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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!

15+ Swaps for a Plastic-Free Bathroom

The two areas of the home where we tend to use the most single-use plastic and other packaging are the kitchen, and the bathroom. The good news is, both have plenty of opportunity for doing things differently!

In many ways, the bathroom is easier to tackle. We don’t need to replace the items as often or as quickly (toothpaste doesn’t go bad like milk or cauliflower does), and there are less products to switch. (Surely no-one’s bathroom cupboard has more products than the pantry, fridge and freezer combined?)

Plus even if you’re not feeling drawn to DIY, guaranteed someone in your town does! There is so much opportunity to support local businesses when it comes to making bathroom swaps.

I thought I’d run through all of the swaps I’ve made to give you some ideas that might work for you. There are plenty of awesome brands making thoughtful products, and I can’t list them all (I don’t know about them all!).

So I’ve shared the ones that work for me – and part of that means being available in the physical zero waste stores in my neighbourhood. I prefer to buy local where I can, and support independent businesses trying to create positive change.

If that’s not possible, there are heaps of great online independent small businesses that you can support.

Plastic-Free / Zero Waste Swaps – Hair Care

Shampoo soap: I washed my hair with bicarb and vinegar for about 3 years, but a two month trial with just water left my hair really dry, and I decided to switch to a shampoo bar to fix it. I really like the Source Foods shampoo bar, which I buy from my local Source store in Victoria Park.

There are heaps of brands making solid shampoo soap and most people find it takes a while to find one that works with their hair. (I’ve only tried two, the Source one is great, the other was not great at all.) If you don’t love the first bar you try, keep going. Some companies also make samples so you can test without committing to a huge block you don’t end up using.

Conditioner (white vinegar rinse): I still use white vinegar to rinse my hair (instructions here). I don’t use any other styling products. In fact, I still cringe at how much I used to spend on conditioner and frizz-ease hair serums when actually, white vinegar does a much better job for a fraction of the cost and with no plastic waste.

White vinegar is pretty easy to find at most bulk stores (I refill an old wine bottle), or even at the grocery store in glass. You can use apple cider vinegar as an alternative.

Plastic-Free / Zero Waste Swaps – Dental Care

Toothbrush: you’ll probably notice that my toothbrush appears to be plastic. That’s because it is plastic. But it’s not single-use: it has a replaceable head. Back in 2012 when I went plastic-free, bamboo toothbrushes were far less common and I just couldn’t get on with the two brands that were available to me. So I switched in 2014, and for the last 5 years I’ve kept the handle and replaced the heads.

The brand I have is SilverCare: it’s made in Italy (I purchased from Manna Whole Foods in South Fremantle). There’s a small amount of plastic with the packaging. Annoyingly, Silvercare changed the shape of the head recently, meaning it is harder to find the heads that fit my brush.

I’ve since found another brand Lamazuna, made in France, that uses 70% bioplastic (plastic made from plants, not fossil fuels) in the handle, and also uses no plastic packaging. I’m wondering if the Lamazuna heads fit in the Silvercare brush handle.

The heads can be recycled via Terracycle.

Toothpaste: I make my own using equal (ish) parts glycerine and sodium bicarbonate (also called baking soda, bicarb or bicarb soda) mixed together to form a paste, and I add a couple of drops of peppermint oil. I look for plant-based glycerine, and food grade bicarb.

Dental Floss: I purchase a brand called Dental Lace, who make floss from mulberry silk that is coated in a plant-based Candelilla wax. The floss comes in a refillable glass container with a metal lid, along with refillable packets of floss in certified compostable packaging. I purchase it from Urban Revolution in Victoria Park.

Plastic-Free / Zero Waste Swaps – Skincare

Bar soap: Bar soap has replaced all of the liquid products I used to use: face wash, hand wash, shower gel and body wash. After being terrified of making soap for far too long, I finally gave it a crack at the end of last year and am pleased to say it is not as hard or dangerous as I thought. I made soap with coconut oil, olive oil and rice bran oil, and I’m still working through that first batch.

Should soap-making not be your thing (yet), look for a good quality soap made from vegetable oils.

Almond oil: I use almond oil as a light moisturiser in summer, applying straight after a shower whilst my skin is still damp to help keep my skin hydrated. A few bulk stores sell almond oil, otherwise olive oil is just as good and even more widely available.

