It’s the little choices we make when we shop that have a big impact on our planet, and this particular tiny problem – microbeads – is one that we all have the power to change. Microbeads are just that – miniscule beads of plastic, usually under one millimetre in diameter and almost invisible to the naked eye. You’ve most likely encountered them at some point without even realising it.
They can be found in beauty products (like exfoliating scrubs, shampoos, soaps and shaving foam) and personal care products (like toothpastes, hand cleansers and sunscreens), and are used as an alternative to traditional (natural) exfoliating materials like pumice, salt or walnut husks to name a few. Microbeads are identifiable in the ingredients list as polyethylene (PE, HDPE or PEHD), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), or nylon. And yes, they usually offer promises of silky smooth skin or a natural glow, but what it really comes down to is this: apart from the cocktail of chemicals already contained in many beauty and personal care products, people are effectively covering their bodies in plastic. Aside from the obvious (why would you want to put anything synthetic in or on your beautiful body!) the inclusion of microbeads in a diverse range of popular products poses a significant environmental threat. These microbeads end up in our wastewater and inevitably, unable to be filtered out at waste treatment plants, end up in our oceans and waterways.
And there are a lot of them.
A recent study on facial scrub exfoliants undertaken in the United Kingdom estimated that anywhere up to ‘94,500 microbeads could be released in a single use’, with up to 86 tonnes of exfoliating microbeads alone emitted into the environment of the UK every year. These figures are alarming, especially when you consider that microbeads are only a small part of the plastic pollution problem in our oceans and waterways. The presence of microplastics (plastic particles less than five millimetres in diametre) in global waterways is now a major environmental concern. One scientific study estimates that microplastics have now reached densities of 100 000 items per cubic metre of water. Even more alarming is that these microplastics are being ingested by marine life, which cannot distinguish between plastic and their food. Studies have established that the consumption of microplastics by marine life have potentially negative effects at a tissue and cellular level. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that ingested microplastics have the potential to transfer toxic substances to the organism, and yep, you guessed it, if you eat seafood there’s a good chance that, at some point, you will be consuming these chemicals.
Scientists are beginning to provide an idea of the long-term environmental impact of microplastics in our oceans, rivers and lakes (and no, it’s not good). But it is environmental issues like this (and let’s be honest, there are many) that we as consumers have the power to change by making conscious purchase decisions. We know that big industries like the beauty industry operate for profit, and are not likely to change the ingredients in their products while consumers continue to buy them. It is only in supporting companies that create natural, ethical and sustainable products that we as consumers can make a difference. Putting ‘your money where your mouth is’ by refusing to buy products that contain chemicals and pollutants will not only make big companies reevaluate their product ingredients, but, more importantly, we will help smaller companies, that are intent on making a positive difference, thrive.
Vigilance is the key when making conscious consumer choices. As with anything you buy, you should always read the ingredients and make sure you’re comfortable putting everything listed in or on your body. Alternatively, when it comes to avoiding microbeads, you can head to www.beatthemicrobead.org – a not-for-profit organisation intent on the elimination of microbeads in all products – and you can download an app that will do the hard work for you. Even better, come and view our range of microbead-free beauty and personal care products at Nurcha.
Eerks-Medrano D, Thompson, R. C. & Aldridge, D. C. 2015, ‘Microplastics in freshwater systems: A review of the emerging threats, identification of knowledge gaps and prioritization of research needs’, Water Research, Vol. 75, pp. 63-82.
Napper, I. E., Bakir, A, Rowland, S. J. & Thompson, R. C. (in press), ‘Characterisation, quantity and sorptive properties of microplastics extracted from cosmetics’, Marine Pollution Bulletin.