. And prompted research and development to create sustainable alternatives to traditional synthetic ingredients. One such solution that has come up is natural polymers.
  • embracing refillable packaging options, encouraging companies to adopt more sustainable packaging solutions, and reducing single-use plastic waste.
  • seeking educational resources to understand the environmental impact of certain ingredients. 
  • Spearheading a movement on natural beauty globally

However, it’s still challenging for the cosmetics and personal care industry to find bio-based alternatives that will: 

  • exhibit performance, efficacy, and texture comparable to synthetic polymers
  • be cost-effective while balancing sustainability 
  • solve the problem of high R&D costs due to uncertainties regarding cost-effectiveness while the pressure to comply with regulations also stands
  • Integrate bio-based alternatives into existing supply chains 
  • meet stringent regulatory standards for eco-friendly products 
  • keep the supply chain active with readily available raw material

The solution to Synthetic polymers: Natural polymers

A solution to the synthetic polymer ingredients found in cosmetics and personal care products is the adoption of natural polymers. These biodegradable alternatives, derived from renewable sources like plants, biomass, and microorganisms, offer a more sustainable choice. However, natural polymers also have their own set of challenges. As we saw above, it can be difficult for natural polymers to meet the standard that synthetic polymers have set out.

Despite these challenges, ongoing research and innovation are focused on overcoming these limitations, making natural polymers a promising avenue for enhancing the sustainability of cosmetic and personal care products. Greenitio is such a pioneering startup that is working on unlocking the potential of natural polymers through AI-aided technology and has designed high-performing natural polymers that unlock a ton of benefits and bring specific solutions to challenges faced by the cosmetics and personal care industry.

What might products, cost, production, and processes look like with natural polymers’ potential unlocked? 

  • Eco-Friendly Production: Natural polymers are derived from renewable sources, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and promoting environmentally friendly manufacturing processes.
  • Biodegradability: Unlike synthetic polymers that persist for extended periods, natural polymers are biodegradable, contributing to reduced environmental impact and supporting circular economy models.
  • Consumer Appeal: As consumer awareness grows, products with natural polymers appeal to eco-conscious consumers, expanding market reach and improving brand image.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Utilizing natural polymers aligns with increasingly stringent global regulations for sustainable and eco-friendly products, ensuring compliance with international standards.
  • Supply Chain Integration: Natural polymers can help turn around supply chains and make them more green and may also reduce the burden put on supply chains currently for certain chemicals and ingredients.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: While it may take some time to make natural ingredients as cost-effective as synthetic ones, it’s easy to see one taking prevalence over the other.
  • Reduced Carbon Footprint: Embracing natural polymers contributes to lower carbon footprints, aligning with global efforts to combat climate change and promoting responsible production practices.
  • Diversification of Product Lines: Successful integration of natural polymers enables companies to diversify their product lines, meeting the demands of environmentally conscious consumers with a broader range of sustainable options.
  • Long-Term Viability: Natural polymers offer a sustainable solution with long-term viability, contributing to the resilience of the cosmetics and personal care industry in the face of evolving consumer preferences and regulatory landscapes.

Delving into natural alternatives

Synthetic polymers and microplastics have provided various benefits through cosmetics and personal care products over the years. However, they pose considerable health and environmental challenges and risks, and the current spotlight on microplastics is effectively proving this, having unveiled a broader issue in the industry – its dependence on synthetic polymer ingredients. Natural polymers, here, prove to be an effective solution and a great opportunity for the industry to integrate into their skincare, haircare, and other daily-use products. Products like Greenitio’s plant-based natural polymers help address the many challenges that the industry currently faces.



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