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How EU Microplastics Regulations Are Shaping US Policies

Published April 28, 2024
Published April 28, 2024
FlyD via Unsplash

The European Union (EU) microplastic regulations are not just about banning glitter and microbeads. They are a comprehensive set of rules that are set to revolutionize the global beauty industry. These regulations are the most extensive and thorough measures the industry has ever seen in the global fight against microplastic pollutants and their environmental implications. Microplastics can have detrimental effects on the environment, and studies show that even the tiniest pieces pose a significant threat to human and animal life.

On September 25, 2023, the European Commission adopted Regulation (EU) 2023/2055, which restricts the use of synthetic polymer microparticles alone or intentionally added to mixtures. The regulation requirements are being made effective in phases that started October 17, 2023, with the ban of exfoliating microbeads and plastic loose glitter. US-based beauty brands that sell products containing microplastics to the EU should take note of these new regulations and understand what requirements are slated to take effect over the coming years. Even for US beauty brands not operating in the EU market, the microplastics regulations are still relevant, considering that the EU model may be setting a precedent and influencing US state-level legislative proposals.

Following the enactment of these new regulations, the 2024 Independent Beauty Association (IBA) Cosmetics Convergence Spring Symposium hosted a panel covering the fundamentals of the EU microplastics regulation and offering insights on how US brands can approach assessing their EU product portfolios and working with their suppliers. In case you missed it, here are a few of the most important takeaways from the session on microplastic regulations in the EU.

What are microplastics? 

The recently passed regulations do not use the term “microplastic” and don’t ban any named substances. Instead, it refers to synthetic polymer microparticles, which the EU defines as polymers that are solid and fulfill both of the following conditions: 

  • Are contained in particles and constitute at least 1% of those particles; or build a continuous surface coating on particles
  • At least 1% of the particles in the point above meet either of the following requirements:
    • ≤ 5 mm for all particle dimensions
    • ≤ 15 mm for particle length with a length-to-diameter ratio of more than three 

To determine if a product has synthetic polymer microparticles, companies need to apply the definition, taking into account the characteristics of the substance in question. The EU regulations exclude certain polymers, including natural polymers (not chemically modified), degradable polymers, and soluble polymers (>2 g/L). These polymers are excluded because they do not possess the same long-term problems as synthetic polymer microparticles or no longer exist as particles and, therefore, do not contribute to the identified risk. Polymers that do not contain carbon atoms are also excluded because there’s currently no defined way of measuring the biodegradability of these polymers and no evidence that shows these polymers may be toxic to environmental organisms.

What are the restrictions on synthetic polymer microparticles in the EU?

Under these restrictions, synthetic polymer microparticles “shall not be placed on the market as substances on their own or, where the synthetic polymer microparticles are present to confer a sought-after characteristic, in mixtures in a concentration equal to or greater than 0.01% by weight.”

It’s important to note that only microplastics added intentionally to mixtures and products are in scope. Unintentional presence is out of scope.

Are there any exemptions or exceptions?

The regulation makes some exceptions for products that are already regulated by EU law, like medicinal products and food additives. This means that these can continue to be used in mixtures in a concentration equal to or greater than 0.01% by weight, provided they meet certain conditions. Synthetic polymer microparticles that are used at industrial sites are exempt, as are products of synthetic solid polymers that are contained by technical means (e.g., water filtering cartridges, ink toners, etc.). Synthetic solid polymers that are permanently modified during end use (e.g., nail polish). These synthetic solid polymers won’t be released into the environment, which is why they’re exempt from this regulation. In these cases, additional reporting and labeling will be required.

What are the transition periods outlined in the regulations? 

While the regulation was issued by the EU on September 27, 2023, the requirements are being implemented gradually. Transition periods are granted for certain uses to provide sufficient time to comply with the regulation and transition to suitable alternatives. Below are the transition periods relevant to the beauty industry:

  • Microbeads: No transition period. Restriction applied upon entry into force of the regulation on October 17, 2023.
  • Rinse-off cosmetics: four years transition period. Restriction not applicable until October 14, 2027.
  • Leave-on cosmetics: six years transition period. Restriction not applicable until October 14, 2029.
  • Encapsulated fragrances: six years transition period. Restriction not applicable until October 14, 2029.
  •  Makeup, lip, and nail products: 12 years transition period. Restriction not applicable until October 14, 2035.

The long transition period for makeup, lip, and nail products is due to the fact that it’s more challenging to reformulate these products and because the amount of synthetic polymer microparticles in these products is much smaller than that of other products, like rinse-off cosmetics. While the transition period is 12 years, there are additional labeling requirements for makeup, lip, and nail products that come into effect after eight years. In an effort to encourage the industry to phase out microparticles quicker than the 12-year transition period, all products still containing synthetic polymer microparticles starting from May 31, 2027, will require mandatory labeling indicating the presence of these polymers.

