Many personal cleaning products now feature tiny plastic beads.
Manufacturers put them in "exfoliating” face cleansers, shower gels, exfoliating scrubs, and shaving cream … even in some toothpastes.
Microbeads allegedly provide a greater sensation of cleaning, while not removing significantly more dirt or skin oil … just more loose skin cells.
Hundreds – perhaps thousands – of personal care products use microbeads as mildly abrasive, exfoliating scrubbers.
Microbeads can constitute up to 10% of a product by volume, and just one bottle of facial cleanser can contain as many as 350,000.
They're also used in some household cleaning products, and for industrial cleaning applications such as "shot blast” cleaning of ships and aircraft.
These tiny plastic spheres get washed down the drain, escape through the filters at wastewater-treatment facilities, and then pollute rivers and oceans.
Microbeads pose a threefold problem:
- Not biodegradable
- Readily absorb man-made pollutants, such as PCBs
- Persist for centuries, as they degrade into ever-smaller bits
Sadly, too few people know that they're washing their skin with plastic that's ending up in our lakes and oceans.
How can you tell whether a product contains plastic microbeads? It may say so right on the label, but that's uncommon.
Check the ingredients list for the plastics from which microbeads are usually made: usually polyethylene (PE), but sometimes polypropylene (PP), polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), or nylon.
Microbeads worsen oceans' growing plastic problem
More than 10 years ago, a paper in the journal Science detailed the scope of "microplastic” pollution.
The authors' research showed that microplastics and plastic fibers had already spread through the entire marine environment.
And recent reports by the 5 Gyres Institute confirm that microbeads occur abundantly in rivers, oceans, and lakes.
Exposure to UV radiation and abrasive wave action causes larger bits of plastic to degrade into ever smaller pieces, causing a steady rise in the amounts of microplastics in lakes and oceans.
Scientists define microplastics as pieces or fibers measuring less than 5 millimeters (mm), but almost all of the microbeads in personal care products measure smaller than 1 mm, which is just 3/64 of 1 inch.
In fact, an Australian study found that the microbeads in 3 out of 4 personal care products measured less than 1/10 of 1 millimeter in diameter.
Harm to aquatic animals
Microbeads pose serious risks to marine life as they rise up through the food chain.
Small aquatic animals – such as zooplankton and mollusks – mistake microbeads for food, or ingest them as they filter surrounding water for food.
Fish and crustaceans eat zooplankton and mollusks, and in turn are eaten by marine mammals, birds, and people.
Microplastics have been found in the digestive systems of fish, but cannot easily migrate from there into the flesh that people eat.
A far greater concern stems from the fact that microbeads absorb manmade persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs and flame retardants.
Small marine creatures will absorb microbead-borne POPs, which then migrate up the food chain to accumulate in fish, marine mammals, and birds.
It's not clear how much of the microplastic in ocean waters comes from microbeads, but scientists estimate it's still a fairly small percentage.
But – barring swift action to ban them – the proportion of microplastics pollution caused by cosmetic microbeads is sure to rise steadily.
Tide is beginning to turn against microbeads
Fortunately, public pressure has led several large companies to stop using plastic microbeads, while others have pledged to take them out of production.
Ad their clear health and environmental dangers have finally prompted legislative proposals to ban microbeads in California and four other states.
Most recently, the 5 Gyres Institute co-sponsored a national bill – the National Microbead-Free Waters Act – that would ban microbeads, and is now being debated in the U.S. Congress.
Concerned consumers and environmental groups are key players in the fight to force manufacturers to switch to safe, biodegradable exfoliants such as ground beans, ground almond shells, polenta, and sugar.
Consumers discover that they get the same or better skin and cleansing results from products that instead feature natural micro-scrubbers.
Indeed, microbeads are relatively recent inventions, and people managed to clean and exfoliate their skin perfectly well, using soaps embedded or accompanied with natural micro-scrubbers.
Cosmetic companies begin to crack
Major manufacturers of products containing microbeads have resisted their removal. But that's beginning to change, and the threat of legislation will accelerate positive corporate actions.
The first crack in the corporate wall came three years ago, when Unilever – a Dutch behemoth whose many brands include Ben & Jerry's – pledged that all its products would be microbead-free by 2015.
Recently, three other major cosmetic corporations – Beiersdorf, Colgate-Palmolive, and L'Oréal – announced that they will stop adding microbeads to personal care products.
Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble now say that they will phase out microbeads, but probably no sooner than 2017 at the earliest.
Ironically, the name of one such Johnson & Johnson product – a blend of mostly synthetic ingredients, including artificial colors – is Morning Burst Detoxifying Facial Cleanser (emphasis ours) .
That name seems remarkably clueless, given the toxic effects that microbeads exert on fish, shellfish, birds, and marine mammals.
We support efforts to ban plastic, toxin-absorbing microbeads, and urge you to do the same.
It also makes sense to contact your state legislators to urge them to support or initiate bills that would implement local microbead bans.
If the proposed national law doesn't pass, then enactment of similar state laws may well persuade the U.S. Congress to act.
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