Oil is also an excellent make-up remover, and doesn’t sting like chemical versions do.

Cold cream: I make a cold cream for winter, which I use as moisturizer but can also be used as a cleanser. It’s a blend of beeswax, oil (rosehip if I have it, almond if I don’t, or olive oil) and water. I use a version of Galen’s cold cream (you can find my cold cream recipe here).

Deodorant: I’ve made by own deodorant since 2012. It’s a 1 minute job, literally stirring tapioca flour, bicarb and coconut oil together in a jar. Best and most important thing: it actually works! If you’re sensitive to bicarb I also have a bicarb-free deodorant DIY recipe that uses clay instead – you can find both DIY deodorant recipes here.

Sunscreen: I make my own sunscreen too, using zinc oxide powder, which is a physical barrier against UVA and UVB rays. I tend to make one batch that lasts all summer. Here’s my DIY sunscreen recipe (and more information about these products).

Make-up: I wear very little make-up. The product I use most is blusher and it is simply pink clay. There are some great small businesses out there making plastic-free and zero waste make-up and I’ve tried and would recommend both Dirty Hippie Cosmetics (Australian-based) and Clean-Faced Cosmetics (US-based).

Plastic-Free / Zero Waste Swaps – Other Bits + Pieces

Toilet paper: I’ve used Who Gives a Crap toilet paper since it launched in 2013. The boxes are delivered plastic-free to my doorstep. I use the wrappers for various things including picking up dog poo and gift wrapping (different pieces for each activity, clearly).

There’s another brand I’ve also tried which I liked called Pure Planet, as an alternative option.

Make-Up Rounds: The reusable make-up rounds I use are made of organic cotton (I’ve seen others made of bamboo but I prefer 100% cotton), and the fabric is offcuts from other products. The ones I have were a gift from my friend Jeanne who owns a small ethical underwear business called Pygoscelis but there are plenty of other brands, or you could even sew your own.

Cotton buds: These may be single-use, but they are also non-negotiable for me. I simply cannot stand having water in my ears! (Yes, I also know that you are not meant to put them in your eyes. What can I say? I’m livin’ on the edge.) I use 100% biodegradable ones made by Go Bamboo with a bamboo stick and cotton tip that can be composted. These are another purchase from Urban Revolution in Victoria Park.

Soap Saver: I have a little bag made of flannel for putting in scraps of soap to use rather than them going down the drain. I love this and it’s saved me so much soap and so many blocked drains! I purchased this at a market, but they are easy enough to make or track down.

These swaps might work for you, you might find something different or better, or you may not see the need for some of the things I use. There’s never a perfect way to reduce your waste, only a ‘better’ version that works for you.

All you need to do is look at the products you’re currently buying and using, and ask yourself – could I switch this out for something better?

That’s how we reduce our plastic consumption and our waste: one simple swap at a time.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What low waste/plastic-free bathroom swaps have you made? What are you still struggling with? Any products you’d recommend – or recommend steering clear of? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Join the ‘War on Plastic’ with Plastic Free July (+ 3 Ideas for Plastic Free Veterans)

Another year, another Plastic Free July – and the appetite for living with less plastic is stronger than ever! More and more of us are concerned about plastic pollution and more importantly, determined to do something about plastic use in our own lives.

Plastic Free July always swings around at exactly the right time of year. Never heard of it before? Plastic Free July is a free-to-join challenge that runs during the month of July. It encourages us to choose to refuse single-use plastic, and be part of a movement that is not only raising awareness but taking action and sharing solutions.

I first took part in my first Plastic Free July back in 2012, when I was one of about 400 participants. Since then the challenge has grown exponentially, and in 2019 it was estimated that 250 million people from 177 different countries took part.

If you’d like to be registered for this year’s challenge, you can do so via the official Plastic Free July website.

I’ve written about Plastic Free July every year since my first challenge, and this year is no different in that respect. But I always try to approach it from a different angle, and this year I wanted to reach out to the plastic-free veterans.

There are plenty of articles for plastic-free beginners; I’ve written a number of them over the years. Here is last year’s contribution: 5 Tips to Get Prepped For Plastic Free July (and Living with Less Plastic). (There are plenty more in the archive).

I also created this graphic and accompanying (free) eBook to give you more ideas to get started.

But for those coming back for a second, third, fourth or more year, getting those same beginner’s tips you received in year one can seem a little… well, repetitive.

