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Microbeads: Hidden Plastics in Cosmetics (+ What We Can Do About It)

I thought microbeads were old news. We discovered a few years ago that chemical companies were putting little plastic beads in our toiletries and cosmetics, we got mad about it, we signed petitions and applied pressure to our various governments and microbeads were banned. Job done, right?

Apparently not.

I’ve put together a guide to microbeads and the state of play in 2019, and what you can do to spot them and avoid them.

What are Microbeads?

Microbeads are tiny solid plastic particles, measuring 1mm in diameter or less. They are deliberately added to cleaning products, skincare products and cosmetics to give exfoliating properties, create ‘gloss’ and as fillers to bulk out products.

They are a type of microplastic, a more general term given to tiny plastic particles less than 5mm in diameter.

Many of these microbead-containing products are designed to be rinsed off, meaning this plastic is designed to go down the drain. However, the small size of the beads means they are mostly not captured by water treatment plants, and end up in rivers, seas and oceans.

Once in the water, microbeads pose a threat to wildlife, who ingest the plastic particles. This builds as bigger fish eat smaller fish and so accumulate more plastic. If the plastic alone wasn’t enough concern, plastic actually binds to chemicals in the ocean (including POPs – meaning Persistent Organic Pollutants, or chemicals resistant to environmental degradation). As the plastic accumulates in the food chain, so do these POPs.

Remember who is top of the food chain? Humans (well, the ones that eat fish).

Aren’t Microbeads Banned?

There are some bans on microbeads in place but the exact rules vary, along with what’s banned and what’s not. Most bans actually apply to ‘rinse-off cosmetics’ only (South Korea ban all microbeads in cosmetics, and Canada have banned all microbeads smaller than 5mm).

Source: beatthemicrobead.org

You’ll spot that Australia doesn’t have a ban on microbeads in place. Instead the government opted for a voluntary agreement from industry to phase out microbeads. Accord Australia have been coordinating the phase out with their initiative BeadRecede.

Research in 2018 that looked at 4,400 products across 148 stores found that 94% of products available in Australia were microbead-free. That means 6% were not.

No microbeads were found in shampoos, conditioners, body wash or hand cleaners. The products that still contained microbeads? The top 5 were:

  • Foundation/blush
  • Skin cream/moisturiser
  • Eye make-up
  • Lip make-up
  • Facial scrubs.

What’s interesting to me about this list is that 4 of these product groups are not rinse-off. Which makes me wonder even with countries that have a microbead ban in place, if these products are still making their way to store shelves, into our homes and flushing down the drain?

How can we find out if there are microbeads in the products we buy?

How to Identify Microbeads

What would you guess the number of ingredients that are classed as microplastics to be? 10? 50? 100? The number seems to be growing all the time: it was estimated at 325 when the Australian data mentioned above was collected in 2018, but current estimates are that there are more than 500 microplastic ingredients widely used in cosmetics and personal care products.

500 different ingredients!

If you’d like to know whether any product you’re using contain microbeads, and what ingredients actually count as microbeads, the absolute best resource I’ve found is beatthemicrobead.org.

If you’d like to know the names of all these ingredients to check the products you have at home, Beat The Microbead have put together a ‘red list’ of known microplastic ingredients. (There’s also an ‘orange list’ of suspected ingredients, where there is not yet enough information.)

Among the most common microplastics ingredients are:

  • Polyethylene (PE)
  • Polypropylene (PP)
  • Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
  • Nylon (PA)
  • Polyurethane
  • Acrylates copolymer.

Alternatively, they also have a search function on their website where you can search products in their database. Not to mention, there’s an app available on both Apple and Android.

Switching to Microbead-Free Products

If we find out (or suspect) that there are microbeads in our products, here’s three things we can do.

Simplify

When I went plastic-free, faced with the prospect of finding a plastic-free alternative for the bazillion products in my bathroom, I asked myself whether I actually needed all of these products I was buying. It turned out that many of them weren’t really necessary, just things I purchased because I liked the packaging or had seen an advertisement (no doubt promising some miracle).

