Colgate-Palmolive answers consumer worried about microplastics

Marcel Abraas from Rotterdam discovered that Colgate toothpaste contains microplastics and sent a letter to the company, explaining his concerns. He received a lengthy reply that he sent to the Plastic Soup Foundation for comment. Colgate argues that microplastics are added as a cleaning agent and for consumers to reach the “desired” fresh feeling in their mouths. The company said that of course, the microplastics comply with the strictest safety regulations and so Mr. Abraas should not worry. Or should he? Read on for the email from Colgate and comments from the Plastic Soup Foundation.

Email from Colgate-Palmolive, dated 7 January 2013

Dear Mr. Abraas,

Thank you for sharing your concerns with us about the use of microplastics in our products. Colgate-Palmolive’s mission is to design and develop products which promote oral health and the personal health of consumers around the world, and to help them with the care and cleaning of their homes and clothing. Our globally recognized brand names, which include Colgate, Palmolive, Ajax, elmex and Sanex, are used daily by millions of people in over 200 countries throughout the world.

Colgate-Palmolive wants to inform all of its consumers that they may safely use our products in the knowledge that these products are safe. It is our responsibility to ensure that every product we sell has been thoroughly investigated for both intended use and for cases of accidental misuse. And we are confident that our consumers expect Colgate-Palmolive to put its products to stringent safety tests before submitting them to the market. We are committed to guaranteeing the highest safety standards for our consumers. Microplastics are safe. They are used in small quantities in the Palmolive Thermal Mineral Massage Shower gel as a cleaning agent, and in elmex Sensitive toothpaste, elmex Intensive Cleaning Toothpaste, Colgate Max White One toothpastes and Colgate Sensation White toothpaste as a cleaning agent and to get that desired oral feeling of clean. Even when swallowed, they pose no danger to the body due their size and composition; there is therefore no security issue. No regulatory authorities in Europe restrict the use of microplastics in cosmetics (oral care products fall under this category).

Scientific evidence shows that the presence of microplastics is mainly due to the disintegration of larger plastics in sea water, rather than because of cosmetic products. GABA/Colgate-Palmolive Netherlands is currently working together with the cosmetics industry to map out the full lifecycle of microparticles in cosmetics, including what happens during the purification of wastewater. Based on these scientific findings, we will take necessary action.

Thank you again for taking the time to share your concerns with us. We hope this information has been helpful to you.

All the best,
Colgate-Palmolive Nederland BV
Sylvie L.N. Roeten
Manager Consumer Service

Comments from the Plastic Soup Foundation

Colgate reassured (the letter writer) about consumer health when using toothpaste containing microplastics. Scientists, however, are increasingly concerned about the potential harm of microplastics to the environment, and are not (yet) worried about consumer health when using these products.

Colgate emphasizes that only small amounts of microplastics are used in its toothpastes (though without indicating what percentage consists of plastic) but then also claims that its products are used by millions of people in more than 200 countries. We would like to know how many thousands and thousands of pounds of microplastics get used per year worldwide.

Colgate seeks to reassure, based on the fact that European legislation imposes no limit on the cosmetics industry regarding the use of microplastics, but conceals the fact that the Dutch government is looking to halt the use of microplastics in personal care products. This can be seen in the response provided by Dutch Minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen (Infrastructure and the Environment) to parliamentary questions put forth by Labour Party PvdA. The government is calling for a collaboration with stakeholders. The European Union Marine Strategy Framework Directive wants to reduce litter (this includes micro plastics) by "an integrated approach of looking at the source, creating awareness and developing products." Simply said, an approach from the source means no microplastics in toothpaste.

Colgate claims, without referring to any scientific source, that " the presence of microplastics is mainly due to the disintegration of larger plastics in sea water." Even though larger plastics do indeed degrade in the sea, the core of the problem lies in the fact that no specially manufactured microbeads should come into the sea. This is, in fact, avoidable waste. German researcher Professor Liebezeit conducted research in the German Wadden Sea and concluded in his published paper that personal care products, especially face or body peels, were the main source of the microplastics he detected. (See: Bull Environ Contam Toxicol (2012) 89:213-217).

Colgate says it is working with "the cosmetics industry" to " map out the full lifecycle of microparticles in cosmetics, including what happens during the purification of wastewater.” Based on "scientific findings" the company will take "necessary action." This is a common diversion tactic used by industry. The company does not provide any information on who is conducting the research or when it is taking place (in order to determine whether the research is independent) nor when research results can be expected.

The Plastic Soup Foundation finds that the content of the email provides evidence of irresponsible behavior on the part of GABA/Colgate-Palmolive regarding the environment, and calls on the consortium to follow Unilever’s lead and stop using microplastics in its toothpastes as soon as possible. Colgate is a credible party only if the consortium does not follow the strategy of running with the status quo, by continuing its polluting activities as long as these are permitted by law. The company should, as a precaution, stop these activities as soon as possible.

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