MHA | EU measures to restrict microplastics in cosmetics

EU measures to restrict microplastics in cosmetics

Mark Lumsdon-Taylor · Posted on: November 14th 2023 · read

Glitter in hand

The EU’s microplastics restriction, otherwise known as the ‘glitter ban’ has come into effect. And its implications are more than just cosmetic.

On 27th September 2023, the European Commission published Regulation (EU) 2023/2055 to amend Annex XVII of the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals) Regulation.

The restriction applies to synthetic polymers microparticles (microplastics) either on their own or in mixtures, from 17th October 2023.

Glitter Ban

Synthetic polymer microparticles are solid polymers with equal or less than 5mm in all dimensions, or where the length of the particles is equal or less than 15mm and the length to diameter ratio is greater than 3.

Unrestricted Polymers

Natural polymers, degradable polymers, water soluble polymers and polymers that do not contain carbon atoms are excluded from the restriction, and some products are out of scope because they contain microplastics but do not release them, the microplastics are permanently incorporated into a solid matrix, they are products used at industrial sites or they are already regulated under other EU legislation, for example, medicinal products or food and feed.

According to Ocean Care, there are an estimated 5.25 trillion plastic particles floating on the world’s oceans alone. That equates to around 269,000 tonnes. And it doesn’t stop there! As algae and bacteria colonise the plastic fragments, they become heavier and sink, polluting even the ocean depths. Currently, once microplastics enter our oceans, they cannot be removed.

Phasing out Microplastics

The cosmetics industry is required to meet a series of deadlines for the phasing out of microplastics – October 2027 for rinse-off cosmetics; October 2029 for leave-on cosmetics; October 16th 2035 for make-up, lip and nail cosmetics; and from October 2031 until October 2035, in order to continue to be for sale, make-up, lip and nail products must carry a label indicating they contain microparticles.

Given that in 2022, the European cosmetics and personal care market exceeded EUR €88 billion at Retail Sales Price (RSP), the restriction has far-reaching implications.

In fact, when the ban was originally announced, certain beauty influencers and reality television stars caused a surge in glitter sales before the ban came into effect. Luca Valentino, from Germany’s reality talent show ‘Deutschland sucht den Superstar’, told tabloid Bild that the EU was ‘taking away the last sparks of glamour’ but as the commission states in presenting the restriction, ‘the purpose is not to ban all glitter but to replace plastic glitter with more environmentally friendly glitter that does not pollute our oceans.’

But what about the UK? After all, this is a Europe-originated restriction.

Although the ban is an EU initiative, the vast majority of cosmetic companies sell their products in both the UK and EU markets and create one formulation for both.

As far as the ‘glitter’ element is concerned, it is reasonable to expect cosmetic companies using plastic glitter will source alternatives which deliver the glitter effect but are proven to be biodegradable or based on minerals as opposed to plastic.

Although the restriction is widely known as the ‘glitter ban’ its impact isn’t confined to cosmetics.

Products containing microplastics include tyres, synthetic clothing, tennis balls, laundry pods, dishwasher tablets, cigarette filters, craft glitter, wet wipes, tea bags, paint, fertilisers and take-away cups to name but a few.

With this in mind it is clear that the restriction is far-reaching indeed.

Some industries have advanced beyond the ban already.

Currently, the vast majority of fertilisers sold in the EU are already regulated under the Fertilising Product Regulation, which was amongst the very first to introduce biodegradability requirements for polymers used in fertilisers.

The EMEA Synthetic Turf Council has stated that while polymeric infills will not be banned until 2031, it ‘recognises the need to move away from rubber and plastic infill materials’. The industry is already introducing an increasing range of natural infill materials including granulate cork, wood chip, olive pits, corn husks and coconut fibre.

The environment

Whilst the ban has been welcomed in many quarters there remains some concern at the commission’s definition of ‘environmentally friendly’, calling for more precise definition of the polymer types allowed, if any. A study published in the journal Hazardous Materials, in 2020, determined that both plastic glitter and glitter made from alternative materials such as paper or cellulose could have ‘ecological impact in aquatic ecosystems’. This suggests that biodegradable glitters may not be as ‘environmentally friendly’ as they appear.

The European Commission has also proposed measures to prevent spillage of plastic pellets into the environment. These are the tiny pieces of plastic, the size of a bean, that are melted down and shaped into a final product. The proposal will outline best practices for handling pellets to prevent spillages and will require that companies using them are certified for spill prevention, together with best practices for containment of spills and clean up.

Perhaps the last word on the EU microplastics restriction should go to Virginijus Sinkevicius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, who stated at the ban’s launch:

’Banning intentionally added microplastics addresses a serious concern for the environment and peoples’ health. Microplastics are found in the seas, rivers and on land, as well as in food and drinking water. Today’s restriction concerns very small particles, but it is a big step towards reducing human-made pollution’.

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