There is an emerging public health threat in the form of tiny plastic particles that are often too small to see with the naked eye. These tiny troublemakers are known as microbeads, and they’re mainly used as abrasives in face scrubs and body washes, but are also found in makeup, lip gloss, nail polish, and even toothpaste. Being made of plastic, they don’t biodegrade easily, and their small size (almost always 1 millimeter or less) makes it nearly impossible for water treatment plants to filter them out before discharging treated water into lakes, rivers, and in our case, Puget Sound. Individually, microbeads may not seem threatening, but consider that a recent report by the New York Attorney General’s office estimates that 19 tons of microbeads end up in the state’s waters every year, and that’s just one state!
Making matters worse, microbeads are also highly absorbent, meaning that they easily soak up toxic chemicals such as those found in flame retardants, pesticides, and motor oil that have also found their way into our waterways. One study shows that microbeads can be up to one million times as toxic as the water around them! Soaking up toxics might sound great, until you realize that these toxic sponges wind up in the food chain. Algae, at the bottom of the chain, are quick to absorb the smallest microbeads, and algae often become food for fish. Fish will also eat the larger microbeads on their own, mistaking them for food. This is where the problems begin. Fish that eat too many microbeads can die of starvation, as these tiny particles accumulate in their digestive systems, clogging them and preventing absorption of nutrients. If a microbead-eating fish manages to avoid that fate and instead ends up on someone’s dinner table, the soaked-up toxics become a serious human health issue. As much as we love seafood in the Pacific Northwest, human health here in our area could be particularly at risk.
This growing threat has prompted microbead restrictions and bans in six states, with many more state legislatures in the process of doing the same. The Netherlands is leading the charge in Europe to ban microbeads, and Canada announced a nationwide ban on the manufacture, importation, and sale of microbeads in August 2015. Here in Washington, an attempt to ban microbeads has stalled because of concern over a loophole that would allow manufacturers to sell products with supposedly “biodegradable” microbeads. However, the only biodegradable microbeads currently available will not break down in cold waters, including Puget Sound, meaning that they will be almost as dangerous to people and marine life as the microbeads being used today.
The public reaction against microbeads has been strong. Two of the largest personal care products corporations, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever, claim to have already phased-out microbeads in their products. Two others, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson, have committed to stopping the use of microbeads over the next few years.
What can you do?
Alternatives to microbeads for exfoliating work as well or better. Look for products (or make your own) that use:
- Walnut shells
- Apricot pits
- Coffee beans
- Jojoba beans
You can always use an exfoliating facial sponge with your favorite cleanser or moisturizer instead of a product that contains an exfoliant.
With precious ecosystems and human health at risk, consumers can use their purchasing power to buy products that leave out harmful ingredients. Through consumer demand and public policy the personal care product industry is changing. By purchasing safer and healthier products, consumers show the industry what they want. Being a smart shopper can make a huge difference.