“There is going to be microplastics legislation in the US at some point in the next few years, and the more people who get engaged in this, the better."
By David Dilk, Director of Regulatory Affairs, Advocacy Lead Fragrance and Beauty, Givaudan

Microplastics/microparticles activity in the US

There’s been a lot of legislative activity related to microplastics/microparticles in the US over the last few years. One of the most prominent bills focused on this issue was AB 234, which came out of California. The bill would restrict the addition of microplastics to products that could damage health and water quality.

According to David Dilk, Director of Regulatory Affairs, Advocacy Lead Fragrance and Beauty at Givaudan, AB 234 was meant to mirror the key aspects of the EU regulation that the industry wants to see in the US. That effort ultimately failed, and the bill’s author now wants to change the bill to instead appoint a regulatory agency to have the responsibility to promulgate regulations for microplastics. This bill requires the Ocean Protection Council to establish an interagency coordination group to make statutory recommendations to implement the statewide microplastic strategy, including a ban on microplastics that are intentionally added to specific consumer products, such as cosmetics, household and industrial detergents, and cleaning products.

At the same time, another regulatory agency is looking at this issue. California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has proposed to add microplastics to their candidate chemicals as part of the Safer Consumer Products Program. The program designates candidate chemicals and priority product categories and then requires manufacturers to perform alternative analysis to replace the ingredient with a safer alternative. While DTSC has identified microplastics as one of the agency’s chemicals of concern, it’s an extremely slow process, and there are an additional 2,000 chemicals of concern on their list, so Dilk doesn’t expect any significant regulatory changes from this agency anytime soon.

Rhode Island introduced a bill earlier this year that would prohibit a manufacturer from selling, offering for sale, or distributing into commerce any product containing synthetic polymer microparticles beginning January 1, 2028. Rhode Island House Bill 7515 doesn’t have any exemptions for biodegradable polymers and also includes testing requirements, which could potentially be cost-prohibitive for smaller beauty brands.

On a more global level, there is a treaty at the United Nations (UN) that has been under negotiations for a few years. The plastics treaty is much broader than just microplastics and is primarily focused on plastic pollution from packaging like water bottles, but the treaty will include provisions related to microplastics. UN representatives from the US and Canada are planning on moving various pieces of legislation forward at the federal level to meet the goals of the treaty. Despite this, Dilk is skeptical about the potential impact of such legislation. He argues that federal legislation is incredibly difficult to pass, and UN treaties are not something that the US takes seriously. “While it's likely we’ll sign the treaty, it’s very unlikely we’ll end up enforcing it in the US,” he says.

Dilk stresses the importance of staying on top of federal and state legislation in this arena. “This issue is not going to go away, so it’s really important that we engage when these bills come up, especially in a state like California that does have the political weight to pass a bill like this,” he says. “There is going to be microplastics legislation in the US at some point in the next few years, and the more people who get engaged in this, the better, so we can make sure the end result is something we can all live with.”

Microplastics FAQs

What ingredients are likely to be affected by the EU regulation and potential legislation in the US?

Based on the EU definition, certain polymers found in fragrances and anti-aging skincare products might be considered synthetic polymer microparticles. For clarification, always refer back to the definition provided in Regulation (EU) 2023/2055.

Will over-the-counter (OTC) products be exempt from US microplastics regulations?

It’s unclear, but according to Dilk, OTC products typically get exempt from a lot of legislation that gets passed, given the fact that they are more highly regulated than other cosmetics. This exemption is something that the beauty industry should advocate for in pending legislation.

How is the market for microplastic alternatives shaping up? Will replacement materials be available at scale soon? 

Finding replacements for microplastics is not a quick process. Like with all research and development, it takes years to find a suitable alternative, scale it, and implement it into existing and new products. That's why the EU has these reasonable transition periods in place.

How will the US regulations differ from EU regulations, and what does the timeline look like?

With the failure of AB234 in California, Dilk believes that we are not going to have legislation that mirrors the EU in California. The bill, as it stands now, throws the “microplastics football” to a regulatory agency, which takes more time than a typical legislative process. The agency first has to review existing studies and potentially conduct new environmental studies before they come up with regulatory requirements. Dilk remains cautiously optimistic about this process. “I like the certainty of having a definition (assuming it's the one we want), but at the same time, I'm hoping it will be easier to work with the regulatory agency because the legislature is much more influenced by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and activists and much less influenced by scientific principles,” he says.

If you missed the symposium but are interested in getting access to the recordings, they are available for purchase through the IBA. Please reach out to for more information.


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