You might find the same thing. You might decide that you actually don’t need that product at all.

Find Microplastic Free Alternatives

Beat the Microbead has a list of companies guaranteed to not use microbeads on their website. These are mostly big brand who use plastic and other single-use packaging, but they are a start.

Also, look for small and local producers. There are plenty of excellent small businesses making safe products, and hopefully you can track down something in your area. If you’re looking for make-up (which can be a bit harder to find), two brands I recommend are Dirty Hippie Cosmetics (Australia) and CleanFaced Cosmetics (USA).

Make Your Own Beauty Products

If you really want to know what’s going into your products, the best way to know for sure is to make your own. Body scrubs (one of the products still found to contain microbeads in the research) are easy to make from scratch by mixing something abrasive (sugar, salt, coffee grounds, ground oats, ground rice) into some oil.

Find more DIY scrub recipe ideas here.

Remember, it doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing’. Deciding to make one product rather than buying the pre-packaged microbead-containing alternative is a great first step.

Plastics in cosmetics is a design error that is slowly getting the attention it deserves. If you want to be sure you’re not unwittingly taking part in this hidden form of plastic pollution, audit your current bathroom, beauty and cleaning products. Check the ingredients, and if you find any products that contain suspicious ingredients, make it a priority to track down a suitable swap or solution.

For every irresponsible brand there is another doing good. Let’s give them our money where we can, rather than funding businesses that pollute. Our choice and actions matter.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you live in a country that’s banned microbeads? Do you know which products are banned and which are not? Have you ever done an audit of the things you buy to look for microbeads? Are you going to do it now? Any good microplastic-free brands you’d like to recommend? Any other thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

Heard of Microbeads? There’s a Bigger Plastic Threat to our Oceans

There’s plastic in our oceans. We see it on the news, in magazine articles, on Facebook, or rather, we see the result: pictures of animals and birds tangled in fishing netting, trapped in plastic packaging, ingesting carrier bags and other floating plastic, or feeding plastic bottle tops and lighters to their young instead of food.

That’s just the plastic we see, but there is a lot more plastic in the ocean.

Plastic that’s too small for us to see. Microplastics.

(Officially, microplastics are plastics that measure 5mm or less, but often they are less than 1mm.) We might not be able to see them, but they still have a huge impact on the oceans. First up, they still get eaten by marine life. Small fish eat smaller pieces of plastic, and as we go up the food chain and these fish are eaten by bigger fish, the amount of plastic increases. If we eat fish, there’s a chance that this plastic is ending up on our plates.

The other big issue with plastics in the ocean, is that plastics are lipophilic, meaning they attract lipids and fats. (If you’ve ever used a plastic container to store something oily, you might have noticed that it’s very hard to get clean afterwards. That’s because plastic is attracted to the oil.)

It’s not just water and plastics and fish in the ocean. There are a lot of chemicals. Like POPs. They might have a fun name, but POPs are persistent organic pollutants: man-made chemicals that take a long time to break down. Chemicals like DDT, PCBs, brominated flame retardants and other pesticides. These chemicals might have been banned decades ago, but all rivers lead to the ocean, and they persist here.

They don’t just persist, they are attracted to the plastics in the ocean, so become concentrated here.

The smaller the plastic, the bigger the surface area in proportion, and the more POPs. This toxic combination is entering the food chain…and potentially ending up in our food.

Microbeads – a Threat to Our Oceans

Microbeads have been receiving a lot of attention recently, with organisations like 5 Gyres putting pressure on companies to stop using them and the Story of Stuff launching a Ban the Bead campaign to raise awareness. Microbeads are tiny balls of plastic added to cosmetic products to act as exfoliants, basically because they are cheaper than using natural ingredients like sugar, salt, coffee, apricot kernels…the list goes on. They aren’t just in face scrubs either – they are even found in toothpaste!

These tiny plastic beads are washed down drains when these products are used, and end up at water treatment plants… however, they are too small to be collected by filters, and so are washed into the ocean.

