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Evaluating alternatives to plastic microbeads in cosmetics

Abstract

In our haste to ban or regulate unsustainable and environmentally damaging materials and chemicals, we may overlook dangers posed by their substitutes. In light of the scientific evidence regarding the fate, persistence and toxicity of microplastics in the marine environment, many countries have banned the sale of rinse-off cosmetics containing plastic microbeads to prevent their release to the environment. However, the wider lifetime environmental impacts of the potential substitutes have not been considered, and care must be taken so that the environmental costs of using them do not potentially outweigh the benefits resulting from the bans. In this study, we use life cycle assessment to compare the environmental performance of a wide range of potential alternatives. The study investigates the quantities of these materials required and the human health and environmental impacts of their manufacture, transport and inclusion in cosmetics. We highlight that the long-term environmental and human health effects of their disposal are unknown and are thus excluded from the life cycle assessment. In support of the responsible replacement of plastic microbeads in cosmetics, we identify several alternatives that will perform better, as well as substitutes that could pose additional risks and have undesirable effects.

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Fig. 1: Microbeads in the marine environment.
Fig. 2: The study boundaries.
Fig. 3: Impacts of alternatives grouped according to their origins (mineral, plant and plastic).
Fig. 4: Comparing alternatives to polyethylene.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on request.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. Hunt, Marine Litter Policy Lead in the Marine Environment Strategy Team, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), UK, for identifying the policy need that the work presented here aimed to address.

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All authors were involved in the study conceptualization and design. C.F.H. led the writing of the original draft. C.F.H. and N.V. contributed to the review and editing. N.V. led the project supervision.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nikolaos Voulvoulis.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Sustainability thanks Olwenn Martin and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Notes (Methods and Results), Figs. 1 and 2, Tables 1–6 and references.

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Hunt, C.F., Lin, W.H. & Voulvoulis, N. Evaluating alternatives to plastic microbeads in cosmetics. Nat Sustain 4, 366–372 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-00651-w

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