Anja: My name is Anja Bubik, Ph.D. and I come from the Faculty of Environmental Protection in Velenje. Ever since I was little, I was interested in what happens in our body, why we get poisoned, why we can get sick. That’s why I decided to choose Biochemistry as an undergraduate and then Biomedicine in the field of Biochemistry and molecular biology as a doctoral study.
My interests in the professional field are still quite like those from childhood dreams – I am mainly interested in the molecular mechanisms of disease development and the potential toxic effects of various substances, natural and synthetic, on people and the environment.
Otherwise, I have been involved in sports all my life, I played handball for almost 15 years, I like dancing and running. I transferred many good things from sport to my daily life – mainly order and discipline, reliability, and perseverance, which is really very important in the research field. I am a team person, I like to share my knowledge and experience, so working with students, especially in the laboratory and on some project issues, is a big challenge for me.
Regarding cosmetics, I am an advocate of quality minimalism – which means less is more. And I use what I am also professionally convinced of.
What does your job involve, and what exactly do you deal with?
Anja: At the Faculty, I work as a senior lecturer and assistant in the field of Environment and Health. I participate in the implementation of basic subjects, as well as more specific ones such as Ecotoxicology, Molecular Ecology in Nature Conservation, Pollutant Chemistry and Wastewater Treatment.
I also participate in various projects, currently in two Erasmus+ projects, one addressing the issue of responsible and thoughtful choice of cosmetic products, and the other the broad field of microplastics – one of the more modern (also environmental) issues, or we can also say challenges.
I lead and take care of the development of the study laboratory, where we want to offer students as much practical experience as possible. At the same time, we are also developing more research oriented laboratory. For example, this year (2022) we will update the equipment and methodologies for the detection and identification of microplastics in various samples.
We are successfully cooperating with the local environment by engaging in many social events, we organize summer school, science days, and prepare lectures for different target groups…
Does your professional career affect you personally in your daily life? (e.g. Do you avoid food, cosmetics and other products with potentially harmful ingredients?)
Anja: Definitely. One of the most expressive things that I have been doing in recent years is, for example, reading the declarations of cosmetic products regarding the content of microplastics. But if I look more broadly, I am very attentive to the origin of the product. If possible, I choose Slovenian producers, or at least producers from the EU. Additionally, I am looking for products that generate as little waste as possible…
Why are plastics so popular in the modern world? Can you imagine a life without them? (probably hard to)
Anja: The invention of plastics based on synthetic polymers at the beginning of the 20th century (in 1907) changed our life forever and we practically cannot imagine it without plastics. Plastics are one of the most versatile materials ever made – they are cheap, light, strong and pliable – resulting in a virtually unlimited number of possible applications. Because plastics are so widespread, some scientists named modern world as a “plasticene” and the ocean as a “plastic soup”.
What are microplastics, and where can we find them?
Anja: According to the definition of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), microplastics are small, solid, water-insoluble polymer particles less than 5 mm in size.
They can be found practically at every step. Microplastics can be a raw material for the production of larger products (e.g. fibers, granules, …), microplastics are created when products are used, used, rubbed, and of course, they are created when the product becomes waste and is weathered, disintegrated under various influences…
What empowered you to research microplastics in cosmetics and personal care products?
Anja: My involvement in this field began in 2016, when I was absent from work due to the birth of my second child, and due to my friend’s encouragement, I began to “interpret” the declarations of various products. Of course, especially for children. In 2018, the idea moved from the couch to my work, when I together with my graduate student performed the first major analysis of the content of synthetic polymers – microbeads in toothpastes in Slovenia.
And then the story unfolded on its own, as I was asked new and new questions… e.g., what is PMMA, what is PEG, why there are so many different chemical forms of PEGs, what are their functions, how they behave in contact with the skin, in the environment, do these chemicals even break down, why some polymers are under more scrutiny, others less so…. And so, in 2021, we came up with two such projects…which have not only an environmental impact, but also a great social contribution.
Can we find microplastics in cosmetics, children’s and personal care products or cleaning and washing products? What function do these particles have there, if any?
Anja: Microplastics (MP) can be present in cosmetic products in small, regular shaped beads called microbeads. We can find them in soaps, shampoos, deodorants, toothpastes, anti-wrinkle creams, moisturizers, shaving cream, sun lotion, face masks, lipstick, eye shadows, baby bubble bath, etc.
Microbeads most often perform the functions of rubbing, cleaning and exfoliation – we speak of an abrasive effect. What does that mean? Due to its hardness, the abrasive material grinds and wears softer substances, e.g. removing dead skin. For example, according to data, the facial scrub contains more than 300,000 microbeads.
But MP can also act as a binding agent, viscosity regulator, emulsifier, antistatic agent (e.g. hair care), thickening agent, volume increase, as a filler, for film formation/shaping, surface coating, improvement of chemical and mechanical resistance, controlled release active ingredients. For women, it is important to highlight the aesthetic function of MP – the visual effects of decorative cosmetics (e.g. powders, dyes,…), like colour MP in make-up, structural effects of colours, increased colour brilliance, glitter, shading, the effect of “optical blurring” (e.g. wrinkles).
