Keeping Ourselves and the Oceans Beautiful: Microplastics in Cosmetics and Skin Care

Youth Climate Action Team Inc.
4 min readApr 28, 2023


What are microplastics?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines microplastics as “small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life.” The first instance of microplastics discovered in water was around the 1970s. As plastic usage and waste increase, the amount of these plastic particles found in our waterways exponentially increases as well.

Why should we be concerned about microplastics?

Microplastics are now present in the blood of the majority of humans. In multiple studies, it was shown that 77 to 80 percent of participants had microplastics in their blood. These particles have also been found everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the Mariana Trench to the top of Mount Everest, and even in the placenta of pregnant women. Eventually, some of those microplastics make their way into the ocean where they have been found in the stomachs of virtually every marine species, from plankton to whales. Others accumulate in our air, drinking water, soil, and many more spaces.

The primary danger with microplastics is that they never truly break down and mainly stay in their particle form for indefinite amounts of time. They just accumulate and move from one location to the next. Given that they are a more recent phenomena, their effects need to be further tested. With that said, studies have shown that microplastics are damaging human health, releasing chemical compounds into the body, and making people more susceptible to certain illnesses, like cancer or reproductive harm.

Where do you find them, and how does it apply to cosmetics?

Unfortunately, microplastics are everywhere: plastic bottles, clothes, food packaging, even unexpected places like our cars, homes, and more. When it comes to skincare, microplastics are frequently found in the form of exfoliants in face washes, scrubs, and toothpastes. While there has been past legislation on physical plastic exfoliants, like microbeads, in rinse-off products, there are still traces found in numerous products, everything from lipstick to deodorant and shampoo. Both rinse-off and leave-in/on products still contain a considerable amount of microplastics, both in their chemical makeup and physical exfoliants.

Most of modern skin care contains synthetic polymers (including solid, liquid, semi-liquid or water-soluble forms, as well as nano and biodegradable plastics). They are used to bind formulas, thicken products, become a cleansing agent, or even act as a carrier for some active ingredients. The most prominent one is Polyethylene Glycol (PEG), along with silicone-based materials, and polyacrylamides, acrylic acid-based polymers, as well as alkylene oxide-based homopolymers and copolymers. These can be found in everything from eye shadow to shaving cream, face wash, baby products, and more. When people use and rinse these products, the chemicals go down the drain and into the oceans, where they are nearly impossible to filter out and are essentially liquid plastic. As a result, they are undetected and can harm marine wildlife and humans.

How can we try to avoid microplastics in skincare?

Microplastics are everywhere, and although it is difficult to change that, there are some steps that can be taken to limit microplastic exposure and avoid worsening the problem.

1 — Check the ingredient list: The higher up on the ingredient list something is, the higher concentration of it is in the product.

Look for chemicals like:

  • Acrylates Copolymer
  • Acrylates Crosspolymer
  • Butylene
  • Carbomer
  • Dimethicone
  • Ethylene
  • Methacrylate Copolymer
  • Methacrylate Crosspolymer
  • Methyl Methacrylate Copolymer
  • Methyl Methacrylate Crosspolymer
  • Nylon
  • Polyacrylamide
  • Polyacrylate
  • Polypropylene
  • Polyurethane
  • Polyvinyl
  • Propylene Copolymer or Polypropylene
  • PVP
  • Styrene Copolymer
  • Tetrafluoroethylene
  • Vinyl Acetate Copolymer
  • VP/VA Copolymer

Sometimes, these compounds are unavoidable due to their prominence in manufacturing. However, more affordable and organic cosmetics are starting to be pushed on the market due to an increase in demand for “clean” beauty products.

2 — Look for reputed sustainability logos or research the company’s sustainability practices:

With a quick search, more information about the company’s environmental practices should be available. Additionally, there are many resources to check the sustainability of a single product. There are numerous sites and applications, like Think Dirty, INCI Beauty (especially helpful for those living in the EU), EWG Healthy Living and EWG Skin Deep Database, Paula’s Choice Ingredient Dictionary, that can make this process easier while scanning for potential toxins in the product. Try to avoid false advertising or greenwashing, however. It is important to ensure that any sustainability claims made by a company have research to back them up from credible sources.

3 — Try products with less synthetic ingredients:

Trying raw or more plant-based products with less ingredients is another way to start limiting exposure to microplastics. Try to use less products that have ingredients that start with “poly-” or “PEG.”

So what does all of this mean?

Microplastics are an issue that is going to take a lot of effort, both systemic and individually. However, consumers can begin to make smarter choices about their products through the power of research and awareness about issues like these.



Youth Climate Action Team Inc.

501(c)4 youth movement bridging the gap between non-climate groups & intersectional climate action.