So today’s post is for you.

3 Plastic Free July Ideas for Plastic-Free Veterans

Find Your ‘One More Thing’ Swap

You’re a pro at bringing your reusable bags to the store, you remember to refuse the plastic straw, you opt to dine-in rather than getting those takeaway containers and you’re a regular at the bulk store. Hurrah!

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still something more to do or somewhere else to improve.

  • Take another look at the contents of your landfill bin and your recycling bin, and see if there’s anything in there that could be swapped out for something plastic-free;
  • Consider revisiting something that you tried in previous years and decided was too hard – maybe times have changed and this year is the year you succeed;
  • Try to make something new from scratch: maybe a food item, a cleaning recipe or a personal care product. That doesn’t mean committing to make it from scratch forevermore! It’s simply about experimenting with change;
  • Maybe there’s something that is too expensive, impractical or time-consuming to become a permanent change in your life, but you can commit to making this change for 31 days during July to show solidarity with the movement and do your bit.

Plastic Free July isn’t just about refusing plastic. It’s about learning new skills, examining our habits and challenging ourselves to do better.

Take the Challenge Beyond Your Own Habits

Those first years, Plastic Free July is all about changing habits, making swaps and settling into new routines. Trying to remember our reusables and investigate all the alternatives takes up a lot of energy, and time.

But new habits eventually become ingrained, and the time we once spent figuring out all of this stuff is freed up again. Plastic Free July is a great time to spread the refuse single-use plastic message to people who haven’t heard of it before.

Maybe that means pinning up some posters at work, or persuading your local cafe and shops to get on board with the challenge.

(You can find the whole range of official Plastic Free July posters – free to download – on the Plastic Free July website.)

Maybe it means giving a talk to your colleagues or your community, organizing a litter pick-up or hosting a movie screening.

Maybe it means writing to companies expressing your annoyance with their packaging and suggestive alternatives, or writing to companies to tell them you love their commitment to reducing waste.

Maybe it means writing to your local councillor or MP to ask them what they are doing about plastic pollution.

Use your voice to speak up for what matters, and share what you know.

Be The Kind of Person You’d Have Liked Supporting You in the Early Days

Chances are, if you’ve been living plastic-free for a while, you’ve ventured down the rabbit hole and discovered a whole heap of twists and turns along the journey.

There are probably plenty of choices you made and things you did back at the start that with the benefit of hindsight, you wouldn’t do again.

Try to remember this when you see others making similar choices. You have the benefit of hindsight, and they don’t. Yet.

How would you have felt if you’d triumphantly shared your first plastic-free chocolate bar purchase that took you three weeks to track down, only to be told that a) didn’t you know that particular Fair Trade organic bar is made by a multinational company b) it’s probably not vegan c) haven’t you heard of palm oil d) you didn’t buy it in the supermarket, surely e) did you even look at the carbon footprint?

It’s unlikely you’d feel inspired to continue, that’s for sure.

Part of the journey is trying new things and making mistakes. If you see someone sharing a choice they made that you wouldn’t make, before diving in to “help”, ask yourself: how helpful will it really be for you to share your opinion right now?

This is particularly true on the internet, with people you don’t know. No-one wants to be berated in public by someone they’ve never met and who has no idea about their individual circumstances.

That’s not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t share information. Just be sensitive about what you share, who you share it with and how you share it.

People need time to find their own way. That first Plastic Free July can be overwhelming. As someone who has gone ahead, we can try to remember that, be encouraging, inclusive, and celebrate the small wins of others.

If we want people to feel confident to take the next steps, we need to be supportive with the first steps.

Challenges such as Plastic Free July are not just for beginners, but we all start as beginners. If you are a beginner, I want to assure you that whilst change can be challenging, it is also fun… and very rewarding. Those ahead of you are here to help when you get stuck – we have all been stuck at some point! If you are a veteran, remember that part of our challenge is continuing to push ourselves, not get complacent and help keep the spark alight in those just starting out.

Happy Plastic Free July, everyone!

Now I’d love to hear from you! Are you a plastic-free newbie? A veteran with one year’s service? Two or three year’s service? Four or more years of service? If you’re a veteran, what do you remember most about starting out? Do you remember?! And what advice would you give to someone taking the challenge for the first time? Any other thoughts or ideas? Please share your comments below!