Why are microplastics contained in cosmetics and other products problematic?
Anja: One of the key properties of plastics is that it is practically indestructible. It simply means that when they enter the environment, they can accumulate there. Due to their small size, they can pass through various barriers, natural or artificial. Additionally, they also have a very large binding surface. Today, some research already indicates that microplastics can also be a vector – a carrier of environmental pollutants.
The actual assessment of the level of microplastic impacts cannot be estimated because the amount of plastic components used worldwide in cosmetics and personal care product formulations is not publicly available and may also vary. The IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) estimates that cosmetics and personal care products contribute 2% of primary microplastics in the oceans (compared to synthetic textile fibres and rubber particles, which each account for more than 30%).
There is also growing global concern about the effects of microplastics in marine as well as freshwater ecosystems. Mainly because of the small size of microplastics, which are bioavailable to organisms throughout the marine food web. Namely, due to their small size, MP are potentially bioavailable to a wide range of organisms when ingested. Research has also already shown that MP have a negative effect on the health of various marine organisms. The possibilities of transmission through the food chain, as well as biomagnification of toxins in microbeads, can directly cause toxicity in humans, when consuming the seafood.
Are there any environmentally friendly alternatives to these products?
Anja: Of course, today we know and already use many natural alternatives – crushed walnuts or almond shells, oats, sugar, jojoba or poppy seeds, waxes (beeswax, rice bran wax, jojoba wax), seaweed; natural silicon dioxide (quartz); clay.
How strict are the laws surrounding microplastics in cosmetic products?
Anja: At the EU level, legislation regarding intentionally added microplastics in various products has been rapidly developing in recent years.
However, the legislation is not limited only to personal care and cosmetics products, but MP are also deliberately added to many other products, including fertilizers, plant protection products, household and industrial detergents, cleaners, paints… Microplastics are also used as filling material for sports fields made of artificial grass.
In 2019, at the request of the European Commission, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) submitted a proposal to limit the use of intentionally added microplastic particles in consumer or professional products. They estimated that this restriction can significantly reduce the introduction of the amount of microplastics into the environment, which later has a positive effect on ecosystems and human health. This proposal is expected to prevent the release of 500,000 tonnes of microplastics within 20 years of its implementation.
The EU-level restrictions are expected to be adopted by the end of this year (2022). Due to environmental and human health concerns, several EU member states have already adopted or proposed national bans on the intentional use of microplastics in consumer products (e.g. the Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland, Italy, France). The prohibitions relate mainly to the use of microbeads in cosmetics, which otherwise act as an abrasive and cleaning agent, which are washed down the drain after use.
As early as 2015, Cosmetics Europe, the European trade association for cosmetics and personal care, recommended to its members to abandon the use of microbeads for cleansing and exfoliation in cosmetic rinse-off and personal care products. Today we can fully appreciate the results of this recommendation. The 97.6% reduction strongly confirms the effectiveness of our industry’s voluntary initiative.
If we now limit ourselves to personal care and cosmetics products in the new restriction proposal…
In the latest proposal for restrictions, it is written that upon adoption of the document, microbeads will be banned in rinse-off products, as the recommendations for them have been known for many years and they believe that they do not need a transitional period. While for “leave-on” products, which do not contribute so much to environmental problems, a 6-year transition period is prescribed, during which manufacturers have the option of changing (https://ec.europa.eu/transparency/comitology-register/screen/documents/083921/1/consult?lang=en).
It is not only the polymer materials, microplastics inside the products that are the problem. Plastic packaging are a bigger problem, aren’t they? This is because, for instance, a large plastic bottle in nature slowly degrades into smaller and smaller pieces until it’s degraded to micro pieces – microplastics. Why is the aspect of plastic packaging also important from the perspective of microplastics?
Anja: If we look throughout the history, development, and usage of plastic… According to the Plastics Europe association, most (that is around 40%) of plastic is produced for packaging, but at the same time at least half of the produced plastic is used for single-use products – so the product can quickly become a waste. Why is this important from the microplastics point of view… the accumulation of plastic, especially if it comes to uncontrolled landfills, means over time the disintegration, weathering… of the material and, as a result, the formation/release of secondary MP into the environment.
On the other hand, we must be aware of the progress made in recycling processes. Namely, a group of plastic materials, i.e. thermoplastics, which can be recycled, are nowadays used in more than 80% of plastic products, which means that the possibilities of reuse are really good.
I know a mobile app called Beat the microbead, but still, is there any way for ordinary consumers to figure out if a product they are buying contains microplastics?
Anja: Yes, I am aware of the Beat the Microbead campaign, which operates under the umbrella of the Plastic Soup Foundation. It is an international initiative that advocates the removal of plastic from cosmetics and has been operating for about 10 years. Their database is highly professional and up to date, in accordance with all the proposed facts of EU legislation – which means that it is also reliable.
In the year 2021, we monitored the dynamics of new products in their database and found that the average number of entered products increased by 10% in 3-month periods.
