What the Plastic Microbead Ban Means

ban on microbeads in cosmetics

I had imagined the UK’s much publicised microbead ban would be basically much like the legislation that is either already in force or well on the way around the world already.  Despite all the recent evidence I still think of my fellow countryfolk as sensible pragmatists who don’t panic about things.  So when I heard that UK parliament had brought in a ban on microbeads I wasn’t too bothered.  Such a ban is already in force in a few countries and no doubt EU legislation will be along later.   In any case everyone in the business knows the score and has already got rid of them or is well on the way to doing so.  I’d assumed this was just a bit of window dressing by the government to be seen to be doing something to help the oceans given how popular the Blue Planet television series is proving to be.  So I didn’t trouble to look up the details.  I’d guessed it would be a ban on very small polythene beads and we’d have to switch to natural or biodegradable options, which is pretty much what we are already doing anyway.

It was only when I wondered the other night how they were defining biodegradable for the purposes of the act that I got around to looking at the statute itself.  Well there were a couple of surprises.

The first is that the ban is on anything up to 5mm.  This is quite big, and quite a lot bigger than the needs of exfoliation require.  I can’t think of any reason why the ban shouldn’t cover such big particles from an environmental point of view.  I also can’t think of any products that use them either.  But there are lots of products around and I am always being surprised by how creative people are in this business.  So there may be some company somewhere who might,out of the blue, have to change their products.

The second thing was the definition.  They’ve defined a plastic as a water insoluble synthetic polymer.  That is one heck of a wide definition and pulls in a lot of the alternatives that have been suggested to polythene beads.  The most disruptive thing is that on the face of it plastic colourants and glitters as used in nail polish and fancy soap bars will have to go.  This might well be logical as they can potentially have the same environmental impact.  But they are used at much lower levels and I haven’t heard of anyone campaigning against them.  I think this might be a bit of collateral damage.  Even the broader ban on anything plastic won’t stop people making perfectly adequate exfoliating scrubs.  But having to substitute colours is always a pain in the neck.  There might be some people who are going to have to work quite hard to keep their products in their current form.

But the biggest surprise was the thing I was actually looking for.  How do you go about proving that your biodegradable plastic is biodegradable enough to be permitted?  This is a trickier subject than it sounds so I was curious as to how our elected representatives had solved.  But I was disappointed. There was no mention of biodegradability at all.  So it looks like anything man made is banned, regardless of how green it is.

I’m in two minds about this.  On the one hand it is rather magnificent that they have taken the hardest of lines possible.  There are quite a lot of arguments about just how useful making things biodegradable is.  But this law takes no chances – if its been synthesised in a lab then it isn’t acceptable.  End of.  There have been cases where apparently suitable chemicals have been permitted only to need to be withdrawn later when they turn out to have unexpected drawbacks.  DDT and neonicotinoids for example. So maybe this degree of caution is advisable.  But on the other hand do we really want to rule out technological solutions to complex problems?  Biodegradable plastics seem on the face of it a pretty good option as a way of keeping up our standard of living without damaging the crowded planet we all live on.

In the meantime, if you enjoy exfoliating with plastic beads and live in the UK you only have a few months left.  The rules come into full force in June 2018.

The Environmental Protection (Microbeads) (England) Regulations 2017



5 thoughts on “What the Plastic Microbead Ban Means”

  1. Thank you very much for this article!
    This definition of plastic as a water insoluble synthetic polymer lets me worry about my preferred kind of mascara. Does this mean mascara that uses polymeres like acrylates copolymer will be banned as well?
    It seems like the only kind of mascara that works for me. Water soluble mascara won’t stay in place because of watering eyes and waterproof (=oil soluble) mascara won’t stay in place because of my oily skin.
    Another product that typically uses polymeres is hairspray. Would this need to be replaced as well?

    I don’t worry about the exfoliating micro beads since companies already found a lot of good replacements. But many other products with only tiny amounts of polymeres (come on, how much harm can a bit of mascara do?) will be in trouble as well.
    Do you think the industry can come up with proper replacements for these polymeres?

  2. Hi Colin, what cosmetic ingredients are not biodegradable and not good for the environment? I understand that silicones are guilty of that, what else are there?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

A newsletter for personal care business professionals

Subscribe to know what is going on.