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Researchers develop environmentally friendly alternatives to microplastics

Scanning electron microscopy image of cellulose particles from beech wood, which are used in various dental and personal care products (large image). Photographic images of tooth enamel samples in their initial state, after discolouration and after cleaning. The samples were cleaned with a toothpaste containing cellulose (small image). (Images: Fraunhofer IMWS)

Wed. 21. February 2018


HALLE, Germany: The environmental impact of microplastics used in personal care products, such as toothpaste, has long been discussed. Tiny plastic particles enter the sea and ultimately the food chain via wastewater systems. However, replacing these components without losing their positive properties is challenging. German researchers have now tested biodegradable materials that could be alternatives to microplastics in cosmetic products.

Many personal care products contain microplastics made from polyethylene and polypropylene, among others. As gentle abrasives, they remove dead skin flakes by means of friction and stimulate the blood circulation of the skin. Owing to their resistance to chemicals and lack of colour, smell and taste, they are also frequently used as stabilisers and fillers. Polyethylene and polypropylene are non-biodegradable, and owing to their small particle sizes of less than 5 mm, the microplastic that has been introduced into wastewater through the disposal of cosmetics cannot be sufficiently removed at sewerage treatment plants. It therefore enters the water system and pollutes the environment.

Through the recently completed KosLigCel research project conducted within the framework of the leading-edge BioEconomy cluster, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Microstructure of Materials and Systems IMWS in Halle hope to contribute to replacing microplastics in cosmetic products. Together with industry partners—a cellulose processing business and a company mainly responsible for galenic and dermatological testing of products—they have successfully developed and tested alternatives made of biodegradable materials.

The goal was a cost-effective production of biodegradable cellulose particles from beech wood, oats, wheat and maize that meet the requirements for abrasiveness and cleaning performance in dental and skincare products. Specifically, alternatives for body scrubs and toothpastes were tested. The particular challenge was to design the cellulose particles in such a way that their size, shape, hardness and surface structure led to the desired product properties. Cellulose made of beech wood was specially modified and the optimisation process was accompanied by microstructural analysis at Fraunhofer IMWS.

“After two years of research work with the project partners, we have achieved very good results: a test toothpaste with the optimised beech wood cellulose particles is characterised by a low abrasion effect, but nevertheless good cleaning performance,” said Dr Sandra Sarembe, project coordinator at Fraunhofer IMWS. The biodegradable particles in toothpaste are used for the mechanical removal of dental plaque, tooth discolouration and food residue, but they must not damage tooth enamel. “In the material characterisation of several cellulose types, we have consistently collected positive data. This also applies to the use of these substances in wash peelings and other skin cosmetics,” Sarembe explained.

The research team was able to scientifically confirm that cellulose particles have comparable effects in cosmetic products as a substitute for polyethylene. They are also biodegradable in water and can be produced at low cost. Furthermore, cellulose particles can be used as fillers in aluminium-free deodorants.

“The use of cellulose as biobased fillers could also be possible in other fields of application such as medical products. In addition, different cellulose types can be mixed, which promises a wide range of applications. Therefore, the particles have a high potential for new product developments and attractive marketing opportunities for sustainable or even vegan products,” said Dr Andreas Kiesow, project manager at Fraunhofer IMWS.

The results obtained can also be used in the future for development in other cosmetic areas, such as decorative cosmetics for mascara, powder or lipstick.

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