How do microplastics get into the oceans?
The pollution of the oceans by more than ten million tons of waste annually is a serious societal challenge. By far, the largest proportion of this waste consists of plastics: Packaging materials such as films, bags, bottles – thus solid objects which marine life can swallow or become caught in.
Less visible but no less harmful are microplastics. Through UV radiation, wind and waves, the plastic parts degrade over many years into very small particles. If they are smaller than five millimeters, they are referred to in general as microplastics. In addition, there are plastic particles which are generated by the very fine abrasion of fleece materials (for example, textiles) and tires.
The immense quantities of these various microplastic particles threaten the ecosystem – for example, by the fact that they are ingested by marine life along with their food and thus enter the food chain.
And what about microplastics in cosmetic products?
In addition to the worldwide plastic waste problem, there is another important topic in this regard: The pollution of wastewater by what is referred to as "primary microplastics." These are used in some special cosmetic agents as materials with an abrasive effect – for example in the form of very small plastic beads in peels or hand cleansing pastes.
Even if modern wastewater treatment systems are able to capture such particles, microplastics getting into the environment cannot be excluded in every case. Kneipp addressed this topic very early on and for this reason, years ago, it switched all formulations concerned. No Kneipp product contains any microplastic particles.
Fortunately, all members of the European Cosmetic Association have since then agreed on a voluntary renunciation starting in 2020 and in the USA as well, a departure has been signaled with the signing of the Microbead-Free Water Act.
What is considered to be a microplastic?
Unfortunately there is no binding definition of the term "microplastics" which leads to a significant amount of confusion regarding the term in the media. In addition to the plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size and present in solid form in finished products which are usually considered to be microplastics, colloidal and dissolved polymers are also occasionally confused by the media with microplastics.
Polymers in colloidal form
In the colloidal form, thus in the form of microscopically small, stable suspensions, polymers are used in cosmetics as so-called opacifiers (for example: styrenes/acrylates/copolymers). Even if no negative effects of colloidal polymers on the environment are known, we will not use them as a precaution, and are currently working on switching any formulations concerned.
Polymers in dissolved form
Polymers which are present in products in dissolved form and not as particles can be mixed with water without any restrictions. Thus they do not come under the designation of microplastics. Such polymers are invaluable helpers in the stabilization of emulsion systems (for example, acrylate crosspolymer and natural substances such as xanthan, alginates, pectins, guar and xanthan).
Further details: A study from the German Federal Environmental Agency
A study conducted on behalf of the German Federal Environmental Agencies provides more detailed information about the various sources of microplastics and their relevance for marine protection: For download