Microplastic: Upcoming EU Regulation, an open letter and the impact for cosmetic products

Microplastic: Upcoming EU Regulation, an open letter and the impact for cosmetic products

“Microplastic” in informal language usually refers to solid microparticles gained from synthetic polymers, typically described with a size of less than 5 mm, with a distinction made between two types depending on their origin[1]:

  • Microparticles unintentionally formed from larger products such as plastic bags and bottles, tires or synthetic cloths are referred to as secondary
  • Microparticles which are produced and intentionally used as such are referred to as primary microplastics.

Primary microplastics in cosmetic products (microbeads) are used for example as abrasive agents in peeling products for cleansing pores, removal of dead skin cells and cosmetic defects, and superficial lesions through mechanical peeling action[2].

In many cosmetic products such as shower gels, creams, make-ups, lipsticks, etc. also various synthetic polymers are used for film forming and viscosity control, i.e. they provide the product’s characteristic texture, consistency and haptic properties. Those are usually liquid polymers dissolved in the product mixture, for example polyethylene glycols (PEG), acrylic acid copolymers, etc.

In addition to their technical functions however, microplastics are considered biochemically inert, i.e. they are only very slightly or not at all biodegradable, leading to long-term persistence in the aquatic environment and living organisms. Several studies have been published throughout the years, showing the enormous environmental impact and the potential public health risk. For example, as recently demonstrated on four polymers applied in the industry with high production volume, microplastics could be identified in the human bloodstream[3], several pigmented microplastics and additives in human placenta[4].

The use of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetic products has been already limited or completely prohibited in some EU countries. Starting in late 2016 with a national voluntary prohibition in the Netherlands (achieved in cooperation between Dutch government and industry), followed by legislative bans in France (2018), Sweden (2019), Italy (2020) and Ireland (2020), plus the ban in United Kingdom in 2018.

Based on the Annex XVI Restriction Report published by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in 2019[5], the European Commission (EC) issued in 2022 the proposal for a Regulation in regards to microplastics, here referred to as synthetic polymer microparticles[6]. It proposes the prohibition of placing on the market of any solid polymer (…) as a substance on their own, or in a mixture, or where the synthetic polymer microparticles are present to confer a sought-after characteristic (i.e. intentionally-present), in a concentration equal to or greater than 0,01 % by weight.

The proposal’s Annex defines those solid polymers as sharing the same intrinsic properties with regards to particle size, dimension ratio, solid state, synthetic origin and extreme persistence in the environment, rather than addressing particular substances, any additives or other substances that the polymers may contain.

Synthetic polymer microparticles are further defined as solid polymers which are (…) contained in particles and constitute at least 1 % by weight of those particles, or build a continuous surface coating on particle, where at least 1 % by weight of those particles fulfil either of the following:

  • All dimensions of the particles are equal to or less than 5 mm;
  • The length of the particles is equal to or less than 15 mm and their length to diameter ratio is greater than 3.

However, some polymers such as non-modified, water soluble, natural and/or degradable polymers, plus those without carbon atoms are excluded from the above.

Moreover, transitional periods after entry into force of the Regulation are proposed to allow sufficient time for concerned stakeholders to comply with the restriction and transition to suitable alternatives(…). Furthermore, such transitional periods are also necessary for the Member States to prepare for the enforcement of the restriction.

Among others, transitional periods are suggested by the EC as follows:

  • For rinse-off cosmetic products, unless such products contain synthetic polymer microparticles as abrasive (“microbeads”), the period is proposed with 4 years.
  • For leave-on products, namely lip and nail products and make-up, the period is proposed with 12 years.
  • For encapsulation of fragrances, the Commission considers 6 years as appropriate, etc.

Specifically addressing these transition periods, an open letter was sent to the European Commission in the end of February 2023[7], signed by several manufacturers and associations, asking for a faster and more comprehensive prohibition of microplastics in cosmetic products and pointing out the rising consumer’s demand for environmentally sustainable and circular products.

The signees express their concern about the exceptionally long transition periods in the current proposal, especially 12 years for leave-on products (…). Those periods would remain at odds with the principles laid down in ongoing European Commission initiatives and therefore have no justification. They believe microplastics, whether solid, liquid or water-soluble, should stop being used due to their negative, irreversible environmental impacts and potential risk to human health.

The reasons for the suggested transition periods are laid down in the Regulation proposal, taking up the lack of suitable alternatives, cost of reformulation and the potential impact on product functions. Stating to having demonstrated that microplastics are not essential in producing a wide range of cosmetic and beauty products, these reasons are not considered in the open letter.

Overall, the approach towards EU-wide legal restrictions of microplastics is welcome and long overdue, likely to be finally adopted sometime in 2023. The research for alternate substances providing similar effectiveness is going on and possible substitute options such as degradable polymers from biological sources[8] have been long-time brought into discussion. However, the further development will be complex for certain applications and the need for innovation will massively grow in the upcoming years –most certainly not limited to cosmetic products.


For more news and updates, check out: Cosmetics News


[1] https://echa.europa.eu/hot-topics/microplastics

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0269749123001082

[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412022001258

[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412020322297

[5] https://echa.europa.eu/documents/10162/05bd96e3-b969-0a7c-c6d0-441182893720

[6] https://ec.europa.eu/transparency/comitology-register/screen/documents/083921/1/consult?lang=en

[7] https://www.naturalproductsonline.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/microplastics-legislation-open-letter-transitional-periods.pdf

[8] https://www2.calrecycle.ca.gov/Publications/Details/1435

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