Encouraged by advertisements promising clear pores and "no more blackheads," many of us have stocked up on beauty products that will, we hope, help us scrub our way to perfect skin. From our T-zones to our toes, we look to cleansers and scrubs to slough off a long day and leave us glowing. But many of these popular products contain microbeads, aka teeny-tiny balls of plastic. In fact, as of 2009, the average consumer is likely to be a daily user of microbead-containing products Contributing to marine pollution by washing your face: microplastics in facial cleansers. Fendall, L.S., Sewell, M.A. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2009; 58(8): 1225-1228..
Why should anyone care? Turns out, these tiny scrubbers might make us feel fresh and clean, but they’re doing serious damage to the environment and could potentially hurt our health. Read on for the dirty truth.
Microbeads and the Environment
Quite simply, microbeads are microplastics, or very small balls of plastic. Over the past 10 years they’ve become increasingly popular among producers of personal care products as a gentler alternative to natural exfoliants such as walnut shells. As of March 2014, there were more than 100 products containing microbeads on U.S. store shelves.
But microbeads do more than slough off dead skin. Microbeads in face washes and similar products are almost always smaller than one millimeter, and they tend not to be filtered out in sewage treatment—meaning they’re directly released into waterways. If that doesn’t sound good, you’re right.
Plastic pollution is a major problem worldwide. Global production of plastic resins (a term that includes different types of plastic) rose 25-fold between 1960 and 2000. In that same time period, the amount of plastic that gets recycled stayed below five percent. Unfortunately a lot (and we mean a lot) of this unrecycled plastic ends up in our waterways: Litter in bodies of water is 60 to 95 percent plastic Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: a rapidly increasing, long-term threat. Moore, C.J. Environmental Research, 2008; 108(2): 131-139.!
All this plastic junk in the ocean is damaging to marine ecosystems, and microplastics pose a particular problem. Released into bodies of water, microbeads absorb contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which have been linked to cancer and other negative impacts on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system in animals Contributing to marine pollution by washing your face: microplastics in facial cleansers. Fendall, L.S., Sewell, M.A. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2009; 58(8): 1225-1228.. These tiny microbeads can be eaten by marine organisms such as plankton, fish, seabirds, and larger organisms like the northern right whale, an endangered animal that could eat the plastic along with its food Ingested microscopic plastic translocates to the circulatory system of the mussel, Mytilus edulis (L). Browne, M.A., Dissanayake, A., Galloway, T.S., et al. Environmental Science & Technology, 2008; 42(13): 5026-5031. Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: a review. Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Halsband C., et al. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2011; 62(12): 2588-2597. Is marine debris ingestion still a problem for the coastal marine biota of southern Brazil? Tourinho, P.S., Ivar do Sul, J.A., Fillmann, G. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2010; 60(3): 396-401.. Because microbeads absorb PCBs, that means that marine creatures are getting a dose of toxic chemicals along with their plastic appetizers.
Once microbeads are ingested by marine organisms, substances added to plastics during the production phase to enhance durability or provide heat resistance (termed plasticizers) can leach from the plastic into the organism that consumed it. These additives, which include bisphenol A (BPA), tend to build up in the organisms—and that means they expose not just the creature who ate the plastics to these toxins, but also any creature or person who eats that creature. In short, microbeads in our waterways pose a threat to the entire food web, or all the food chains in an ecosystem Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: a review. Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Halsband C., et al. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2011; 62(12): 2588-2597. Trophic level transfer of microplastic: Mytilus edulis (L.) to Carcinus maenas (L.). Ferrell, P., Nelson, K. Environmental Pollution, 2013; 177: 1-3.. That means big implications for human health and food safety.
Microbeads and Human Health
The presence of microbeads in marine organisms could impact food safety, particularly for people who eat seafood Plastics in the marine environment: the dark side of a modern gift. Hammer, J., Kraak, M.H., Parsons, J.R. Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 2012; 220: 1-44.. BPA and other leached components used in plastics are thought to be endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCS) that have been connected to problems including heart disease, brain deterioration, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and obesity Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: a review. Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Halsband C., et al. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2011; 62(12): 2588-2597. Components of plastic: experimental studies in animals and relevance for human health. Talsness, C.E., Andrade, A.J., Kuriyama, S.N., et al. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2009; 364(1526): 2079-2096.. Chronic exposure to BPA specifically has been linked to issues such as heart disease and diabetes Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: a review. Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Halsband C., et al. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2011; 62(12): 2588-2597. Association of urinary bisphenol A concentration with medical disorders and laboratory abnormalities in adults. Lang, I.A., Galloway, T.S., Scarlett, A., et al. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2008; 300(11): 1303-1310..
Adding insult to injury, once microbeads are released into waterways, there are no known methods to effectively remove them. Like other plastics, microbeads last a long time—maybe even hundreds or thousands of years— and likely live even longer in deep sea and polar areas Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments. Barnes, D.K., Galgani, F., Thompson, R.C., et al. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2009; 364(1526): 1985-1998..
The good news (yes, there is some good news) is that we probably don’t need to be concerned about microbead particles in our drinking water, says State University of New York at Fredonia chemistry professor Sherri Mason, who has conducted extensive research on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes High-levels of microplastic pollution in a large, remote, mountain lake. Free, C.M., Jensen O.P., Mason, S.A., et al. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2014 epub. Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes. Eriksen, M., Mason, S., Wilson, S., et al. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2013; 77(1-2): 177-182.. Mason believes that the treatment process for drinking water is strict enough that people do not need to be concerned about microbeads infiltrating their water supply at this time.
So if microbeads aren’t in our drinking water, and we stop eating fish, then we’re safe, right? Not so fast, Mason says.
“Even if you don’t eat fish, lots of people do. We’re all connected to each other. Water connects us all to each other,” Mason says. “What we do [in the U.S.]… is affecting people [as far away as] New Delhi. We should still be concerned, even if we don’t eat the fish.”
What's Being Done to Help?
The second piece of good news is that people are starting to pay attention to the risks inherent to microbead use.
In 2012 the Plastic Soup Foundation linked up with the North Sea Foundation to launch their Beat the Microbead campaign, which asks consumers to boycott microbead-containing products, presses retailers not to sell such products, and requests that governments ban the use of microbeads in personal care goods ASAP. The campaign also released a smartphone app that lets consumers scan products on store shelves to see whether they contain microbeads.
Since the campaign’s launch, several big players in the consumer products industry have signed on. In 2012 Unilever said it would stop using plastics in all of its products by 2015, and Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Colgate-Palmolive, and L'Oreal have also made pledges to phase out the use of microbeads in their products.
Efforts have also been made to legislate the use of microbeads. In June 2014, Illinois became the first state to ban the sale and manufacture of personal care products that contain microbeads. The Illinois law prohibits the manufacture of personal care products containing microbeads by the close of 2017, and bans the sale of such products by the end of 2018. Other states, including New York, California, and Ohio, have proposed their own bans on microbeads. There is also a federal bill to ban microbeads nationwide—the “Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2014” was assigned to a congressional committee earlier this summer, where the bill will be considered before potentially moving to the House or Senate
What Can You Do?
Want to join the campaign to keep microbeads out of our waterways? The best thing you can do is avoid purchasing or using products that contain microplastics. Start by checking out these lists of country-specific products that do and do not contain microbeads.
It’s really that simple! With a little research, we can all avoid microbeads, promote safe food, and prevent pollution of the environments on which we rely—all while maintaining our healthy, glowing skin.