I remember in high school I used this Neutrogena exfoliating gel facewash and sometimes I would squeeze a tiny amount into my fingers and feel around for those tiny orange beads. I would squish them between my fingers and wonder what they were made from, and sometimes I’d test them with my nails to see if they could pop or break open. Back then, I had no idea about all of the toxins in the world or the plethora of ecological impacts from our consumerist society. So naturally, I had no idea those little balls of exfoliating material were actually plastic. Or how terrible those tiny plastic beads were.
Chances are you’ve used some product with microbeads. Companies put them in everything including toothpaste, face wash, body wash, and lotions. If you’re like me, you probably find it weird that you’re washing your face or your body with plastic! So why do companies use these instead of the many wonderful natural exfoliating alternatives? Why else – money! Microbeads are cheaper than natural exfoliates, and they don’t work as well, which means you can use it every day, use up the product faster, and buy it more often.
Microbeads are typically 5 mm in diameter or smaller. They’re commonly made from polyethylene, but can also be made from other petrochemicals like polypropylene and polystyrene. These chemicals are also used in their non-solid form in personal care products, so you may see polyethylene in an ingredient list, but this doesn’t necessarily mean there are microbeads present. If the use of microbeads aren’t already disclosed on the label, you can identify them in a product by the grainy texture.
Microbeads are a huge environmental concern, and they pose a threat to human health:
Water filtration systems cannot catch these tiny plastic pieces, so they wash straight into lakes, rivers, and oceans. Microbeads don’t break down in the environment; plastic in general doesn’t degrade, it simply breaks into smaller pieces. This leads to a massive accumulation of tiny bits of plastic all over the world.
Microbeads are like sponges for toxins. They absorb and release toxic chemicals like PCBs and pesticides. This is why Greenpeace apparently calls them “toxic time bombs”.
Animals consume microbeads either by accident or because they think the beads are food. This can cause problems in a few ways. First, animals can starve to death because microbeads, and other plastics, fill up the animal’s stomach, making it impossible for them to eat enough real food. Many whales, seals, fish, and even sea birds, are found dead on beaches; cutting them open reveals a belly full of plastic.
Second, microbeads and microplastics (bits that used to be bigger plastic pieces) can actually pass through to the bloodstream or muscles. Foreign objects in the body disrupt normal biological functions.
Third, microbeads can release the toxic chemicals they absorbed. Additionally, some microbeads are small enough to enter plankton, worms, and other tiny organisms, greatly disrupting metabolic functions.
Microbeads are also working their way up the food chain into human bodies; fish eat the microbeads and we eat the fish. Thus, microbeads can accumulate in our bodies, potentially causing problems by entering our bloodstream, releasing toxic chemicals, or settling in our stomachs.
What is being done?
Governments all over the world are passing laws to ban microbeads, at least for use in personal care products. Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act in 2015, requiring all cosmetics companies to remove microbeads from personal care products by July 2017 (last month!). Some companies have even stepped up and pledged to phase out the use of microbeads in their products. L’Oreal, Lush, and Unilever are some of the companies that have already started phasing them out of products. The next step in addressing this problem is to target the use of microbeads in other products like laundry detergents.
The abundance of plastic in our environment and our bodies has become ridiculous. Microbeads are just one more source of plastic pollution. The next post in my series on plastics will address this issue on a broader scale and provide some history on the use of plastics.