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Plastics in cosmetics

Simona Fabiani, National CGIL, Climate, Environmental and Territorial Policies and expert of CTS OpenCorporation

One of the ingredients used in cosmetics is plastic. It is used in the form of tiny solid particles less than 5 millimeters in size, which are intentionally added to cosmetics and personal care products, as emulsifying agents, exfoliants or simply as fillers. Plastics are found in so many cosmetic products: lipsticks, lip glosses, illuminants, mascaras, foundations, toothpastes, bubble baths, shampoos, etc.

There is still no complete knowledge of the effects of plastic on human health, in case it is ingested or comes into contact with our skin. Certainly, the health impact of plastics in all their forms should be of concern to us considering that their spread is increasingly pervasive. Microplastics, present in cosmetics and hardly visible to the naked eye, end up directly from the bathroom drain into the sewer system. Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to filter them; so microplastics go to feed the “plastic soup” that swirls around in our seas and oceans. Fish absorb or eat the microplastics, which will then make their way into the human food chain as well. Microplastics are not biodegradable and once they enter the marine environment, they are nearly impossible to remove.  In the case of cosmetics, the impact of plastics on health can be both direct, related to the use of the product through skin absorption, and indirect through the food chain.

At the European level, the adoption of the regulation that should prohibit the intentional addition of microplastics in cosmetics and detergents has slipped to 2022 and initially will cover only larger microplastics, postponing the ban on nanoplastics to 2028 or 2030. In Italy, the 2018 Budget Law introduced a ban, effective January 1st, 2019, on the marketing of cosmetic rinse-off products with an exfoliating or cleansing action, such as soaps, creams, exfoliating gels, and toothpastes, containing microplastics. This is an important step but does not include all cosmetic products. While waiting for the legislation to become more stringent, it is important to buy products by making informed choices. To check if a product contains microplastics we must carefully read the INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients), the international designation of ingredients of cosmetic products, which is usually printed on the packaging of the products. Unep has compiled a list of ingredients that indicate the presence of microplastics, namely:

Nylon-12 (polyamide-12), Nylon-6, Poly(butylene terephthalate), Poly(ethylene isoterephthalate), Poly(ethylene terephthalate), Poly(methyl methylacrylate), Poly(pentaerythrityl terephthalate), Poly(propylene terephthalate), Polyethylene, Polypropylene, Polystyrene, Polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon), Polyurethane, Polyacrylate, Acrylates, Allyl stearate/vinyl acetate copolymers, Ethylene/propylene/styrene copolymer, Ethylene/methylacrylate copolymer, Ethylene/acrylate copolymer, Butylene/ethylene/styrene copolymer, Styrene acrylates copolymer, Trimethylsiloxysilicate (silicone resin).

Consciously purchasing products that contain microplastics, but also buying cosmetics with eco-friendly, reusable or recyclable packaging is an individual responsibility and a form of environmental activism that can produce results, also in terms of pressure on companies.  

In fact, the role of production companies is essential. Some are taking positive steps in this direction, for example by producing products without the use of microplastics or products such as shampoo and conditioner in solid version with paper packaging and liquid products to be sold in bulk, but they are still too few. We would expect much more, especially from large companies and cosmetic multinationals, which due to corporate social responsibility, should radically change their production processes and products in line with the objectives of protection and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems and sustainable use and protection of water and marine resources.

With regard to companies, the role of trade unions can be decisive. Through company level collective bargaining, including with multinationals, they can demand a different organization of work based on the efficient use of resources and energy, the transition from a linear economy model to a circular economy model, the reduction of pollution through the adoption of the best available techniques, the elimination of plastic in products and packaging, the respect of ecosystems and biodiversity, the decarbonization of plants, the production and use of renewable energy, sustainable transport, the respect of animals by not testing products and much more. On these issues, CGIL has a strong commitment and in particular with regard to collective bargaining at all levels, it has developed the “CGIL Platform for Sustainable Development”, and jointly with CISL and UIL the document for sustainable development and the platform for a just transition was finalized.              

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