Are Cosmetic Ingredients Polluting our Waterways & Oceans?

The short answers is YES! The obvious offender is the plastic bottle but lets take a closer look at the different Cosmetics Ingredients which are potentially polluting the environment and how.


We all by now know Plastic Microbeads are of growing environmental concerns. These small plastic particles found in the oceans come from the fragmentation of larger items for example plastic water bottles. Other sources of Microbeads are from Cosmetics. These are used in a number of personal care products for example: 

  • Cleansers
  • Toothpaste
  • Face Scrubs // Exfoliants
  • Bubble Bath
  • Shampoos
  • Soaps

Microbeads are too small to be trapped in the sewage treatment plants, thus entering the waterways via domestic drainage systems and then transported to the seas and oceans. It is estimated that the per capita consumption of microplastics used in personal care products for the U.S. population is approximately 2.4 mg person day, so that the U.S. population is emitting 263 tons year of polyethylene microplastic. In Europe a 2012 Study reported a total amount of 4360 tons of plastic Microbeads used across the European Union market, including Norway and Switzerland.

Once in the environment, microbeads made of high-density plastics (polyester, polyvinyl chloride) settle out of the water column and accumulate in the sediment, while low-density microplastics (polyethylene, polystyrene) float on the sea surface. Since there is no way of effectively removing microplastic contaminants from the marine environment, and they are highly resistant to degradation, microparticles can be ingested by aquatic organisms. Ingestion and accumulation of microplastics has been well documented in different marine organisms, including copepods bivalves, fish and seabirds.

Cosmetics Europe has recommended its membership to discontinue, in wash-off cosmetic products placed on the market as of 2020, the use of synthetic, solid, plastic particles used for exfoliating and cleansing Cosmetics 2017, that are non-biodegradable in the marine environment.

In December 2015 - the U.S. President signed a bill that will phase out the manufacturing of cosmetics containing plastic microbeads by 1 July 2017 and their sale by 1 July 2019.

In recent times, the major cosmetic companies have made commitments to phase out the use of microbeads in their products and are promoting natural alternatives such as pumice, walnut and coconut shells, ground palm nut, bamboo powder, apricot kernel shell, biodegradable hydrogenated oils waxes like jojoba beads, and diatomaceous earth.

What other Cosmetic Ingredients are causing Pollution?

TRICLOSAN (TCS) Preservative
Is a lipid-soluble, broad-spectrum, antimicrobial agent, allowed as a preservative in personal care products such as hand soaps, shampoos, detergents, toothpastes, sunscreen, and deodorants, where it can be used at concentrations up to 0.3%.

The most important pollution source of TCS is domestic sewage, where this compound is released with the rinsing of products containing it; the extensive use, the large amounts emitted and its incomplete removal in sewage treatment plants lead to the often considerable presence of this compound in the environment, with concentrations detected ranging from nanograms to micrograms per liter in sediments and waters.

It has been found in the aquatic environment in both sediment and water. TCS is among the top 10 most commonly detected organic wastewater compounds for frequency and concentration. it has been found in surface water throughout the United States, United Kingdom, South Korea and China. 

During the Wastewater Treatment Process, it can also be converted into chlorinated derivatives, which are more toxic and more persistent than their parent compound.

TCS has a potential for bioaccumulation in algae, plants, and animals such as earthworms, marine mussels, snails, amphibian larvae, fish, and marine mammals. Methyl triclosan, an environmental transformation product of TCS, has been detected in fish from various lakes in Switzerland.

TCS present in the aquatic environment causes adverse ecological effects:

  • Exhibits toxicity to algae species
  • Alters benthic bacterial communities composition (fostering blue-green algae)
  • Exhibits tumour promotion and mortality in the embryos and larvae of zebrafish, and exhibits endocrine disruption in fish.
  • Epidemiological studies reported the presence of TCS in a wide range of concentrations in human body fluids such as urine, blood, and breast milk. According to some researchers, the presence of TCS in human fluids is mostly correlated with the use of TCS-containing personal care products.
  • Some authors believe that oral absorption can be significant, considering that TCS has been detected in drinking water.
  • Exposure to TCS can produce negative effects on human health, including thyroid function impairment, endocrine disruption, oxidative stress, and liver carcinogenesis (tumour promotion).

Its health implications suggest that this compound should be considered a priority pollutant.

UV FILTERS - Sunscreen

Are chemicals that absorb or reflect ultraviolet radiation in sunlight; they are widely used in a variety of personal care products to protect the skin from UV-induced damage andsometimes to stabilize the colour and the fragrance of cosmetic formulations. 

Currently, the active ingredients of sunscreens are classified as organic or inorganic chemical absorbers. Organic filters (formerly known as “chemical filters”) absorb radiation and then dissipate the absorbed energy through photophysical and photochemical pathways. Inorganic mineral filters (once named “physical filters”) act partly by absorbing and partly reflecting and scattering UV radiation.

