Swapping micro-plastic for smart glass?

With plastic microbeads in cosmetics coming under ever-increasing scrutiny – the benefits of glass powders as an alternative are being brought into focus.

Quite possibly spurred by the US signing the Microbead Free Waters Act in late December 2015, a UK parliamentary petition on plastic microbeads reached its 10,000 signatures milestone this month – earning it an official response.

The Department for Food and Rural Affairs’ 11 January statement stressed the UK Government is already working closely with the trade association Cosmetic Europe to address this matter. Simultaneously, Cosmetic Europe issued a recommendation to its members to discontinue use of plastic microbeads in wash-off products for exfoliating and cleansing. 


As part of the Beat the Microbead campaign, the Marine Conservation Society is also asking manufacturers of personal care products to replace all plastic particles with environmentally friendly alternatives.

Glass powders are one such alternative. Nick Kirk, Technical Director at British Glass explains: “Smooth, fine glass powder for cosmetics can be created from recycled glass – avoiding use of precious virgin raw materials, and the energy consumption of extracting and processing them. And as glass itself is around 75% silica sand, when it ends up in wastewater system and eventually the sea it acts just as sand would.”

In fact – in Florida, recycled glass powder has been used to combat beach erosion, avoiding the damage to reefs and wildlife that can be caused by dredging sand from the sea bed.

You get an idea of just how biologically benign glass is when you appreciate how widely it’s used in the medical products. Modern smart glasses are used throughout the body - from artificial joints and bone reconstruction to dental repairs ever in some toothpastes. Nick is one of the authors of a recently published paper on smartglass coatings on joint implants, which presents the benefits of glass for such medical applications.*

The idea of glass powder in cosmetics may surprise many consumers, but fine glass flakes are already used in some cosmetics to reflect light and provide sparkle. The use of glass beads in cosmetics would not only reduce the environmental impact of the product after disposal, but can actually enhance the product.

The fascinating properties of soluble borosilicate glasses are particularly exciting, as Chris Sorsby, General Manager of British Glass member VitrTech Ltd explains:

‘We can precisely control the particle size of our soluble glass powders. Additionally, soluble glasses can incorporate additives such as silver which has antibacterial properties, and by tweaking the composition we can alter the rate it dissolves at. It is possible to manufacture glasses which dissolve from a few seconds to a number of years. The applications of glass are endless in cosmetic and medical applications.’

‘There’s more to glass than windows and bottles.' says Nick Kirk.'And whatever the outcome of the current debate, it’s getting manufacturers to look at modern, smart glasses to enhance products and that’s exciting. Adapting to challenges is often what sparks improvement – and I’m sure this will be one of those situations.’ 

* Baino, Marshall, Kirk and,Vitale-Brovaronea, 2016. Design, selection and characterization of novel glasses and glass-ceramics for use in prosthetic applications. Ceramics International Volume 42, Issue 1, Part B.


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