There are many things to consider when choosing hygiene and cosmetic products, one of which is the presence of microbeads. These tiny bits of spherical plastic are often included for exfoliation or grittiness and can be found in quite a variety of items including haircare products, lotions, toothpaste, makeup, nail polish, chapstick, deodorant, and sunscreen. They are difficult to identify in the ingredients list and are extremely damaging to aquatic organisms.
What are these “microbeads”?
Instead of grinding down natural ingredients to the desired size and shape, the cosmetic industries often turn to the world’s cheap-and-easy solution for everything – plastic. The word plastic simply means “something that is easily shaped” (which is where we get plastic surgery). Petroleum products earned the title of “plastics” because they are very easy to shape into whatever we want them to be. In this case, companies wanted little beads ranging from microscopic to 1 millimeter in diameter, and they got them.
Dangers to the Environment (and us!)
Facial cleansers are great, but how are they damaging the oceans? The problem with microbeads is that they are too tiny for their own good, or anyone else’s for that matter. After getting rinsed off your face, these mini petroleum-based spheres get washed down the drain and eventually find themselves in a water treatment facility. They are so small that they pass through the filtration systems and end up getting released into lakes and the ocean.
Once they are free to swim the seas, these beads are eaten by tiny sea creatures, either on accident or because the beads are mistaken for fish eggs, etc. Not only can organisms die of starvation on a diet of plastic, but they also consume toxins along with these beads. Microplastics readily absorb POPs, or persistent organic pollutants, which are chemicals that take a very long time to break down and include pesticides, fire retardants, and other similar compounds. These can make their way up the food chain and poison larger organisms like fish and, ultimately, humans who consume these fish. So if it’s not bad enough that microbeads cause damage to the aquatic life, they also can effect humans who consume seafood.
What are we to do about this issue? Are we powerless? Of course not! We are the consumers, my friends, in this crazy world of consumption. By educating ourselves in what to look for and what to avoid, we can learn to choose products that do not use these microbeads.
Unfortunately microbeads will not appear in the ingredients list as “microbeads” because that would just be too easy. There are at least 67 different materials that have been identified as being used as microplastics in cosmetics and it gets pretty confusing pretty fast. Not pretty.
There is a wonderful site called Beat the Microbead which not only campaigns against the inclusion of microplastics in cosmetics, but also provides lists of products that contain microbeads, as well as ones that do not, arranged by country. This is a great resource to refer to when purchasing your next cosmetic products. And to make things even easier, they have an app!
If you are in a pinch and need to check the ingredients list yourself, look for plastic materials beginning with “poly-” such as polyethylene, polyacrylate, etc, and also nylon. These are common indicators of the inclusion of microplastics in these types of products. Like I said above it’s tricky to be able to spot all the names and faces of microbeads, but at least you will be able to rule out some of the most common forms.
And if you really want to be sure, you could make some of these things at home! Get crafty and try making a facial scrub out of oatmeal or a sugar scrub for your feet. There are plenty of natural exfoliants that work wonderfully and won’t kill the whole ocean in the process. Salt, finely ground nuts, and pureed fruits (strawberries!) are more things you could try, or just get creative and experiment!
Also keep in mind that if you are looking for exfoliation, this does not necessarily have to come from the cosmetics themselves. Who needs little scrubby plastics when they have a nice washcloth to exfoliate their face with? There are plenty of cloth and scrubby / loofa materials that can do the exfoliating without the need for bottled abrasion.
I hope to add some recipes soon, but until then, anyone have any that they like?