Now considered emerging pollutants due to their widespread presence in the environment. They can reach the aquatic environment directly, via wash-off from the skin surface during recreational activities (swimming, bathing) as well as indirectly through wastewater from the use of personal care products, washing clothes, and industrial discharges; probably the most important sources of pollution are represented by the effluents from wastewater treatment plants and sewage sludge, often used as a fertilizer in agriculture.

The occurrence of UV filters is widely documented in many different geographical locations. UV filters have been detected, for example, in surface waters such as seas, oceans and coastal waters, rivers, lakes, groundwater and sediments.

Organic Filters (Chemical Filters) sunscreen pollution
The most common UV Chemical Filters are:

  • EHMC (ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate) 
  • OC (octocrylene)
  • BMDM (butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane)
  • OD-PABA (octyldimethyl-p -aminobenzoic acid)
  • Benzophenone derivatives

The distribution and the fate of organic UV filters entering the aquatic environment depend on their physico-chemical properties and their stability toward bio-and photodegradation. Photodegradation is the alteration of materials by light.
Bio-degradation is the decomposition of organic material by microorganisms.

Organic Filters can accumulate in sediment of body waters. The presence of UV filters in waterways and and Ocean sediment is widely documented. The occurrence of common organic UV filters has been documented in water samples collected in different countries:

China // USA // Japan // Thailand // North American Arctic region // Hong Kong // Canary Islands // Switzerland // Korea // Taiwan // Norway // Australia
Swimming Pools - Not surprisingly sunscreen organic compounds have also been found in the water of swimming pools. The presence and concentration of UV filters in these facilities depends basically on their washing off from the skin of bathers during swimming. In swimming pools, UV filters occur at higher concentrations compared to other water bodies rivers, lakes, seas. The highest concentrations of these compounds is found in baby pools, with amounts of sun blockers being ten times higher for the same number of users. Although the fate of UV filters in these closed systems is not fully understood, it has been shown that they can undergo photodegradation and can react with the chlorine used to disinfect the water, with the formation of by-products being potentially harmful.

Organic UV filters have been found in several aquatic organisms:

  • Marine invertebrates,
  • Fish
  • Marine Mammals
  • Aquatic birds
  • Brazilian dolphin - significantly high concentrations detected in the liver 
  • Several fish species from Iberian rivers contained detectable concentrations of UV filters.
Overall data shows that some organic UV filters are able to bioaccumulate in the muscle and fats of these organisms and are likely to enter marine food chains

The toxicity of organic UV filters was evaluated in several aquatic organisms; some frequently used UV filters have proven to be toxic for phytoplankton species, microalgae, protozoa, and crustaceans.

Coral BleachingIt has been shown that some UV filters can cause coral bleaching at very low concentrations; the results of their experiments, jointly with the estimated release of sunscreens in reef areas, strongly suggest that at least 10% of the reefs are likely to meet coral bleaching due to UV filters pollution.

Inorganic Filters (Physical Filters)
The use of Inorganic UV filters (Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide) in cosmetic products is considered safe, both in nano and non-nano forms by The EU Cosmetic Regulation. Nano-particles are used in formulations because the nanoscale improves skin retention, cosmetic acceptance for consumers, and the UV attenuation properties of these oxides when compared to their bulk counterparts. The release of these compounds from cosmetics and personal care products applied on skin into the environment can occur due to immersion or abrasion with sand. 

Wastewater Treatment Plants remove the majority of Non-nano UV filters present in the influent sewage, but a small amount is released into natural water bodies.  Residues released from sunscreen produce submicronic aggregates that remain in suspension in fresh water, while in seawater conditions they aggregate and gradually settle, being confined to the sediment.

Nano UV Filters can undergo photocatalitic reactions when exposed to ultraviolet radiation. To prevent such reactions nanoparticles present in sunscreen are coated with silica and alumina and/or doped with manganese or vanadium, even though sometimes these coatings do not withstand contact with water.

Nano-Zinc Oxide is classified extremely toxic for aquatic organisms:

  • Zebrafish 
  • Marine algae 
  • Sea urchins
  • Other marine organisms 

To quantify the impact of inorganic UV filters release in coastal areas, laboratory experiments estimated a summer daily release of nano-UV filters of approximately 4 kg. These results suggest that the normal recreational activities in coastal resorts can result in the production of significant amount of Hydrogen peroxide and consequent damage to or death of marine coastal phytoplankton. This could have reverberations on the marine food web, which relies on these microorganisms.

CONCLUSION: We are at a time in our human history where we simply do no know what long term effects many of the chemical compounds (ingredients) used in Personal Care Products are going to have on our environment. The environmental consequences of human activities along with our life style choices, is damaging the eco-system. Being aware of the issues highlighted here is a step in the right direction; to being more conscious consumers in all aspects of our lives. We are all responsible for pollution but we can make better informed choices now, for the future, for the sake of the planet, and ultimately the human race.

Until next time..

be human | be kind | be you











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