The Plastic Problem Hiding in the Closet

It’s easy to get mad about microbeads because it’s easy to see that they are completely pointless. Especially as a solution exists – there are natural alternatives out there with the same exfoliating properties, but with the added bonus of being biodegradable. However, there’s another problem that’s not so easy to see and can hardly be put in the “pointless” category…and it’s hiding in our closets.

Our clothes.

Most of us have items of clothing made of plastic. Think polyester, acrylic and nylon: these fabrics are made of synthetic (plastic) fibres. When we wash our clothes in a washing machine, some of these fibres are shed and go with the waste water to the water treatment plants. “Some” isn’t even close to the actual amount. Research conducted in 2011 showed that a single synthetic garment can release more than 1900 fibres per wash.

As with microbeads, these tiny microfibres, maybe less than 1mm in diameter, are too small to be collected by filters, and so are washed into the ocean. The study estimates that a large proportion of microplastic fibres found in the marine environment are the direct result of us doing our laundry.

Laundry Day, Tarifa Peter Morgan via Flickr

Every time we wash our clothes, we send thousands of plastic microfibres down the drain…and into the ocean.

Are Microfibres a Bigger Threat Than Microbeads?

If we talk in numbers, maybe not. The amount of microbeads in some products is staggering. A 2015 study found that 5ml of product can contain between 5,000 and 95,000 beads. Then again, if your laundry basket consists of four polar fleeces (which are the clothing item found to release the most fibres) that’s 7,600 fibres, and fibres are bigger than beads…

The issue isn’t so much about numbers. The issue is perception. Whereas microbeads are almost universally recognised as completely pointless (except maybe the pharmaceutical companies who stand to make bigger profits using them) and environmentally destructive, clothing made using plastic fibres is seen as a good thing.  An environmentally responsible thing, even.

Thinking that makes no sense? It’s because several brands have started using waste plastic to make clothes, recycling the plastic and transforming it into fibres that can be spun into garments. Taking plastic bottles, and turning them into T shirts. One of the most popular garments to make from these plastic fibres is polar fleece. Which, ironically, is the fabric that sheds the most microfibres upon washing.

These companies (and there are several, Patagonia being the most well known) promote this clothing as eco-friendly, claiming it is a proactive solution to plastic pollution, and even tallying the plastic bottles saved from landfill. Yet if these fibres are being released, unseen, into our waterways every time we do our laundry, isn’t the problem just being shifted from land to sea?

The perception is that by using a waste product (plastic bottles) to make a new product, we are using fewer resources and discarding less. Yet this system is flawed. It isn’t a cycle. Plastic bottles aren’t being turned into new plastic bottles, they are being turned into garments. New plastic bottles are made from virgin plastic. This isn’t discouraging people from purchasing new plastic bottles – if anything, it sends a message that it’s fine to consume single-use plastic bottles as the plastic is recycled afterwards. Similarly, it sends a message that it’s fine to buy new clothes, because they are made of recycled materials and are therefore eco-friendly. It reinforces the message that we can consume our way to sustainability.

Bales of Recyclables Walter Parenteau via Flickr

Just a fraction of the single-use plastic bottles collected every single day for recycling. Seriously, how many polar fleeces does the world need?

Want to Keep Our Oceans Plastic-Free?

Here’s a few ideas to get you started. Consume as little plastic as possible. Look for alternatives, and opt for reusables where you can. Dispose of what you do use responsibly. If you see plastic (or any litter), pick it up. Join a beach clean-up. Avoid plastic microbeads in beauty products. Add pressure to the pharmaceutical companies to remove microbeads from products by signing a petition or writing a letter. Choose natural fibres over polyester, acrylic and nylon, and try to limit the plastic in your laundry basket.

Whilst it’s great that companies are trying their hardest to keep plastics out of landfill, and looking for ways to create new and useful products out of waste items, plastic clothing in its current format is creating as many problems as it’s trying to solve. Trying to keep plastic out of landfill only to add to plastic pollution in the ocean isn’t the eco-friendly option. It is damaging the very environment it is trying to save.

Cover image credit: “Plastic Beaches” by Claire Sambrook via Flickr