Deb, Unilever scrub plastic microbeads from consumer products

Those tiny beads in your shower gel pose a huge environmental dilemma.

The government's recent decision to ban the manufacture of cosmetics and care products containing plastic microbeads is bound to accelerate the search for alternatives. Happily, in the industry research scientists already have produced some viable options.

Plastic microbeads are commonly used in exfoliating scrubs for the face and body, as well as in toothpastes and shower gels. These tiny objects end up being washed down drains, before passing through water treatment plants en route to the sea. Once in the marine environment, they can be consumed by fish and shellfish and enter the food chain.

Concern about pollution of the marine environment has been building in recent years and Cosmetics Europe, the European trade association for the cosmetics and personal care industry, recommended a voluntary ban of plastic microbeads in 2015. More recently, BBC TV's "Blue Planet II" series has further highlighted the issues caused by plastic waste.

The government's decision to ban the use of microbeads in manufacturing processes was widely expected following last year's pledge to take action and a further ban on the sale of goods containing microbeads will take effect in July. While this is a positive step, environmentalists are concerned that it is not going far enough: Microplastics in cosmetics account for less than 1 percent of total microplastics in the environment  most of which comes from clothing, pellet spills and car tires.

In looking for alternatives, as might be expected, formulators of cosmetics and personal care products have turned to the natural world for inspiration and some suitable alternatives already have been found  everything from corn husks to apricot kernels, walnut shells and jojoba oil.

Deb, a maker of commercial hand wash products and dispensing equipment, was among the early movers in the industry to take steps to eliminate the use of microbeads. The company owns patented technologies for a method of producing "natural abrasives" made from washed and ground walnut shells, ground apricot kernels and olive kernels.

Due to their hardness and particle size, these materials are particularly suitable for cosmetic formulations as they have a gentle cleansing effect without scratching the skin. The technology also solves a common problem associated with the use of natural abrasives in that they can give cosmetic formulations a dark coloration. To avoid this, lightening pigments such as titanium dioxide are added to the formulation.

In another recently patented innovation, Deb has been using cornmeal in cleansing formulations. As well as being biodegradable, this abrasive ingredient has been found to provide a gentle but effective scrubbing action, without causing micro cuts, which sometimes can occur with mineral abrasives.

Similarly, Unilever stopped making products containing plastic microbeads in 2014 and has replaced them with natural alternatives, including apricot kernels, cornmeal, ground pumice, silica and walnut shells.

Moving to higher-tech options, a research team at the University of Bath also has found success making biodegradable microbeads for use in skin formulations from another natural substance  cellulose. The cellulose is obtained from waste paper, before being dissolved and reconstituted to form beads by making droplets that are set. The biodegradable beads stay whole in the formulation but break down when they arrive at the water treatment plant.

In the U.S., the use of plastic microbeads has been banned since 2015 and graduates from Purdue University in Indiana claim to have developed an alternative made from soy oil. Named SoyFoliate, the soy microbead technology is undergoing tests with a view to it being licensed to cosmetics and personal care companies around the world.

So far at least, there has been limited focus on finding entirely synthetic microbead alternatives. However, some manufacturers have found it difficult to produce particles of natural materials of the right size, with the right degree of abrasiveness — too big and they are overly abrasive and may damage sensitive skin, whereas too small and they are no longer visible in formulations. To address this, Procter & Gamble recently has filed a patent application for biodegradable abrasive particles in skin cleansers. This technology involves the use of bio-based polymers such as polyhydroxy alkonates (PHA) as biodegradable abrasive materials to create particles that are the right size and behave in the right way when added to formulations.

From an innovation perspective, while a wide range of microbead alternatives already are under development, there still may be an opportunity to fill a gap in the market. The focus on natural abrasives may have limited the opportunity to secure intellectual property protection for some, but others successfully have secured patents for complex processing methods. As the market continues to develop, it is likely that innovators also will focus on synthetic alternatives, where the potential to secure commercial protection will be even greater.

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