If you’re scrubbing your face with an exfoliating face wash or brushing your teeth with a whitening or sparkling paste, you’re probably consuming plastic and polluting our oceans without even knowing it.

Today, a significant number of personal care products such as scrubs and toothpastes are known to contain thousands of minuscule balls of plastic called microplastics, or more specifically, microbeads. Microbeads are mainly made of polyethylene (PE), but can be also be made of polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon.

Microbeads and other plastic ingredients are present in different products at different percentages, ranging from less than 1% to more than 90% in some cases. For example, a typical exfoliating shower gel can contain roughly as much microplastic in the cosmetic formulation as is used to make the plastic packaging it comes in.

Microbeads

Microbeads- Image Courtesy of PSF

Their use goes well beyond the scrubbing effect in scrubs. Plastic ingredients are applied in a variety of leave-on and rinse-off formulations such as: deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, hair coloring, shaving cream, sunscreen, anti-wrinkle creams, moisturizers, hair spray, facial masks, etc.

At under 1 mm, hardly visible to the naked eye, these microbeads cannot be filtered out by wastewater treatment systems and flow straight from the bathroom drain into our rivers, canals and ultimately, straight into the seas and oceans.

Not biodegradable, once they enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove. And passed along the marine food chain, this plastic is increasingly finding its way onto our plates.

Microbeads- Image by 5Gyres, courtesy of PSF

Let’s break down the Microbeads problem

  • The average person uses products containing microbeads some 4.39 times a week.
  • This is equivalent to creating 1.76 trillion microbeads annually – the weight of 111 double-decker buses.
  • And about 100,000 microbeads are washed down the sink with a single application of some products, ending up in the sea and the food chain.
  • Marine species are unable to distinguish between food and microplastics and therefore indiscriminately feed on microplastics.
  • These microbeads are passed along the marine food chain.
  • Since humans are ultimately at the top of this food chain, we are also absorbing microbeads from the food we eat.
  • The surface of microplastics has been proven to attract and absorb persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs and DDT from the marine environment. Relatively high concentrations of POPs have been found on the surface of microplastics.

According to Greenpeace’s analysis of 58 international ­academic studies, microplastic pollutants including microbeads, have been found in around 170 types of commonly consumed seafood including mussels, lobsters, oysters and fish such as bluefin tuna and grey mullet.

Fresh Seafood

Photo by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures

What’s being done about it

Our Partners at the Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF) are doing a fabulous job of halting the increasing plastic contamination of our oceans. They aim to prevent even more plastic entering the environment in all possible ways. PSF works closely together with leading scientists, researchers and seeks international cooperation with experts, politicians, organisations, universities and businesses that have a similar vision and objectives.

Their Beat the Microbead campaign has been running since 2012 and has achieved great results by informing the public and encouraging their active participation in working on solutions.

Right now 83 NGOs from 35 countries are supporting the campaign! Already 337 brands from 67 different manufacturers have promised to remove plastic microbeads from their products.

 

Microbeads in Products

Legislation

The Canadian government has announced a general ban on microbeads. And more recently, in July 2016, Microplastics are being added to Canada’s list of toxic substances.

In December 2015, Obama signed a bill against microbeads: the Microbead-Free Waters Act. The law will phase microbeads out of consumer products over the next few years, starting with a ban on manufacturing the beads in July 2017, followed by product-specific manufacturing and sales bans in 2018 and 2019.

In June 2016, over 300,000 people signed a petition urging David Cameron to ban microbeads.

Microbeads-Coin-PSF - 1024 x 685

Here’s some help for Consumers

PSF has launched a smartphone App as part of their Beat the Microbead campaign. Used worldwide and available in 11 languages, the App has been downloaded almost 200,000 times. It allows consumers to scan personal care products to check for the presence of plastic microbeads.

PSF is also working on transferring the burden of proof. Instead of consumers having to check and choose, they are asking producers to declare their care products free of microplastics. Look for the ‘Zero plastic inside’ logo for a product that is guaranteed 100% free of microplastics.

Check the recent research (UNEP report ‘Plastic in Cosmetics’, 2015) to understand the problem of microbeads and nanoplastics in personal care products.

Check whether the products you are buying or the ones on your bathroom shelf contain microplastics by looking for the following ingredients: polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), and nylon.

Microbeads in Products2 - 864 x 1024

Ecophiles Green Tips to Go Natural

For DIY scrubs, a Honey plus Baking Soda is your best bet. Also use natural exfoliants like Sugar mixed with Olive, Jojoba or Almond Oil. A Sea Salt scrub is great for dry skin – mixed with Lavender essential oil, the minerals stimulate cell growth. Oatmeal is a great gentle exfoliant for sensitive skin – mix with Honey or Yogurt, for moisturizing effects.

For Body scrubbing, consider using traditional products like a washcloth or a Terracotta Pumice Stone. You can also DIY your own body scrub using Chickpea flour, orange peel and multani mitti.

Coconut Oil and Almond Oil make for great Body Moisturizers. For light Face Moisturizers, use Argan and Rosehip Oil.

Toothpaste alternatives like Sea Salt and Baking Soda are gaining popularity. Mix with peppermint or orange essential oil for that fresh feeling.

Mix Coconut Oil and Aloe Vera gel to cook up the perfect moisturizing Shaving Cream. Add essential oils for that soothing sensation. Those looking for a gel can use Liquid Castille Soap mixed with Essential Oils and Honey.

Ditch the Dye. Try Henna mixed with Indigo for a natural alternative to chemical Hair Colors.

For Shampoo try Liquid Castille Soap mixed with brewed Green Tea and Honey. And use Coconut Oil based Deep Conditioning hair packs with avacado, egg whites, and unflavored yogurt.