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Microplastics Are In 87% Of Major Cosmetics — Is Liquid Plastic Equally Harmful?

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In recent years there has been a major shift toward a more sustainable beauty space. From refillable cosmetics to compostable packaging and more, the future is getting brighter–but that doesn’t mean we should stop now.

Unfortunately, when we look inside many sustainably made bottles we find something not-so-friendly: Liquid plastics. While it may be easy to immediately demonize this increasingly talked-about ingredient, we can’t be so quick to judge.

To follow, a bit more information on what liquid plastics are and what you can do to contribute to a plastic-free future–or at least something close.

What are liquid plastics?

Liquid plastics are used to enhance the sensorial experience of cosmetics by thickening a formula. “These are ingredients that are very much polymers, but have flow properties which make them ‘liquid plastics,'” notes biotech engineer and chemist Greg Altman, Ph.D. These ingredients are used in a wide variety of beauty products, from hair care and skin care to makeup and cosmetics.

In ingredient lists, some types of liquid plastics may end in -cone or -siloxane. (Common examples include dimethicone, cyclomethicone, cyclopentasiloxane, and so on.) They may also include polyethylene glycols (PEGs), polymers (like acrylates copolymer), butylene, and carbomers. Petrolatum is another classic example that could technically be classified as a liquid plastic, Altman notes. This is all to say that there are more than just a few liquid plastics out there, and they can be difficult to spot on an ingredient list as they may even go by different names.

Here, we should also note that there’s not a clear consensus on what we should be classifying as a liquid plastics or better-known microplastics. For example, European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) at this time does not include plastic particles smaller than 0.1 micrometers, biodegradable polymers, and water-soluble or liquid polymers in their definition of microplastics. So while many in the beauty space may consider these polymers to be microplastics–as they technically are–it’s still up for debate among governing bodies on what we should be calling plastics.

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Why are they in our beauty products? Well, this is where it gets complicated.

You may be wondering why there are even liquid plastics in our skin care products at all. But as clean cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline told mbg, these liquid plastics can thicken a product, ensure that the formula stays on the hair rather than slipping off, and even contribute to esthetic benefits like increasing shine and smoothing texture–all of which consumers look for in their products.

And to be frank, “It’s extremely hard to find alternatives for these that will give you the same kind of benefit,” Koestline says. This is where the topic gets nuanced–while many cosmetic formulators would prefer to use more sustainable alternatives, the sensorial experience will not be the same and thus, may not be competitive on the market.

“Plastic is very cheap, especially compared to other materials at the moment,” says author Erica Cirino, communications manager of The Plastic Pollution Coalition. The hope is that in a few years when replacement ingredients have been more researched and made accessible, this will change.

How can the industry–and user–go about replacing them?

So if these plastics are so hard to replace, what’s the answer?

First things first, if you want to advocate for plastic-free products then there may be some compromise when it comes to texture and sensorial experience–it won’t necessarily be worse, but it will be different. Here’s how Koestline puts it:

“It’s like when you switch away from plastic bags and go for cloth bags. Yes, people are not going to love the fact that they have to wash them every now and remember to take them out of the car, but you get used to it because you understand the repercussions of using plastic bags,” she says.

So yes, your moisturizer may not be perfectly white, and your hair gel may not stick like super glue, but it’s all something you can get used to for the sake of the environment. What’s more, you may not always have to, because exciting new advancements are in the works.

For example, Altman has been working with biotech silk materials with his company Evolve by Nature–more specifically an innovative ingredient called Activated Silk 33B–as one promising replacement for liquid plastics. The ingredient is the individual silk protein (a monomer) which can be used in topical formulations to bind together emulsions, just like the plastic polymers–but with added skin benefits and without the environmental issues that come with it.

Modern Meadow uses a fermented bio-based protein that can support the skin barrier and improve collagen production–without the use of petrochemical inputs, animal-derived materials, or chemical processes.

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So what can you do right now, and as the industry is evolving?

The most obvious action you can take is to use plastic-free products–but that’s not always going to be easy. As reported by the Plastic Soup Foundation, 87% of products from the ten best-selling cosmetics brands contain microplastics.

What you can do is advocate for a more sustainable future and support companies that are participating in it. “We all need to push to make sure that there is enough research to find something to switch out some of these plastics,” Koestline says.

All in all, these early stages of advocacy should be based on conversations, education, and coming together to support companies going the extra mile to minimize plastic use. What’s more, as consumers of beauty products we must be willing to change our expectations as to how a product will feel or look without these ingredients. After all, if so many of us have gotten used to reusable grocery bags and paper straws, who says we can’t adapt again?

Takeaway of the trend.

Sustainability in the beauty industry should not only be about the packaging, but also what is inside. Liquid plastics are in most products from the top name-brand cosmetic sellers thanks to their ability to create a pleasurable sensorial experience for cheap. If we want to see a future without liquid plastics, it starts with education, advocacy, and an open mind.

Even if we opt for natural ingredients, those aren’t always sustainably sourced either, so this transition will take some time and grace. This won’t happen overnight, for brands and consumers alike. But we can at least think critically about the ingredients we use and the choices we make–knowing it won’t be perfect, but there’ll at least be progress.

Read our full trend list for 2023 here.

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