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Forgotten: Synthetic polymers

Alongside microplastics, which by definition are solid plastic particles measuring up to 5 mm, synthetic polymers constitute another form of plastic used in cosmetics and care products such as shampoos and shower gels as exfoliating, thickening and binding agents. The artificially produced polymers occur in liquid, gel or wax-like form, and are chains consisting of constantly repeating chemical units. Many are based on petroleum-based raw materials, i.e. crude oil and natural gas. Unlike biological polymers such as cellulose, gelatine or starch, they are very weakly biodegradable or non-biodegradable, enter wastewater almost in their entirety and therefore possibly accumulate in the environment in the same way as microplastics. Their share is estimated to be 50 times greater than the corresponding proportion of microplastics.


To date, no negative effects on health and the environment from synthetic polymers are known. The reason for this is that there are almost no studies on these substances. For some substances, insufficient information is available from the ECHA (European Chemicals Agency).

Consequently, until now synthetic polymers, unlike microplastics, have not been the focus of discussion. Most of these compounds are not subject to compulsory registration under REACH, the EU Chemicals Regulation, because they are not present in solid form. In the UMSICHT study, this is explained by the fact that the hazards potentially originating from synthetic polymers must first be confirmed by studies in order to be included in the list of chemicals requiring regulation. This ignores the fact that many of these substances are not biodegradable. Synthetic polymers are therefore described in the study as underregulated.


In September 2019, the government of the state of Hesse submitted the proposal Avoiding liquid and dissolved plastics – For a comprehensive strategy to reduce poorly degradable polymers” to the upper house of the German parliament (Bundesrat). This proposal was approved by the Bundesrat’s environmental committee and European affairs committee, but rejected by its economic committee. The federal state of Hesse then withdrew its motion.


The  best known synthetic polymers, which in some cases can also be found in topical preparations, include:


​​​© Dr. med. Dipl. Biol. Susanne Saha 04/2021

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