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Is the plastic used in skincare products affecting our health?

With the plastic-free movement gaining momentum, people are now turning their attention to the health effects of exposure to plastic products. While there is much discussion about the plastic we ingest via the food chain, or the chemicals released into our drinking water from plastic bottles, it is only now that people are realising the extent to which plastic is used as in ingredient in our skincare.

Synthetic polymers – or commonly known as plastics – are typically derived from petroleum products and used regularly in skincare creams and lotions to give the perception of a thick and creamy consistency.

Microplastics have also, until recently, been used widely in exfoliants, branded as microbeads with the promise of removing dead skin cells and brightening the skin.

While we’re well aware that plastics pollute the environment and can take thousands of years to decompose, scientists are only just now discovering the health effects of applying plastics to our skin.

For example, many synthetic chemicals used in our skincare have links to cancer, neurodevelopmental issues and endocrine disorders. Incredibly, many are also known skin irritants and used in products that are marketed specifically for sensitive, damaged and problem skin.

Polyethelene glycol, for example, is used in skin care products as a thickener, solvent, softener, emulsion stabilizer, surfactant, fragrance ingredient, skin conditioning agent, a penetration enhancer and moisture carrier. 

Depending on the manufacturing process of PEG, it is possible that traces of ethylene oxide or PEG polymers of low molecular weight may remain in the final product. These have been associated with allergies, cancer, neurotoxicity, immunogenicity (where the body’s immune system reacts to a foreign substance) and with reproductive and developmental toxicity -which by definition includes effects on women who are pregnant.

Due to its penetration enhancing properties, PEG increases the skin’s permeability allowing greater penetration of the ingredients in the skin care product, which is very bad news for anyone that suffers from atopic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis or any other skin condition.

Similarly, microbeads, those tiny solid plastic particles found in exfoliants, are also made from a petroleum derivative and caused so much havoc for the environment that they were banned in many countries in 2015. To fish and other sea animals, these tiny particles look a lot like food. The extent to which microbeads have ended up in our food chain is as yet unknown, but if plastics can have such a negative effect when applied to our skin, we’re unlikely to get good news about its effect on the rest of our body once we’ve ingested it.

So, what can you do?

  • Always check the labels on your skincare products. Know what each ingredient is and be able to identify plastics and other synthetic chemicals that have known effects on the skin.
  • Use products with natural exfoliants instead of microbeads, or even better, make your own from oatmeal!
  • Opt for plastic-free when you can. While it’s not always possible to avoid plastic given how much we rely on it for our every day needs, there are great alternatives to plastic available on the market. Put down that cling film and check out our bees’ wax food wraps to get started!
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