The average user of the platform has several options – all of which are related to declaration reading. Everyone can search for the applied or desired product in the online database, review the declaration and compare the basic ingredients with those in the database. In addition, a mobile application that enables product scanning can also be used.
For me it seems that today there are many ways to raise awareness about plastic in cosmetics.
What are PEGs? They are also considered microplastics, aren’t they? Are they any different to other microplastics?
Anja: PEG is an abbreviation for polyethylene glycol – a synthetic polymer, which, due to its solubility in water, does not meet the criteria of the definition of microplastics and are, together with some other chemical forms, excluded from the proposed restrictions on the use of microplastics in cosmetics. The reason: they do not have the same long-term persistence and therefore do not contribute to the identified risk. It is used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry, it can be found in packaging, in textiles…
The exact names of PEGs differ primarily in how many basic units the polymer is made of or in terms of molecular weight (the number after the word PEG). PEGs with low molecular weights are mostly colourless liquids, while those with higher ones are waxy solids or solids. We also know other, more complex chemical forms of PEGs – ethers and esters of fatty acids (oleates, laurates, dilaurates, stearates, distearates).
These compounds are used in a wide variety of cosmetic applications due to their solubility and viscosity and their low toxicity. Because many PEGs are hydrophilic, they are advantageously used as penetration enhancers, particularly in topical dermatological preparations.
Is there any research confirming the harmful effect of PEG-s on our health? What are the potential risks?
Anja: PEG and its derivatives are generally regulated as safe for the use in cosmetics, with the condition that impurities and by-products such as ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, which are both known as carcinogens, are removed before their use in the cosmetic product. PEGs are used in a wide variety of cosmetic applications due to their solubility and viscosity and their low toxicity.
They cause little or no eye or skin irritation and have extremely low acute and chronic toxicity. They have difficulty penetrating the intact skin and, given the widespread use of preparations containing PEG and PEG derivatives, only a few case reports of hypersensitivity reactions have been published, mainly involving patients exposed to PEG in medications or after exposure to damaged or chronically inflamed skin.
On healthy skin, hypersensitivity to these compounds is negligible. Based on the available data it is therefore concluded that PEGs of a wide molecular weight range (200 to over 10,000), their ethers (laureths, ceteths, ceteareths, steareths, and oleths), and fatty acid esters (laurates, dilaurates, stearates, distearates) are safe for use in cosmetics.
However, not all data are available for all chemical formulations (e.g. PEG sorbitan/sorbitol fatty acid esters, PEG sorbitan beeswax and PEG soy sterols), they are not known, so it makes sense to use caution. It is also necessary to be careful not to use PEGs in all formulations on damaged skin.
Can the producers replace them using “natural” ingredients, such as Cera alba (beeswax), or using its vegan alternative Cetearyl Olivate – a substance derived from olive oil?
Anja: Of course, they can. The usage of natural alternatives depends a lot on the manufacturer, because in such a case, he must devote more time and resources to product development, research, and testing. After recommending the withdrawal of microbeads, manufacturers directed development in this direction. We already know many successful stories, among which the nutshell is most often found.
How is it that even though microplastic use is restricted in cosmetics, we can still find them there? (please tell us which laws say that it is forbidden and if there are any exceptions)
Anja: Restrictions on the use of MP are currently tied to individual countries and are related mainly to the production, import and/or sale of products, most often “rinse-off” products. That’s why the origin of the product we use is very important, and maybe also how old it is – you know, sometimes users keep some products for several years. Why? Guidelines for the safe use of products may change over the years.
Some researchers emphasized the potential of specific microorganisms to break down plastic materials. Is it truly possible? In the future, say 20 years from now, do you think things will have changed for the worse or better?
Anja: There are several physico-chemical processes of plastic degradation in the environment, – hydrolysis, photodegradation (degradation under the influence of light, UV radiation), thermal oxidation (high T, UV radiation), decomposition with ozone (through the formation of reactive oxygen compounds), mechanical-chemical decomposition (mechanical stress and US radiation) and biodegradation. Biodegradable means that the material is broken down into biogas and biomass by the action of microorganisms (and their enzymes) – in our case plastic waste into CO2, monomeric components and products with potential added value.
Biodegradation of synthetic polymers is feasible in the natural environment; it can take a long time: from 50 to more than 100 years. Biodegradation is a complex process, strongly dependent on the properties of the plastic – mass, density, polymer structure, additives, functional groups… There are also environmental factors that affect the degradation – abiotic factors like T, pH, moisture, UV radiation, and biotic factors are e.g. extracellular enzymes, nutrients, hydrophobicity – solubility in water, biologically active surfaces…
However, there is already a lot of laboratory research available today, where bacterial strains were capable of breaking down synthetic polymers, most often PE.
The future is, of course, in bioplastic, which is also biodegradable – e.g. Starch and polylactic acid.
Would you like to add anything interesting/important?
Anja: Microplastics are very small materials that are often invisible/hidden to people, but therefore we cannot claim that they don’t exist or that the challenges we are facing are that much smaller.