Researchers find microplastic skin ingress as UK bans plastic wet wipes

23 April 2024 | Muriel Cozier

‘These findings provide important evidence for regulators and policy makers…’

The UK government has announced a ban on the supply and sale of wet wipes that contain plastic. Said to be ‘world-leading’, the legislation will be introduced this year to help tackle plastic pollution and the abundance of microplastics.

The government said that responses to a public consultation, which was published in October 2023, showed overwhelming support for the proposed ban, with 95% of respondents strongly agreeing. The legislation builds on ongoing commitments by a range of stakeholders.

Welcoming the announcement, Steve Ager, chief customer and commercial officer at the retailer Boots commented: ‘We are pleased to see the government now taking action as a ban on all wet wipes containing plastics will have a much bigger impact than retailers taking action alone.’ Boots removed all wet wipes containing plastic from sale last year.

The news of legislation comes as researchers from the University of Birmingham, UK, publish research indicating that chemicals used as flame retardants and plasticisers, can be absorbed into the body via contact with microplastics.

Publishing their work in the journal Environment International, the researchers used innovative 3D skin models and showed that ‘as much as 8% of the available chemical could be taken up by the skin, with more hydrated – or sweatier – skin absorbing higher levels of the chemical.’

Many chemicals used as flame retardants and plasticisers have already been banned due to evidence that they have an adverse impact on human health and the environment. However, these chemicals are still present in the environment being found in older electronics, furniture, carpets, and building materials, the researchers say.

‘Our research shows that [microplastics] play a role as ‘carriers’ of harmful chemicals, which can get into our bloodstream through the skin.’ said Dr Ovokeroye Abafe, formerly School of Geography Earth and Environmental Sciences at University of Birmingham, now at Brunel University.

The researchers added their conclusions have implications for policy makers. Dr Mohamed Abdallah, associate professor of environmental sciences at the University of Birmingham said: ‘These findings provide important evidence for regulators and policy makers to improve legislation around microplastics and safeguard public health against harmful exposure.’

The researchers are now planning to investigate other routes by which microplastics could be carrying harmful chemicals into the body, including inhalation and ingestion.

In September 2023 the European Commission announced that it had adopted measures to restrict microplastics intentionally added to products under EU chemical legislation REACH. The restriction came after a risk assessment which concluded that microplastics intentionally added to certain products are released into the environment in an uncontrolled manner.

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