Microplastic – a small piece of a big problem

Ance Zariņa, 15-18 years, Latvia

We all want to live more eco-friendly and healthier but with microplastics in beauty products and our food, it is challenging. We don’t even think about how we use microplastics every day. It ends up in increasing quantities in the seas and oceans. The United Nations estimates that there are 51 trillion miscroplastics in the sea, 500 times the number of stars in our galaxy.[1]

What is microplastic? Where is it found?

Plastic particles smaller than 5 mm in diameter can be divided into primary and secondary microplastics. Examples of primary microplastics are synthetic fabric fibers and specially manufactured small particles used in cosmetics. The breakdown of larger plastic objects forms secondary microplastics. Their decomposition may be due to mechanical friction or environmental conditions, accelerating the process in direct sunlight. [2]

“Plastic is all around us and it is increasingly found in nature. A recent study done by Latvian Institute of Aquatic Ecology (LIAE) found that microplastic were found in all lake samples and even in protected areas. The particles found include polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene and various synthetic rubbers such as tires, shoe soles. It is clear that the consumption of plastic and its release into the environment continues to grow, ”explains Valentina Burdukovska, research assistant at the LIAE.

Microplastic in beauty products

It might seem as microplastic can be found only in rare products, but in reality it is added to hair sprays, nail polishes, various creams and lotions, make-up, deodorants and many other products. Microplastic is hidden under various names on the packaging of beauty products and the word “microplastic” does not appear.

The Environmental Protection Club conducted a study in which microplastics were found in many well-known products, such as Fa, Isana, Dove, L’Oreal, Eucerin, Bioderma and others[3]


Why is it added to beauty products?

Microplastics in beauty products have several functions. Microplastic can be added to increase the volume of the product up to three times or microbeads can be used as abrasive particles in various types of scrubs. Microplastics in products are also more cost-effective, as plastic is a cheap material but harmful to both humans and the environment.

What are the effects of microplastics on the environment and humans?

Microplastics were found in food and beverages, including beer, honey and tap water. Not surprisingly, plastic particles have also recently been found in human feces. “As the amount of microplastics in the environment increases, it is increasingly eaten by different animals and spreads throughout the food chain. People also unknowingly ingest this harmful substance through food. It can come from both seafood and the packaging in which the food is stored. People are additionally affected by contact with cosmetics and synthetic fabrics. More research is needed to understand the specific risks to human health. However, existing ones point to the effects of plastic compounds on hormonal balance, fertility and even the effects on embryonic development in the mother’s womb. More recently, researchers in Italy have also discovered microplastics in the placenta, ”comments Burdukovska.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched a campaign to study how much microplastic particles a person absorbs into their body daily. The study found that the average person eats 5 grams of plastic per week, which is as much as one credit card.[4]

Graphic for Global Plastic Diet Campaign. Photo: World Wildlife Fund,

“It enters our bodies with seafood, meat, water, beer, salt and other products. Microplastic is found completely everywhere. In Europe, 72% of tap water samples contained microplastic. The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94%. It does not break down and continues its life in the water until someone eats it, ”comments Magda Jentgena, Head of the Baltic Sea and Freshwater Program at WWF in Latvia. 

The use of beauty products with microplastics contributes to environmental pollution and threats to wildlife and can also lead to various long-term health problems. Not enough research has been done on the health effects of microplastics, as plastics are still a relatively new material. 

What labels on packaging should be avoided?

There are four main substances to look out for when buying beauty products: phthalates (found in hair sprays, perfumes, nail polishes), parabens (used as preservatives in moisturizers and deodorants), triclosan (an antibacterial substance used in deodorants, toothpaste and liquid soap), toluene (used in hair and nail polishes).

Homemade scrub with oatmeal, coffee, honey, olive oil and sugar. Photo: Ance Zarina

How can microplastics be replaced in beauty products?

It is possible to use natural ingredients, for example, in scrubs: particles of walnuts, oats, beeswax.

Is it possible to stop the further spread of microplastics?

In February 2021, a request was submitted to the European Union Commission to ban the intentional addition of microplastics to beauty products. In 2021 or 2022, if this request is approved, new rules and restrictions will be put in place to stop the problem. 

“Restrictions on certain types of plastic have come into force in recent years in the European Union and elsewhere globally, but this has not reduced overall consumption of plastic products. There is a need to invest more in the development of plastic alternatives and to support the replacement of single-use packaging with materials made from, for example, seaweed or other natural products, ”adds Burdukovska.

What can people do to combat the problem of the spread of microplastics?

“It’s important to learn about plastics, reduce and use alternatives wherever possible. The composition of products and packaging must be monitored, for instance by using mobile applications such as the BEAT THE MICROBEAD. However, the greatest impact can be achieved by engaging in the implementation of solutions at the systemic level, communicating directly with manufacturers, talking to non-governmental organizations and putting pressure on politicians,” recommends Burdukovska.

Something so small and seemingly harmless does so much damage to nature and people. There is not enough research on this problem yet for us to fully judge, but one thing is clear: microplastics are not just small pieces, but a big potential problem.



“Microplastics: Sources, Impacts and Solutions”



“Personiskās higiēnas un kosmētikas līdzekļu saraksts, kas satur MP”

[4] World Wildlife Fund, Global Plastic Diet Campaign

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