Personal care products like facial and body scrubs and polishing toothpastes can be found in most modern bathrooms, yet few of us realise how many of our favourite products contain tiny pieces of plastic.
Cheap plastic microbeads, some as small as ½ mm, in diameter, have been commonly used in cosmetics for nearly a decade, and are currently most often replace natural exfoliants, like pumice, jojoba beads, ground apricot kernel or nut shells, in ‘scrubs’. Some scrubs are up to 5% microplastic, which can amount to more than 300,000 beads in one tube.
The ‘polishers’ in many toothpastes are also microbeads. Phoenix dental hygienist Trish Walvaren sparked a campaign by US dentists when she blogged about finding bright blue flecks trapped between many Crest users’ teeth and gums.
The other common cosmetic use is as body glitter, and even ethical pioneers Lush have owned up to this one. They also turn up in some household cleansers.
Designed to be washed away after one use, non-biodegradeable and too tiny to be filtered out during sewage treatment, microplastics end up in waterways, and eventually the sea. Impossible to clean up, they can now be found in all the world’s oceans, at 450,000 per square kilometer in some places, and can absorb concentrations of persistent organic pollutants. Small marine organisms like plankton and filter-feeding molluscs, unable to distinguish them from food, eat them, and are in turn eaten by fish, contaminating the diets of seabirds and humans.
If you want to immediately stop being part of this problem, start by checking labels before you buy. Any microplastics should be listed among the ingredients. Polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene are the most common, but microbeads can be made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene or nylon.
After Dutch NGO Plastic Soup Foundation raised the alarm, more than 60 NGOs across more than 30 countries joined forces as the Beat The Microbread Coalition, and around 2012-3 many multinational corporations and high-street retailers promised to phase out microplastics by this year. Unilever, (which owns Dove) and Colgate-Palmolive both claim to have now phased them out, although Colgate toothpastes, Dove scrubs and even some deodorants containing PE were found in recent shelf checks.
Beiersdorf (Nivea) have yet to replace them as promised, and Johnson & Johnson (Neutrogena), and L’Oréal (which also owns Body Shop) have said they can’t eliminate them before 2017. While L’Oreal has reformulated most Body Shop products, Garnier and Neutrogena lines still appear to contain PE. While maintaining microplastics are “completely safe”, Procter & Gamble, owner of Crest and Oral B, did promise to eliminate them from toothpastes by March 2016, and from other products by 2017.
Lush, by contrast, withdrew all offending products immediately and have since developed an alternative body glitter. Both Lush and Rituals had stopped selling microbeads by 2014. Bulldog and Green People are among the few cosmetic companies never to use them.
FFI, the UK’s Marine Conservation Society and Australia’s Surfrider Foundation produce a helpful, regularly updated lists of plastic-free facial exfoliators. The UK’s March 2015 edition approves facial scrubs from popular brands including some own-brands, and whole ranges by Sk:n, Witch, Burt’s Bees, Dead Sea Spa Magik, Dr Organic, Neal’s Yard, Green People, Bulldog and Lush.
Get the UK or Australian leaflet here: http://www.fauna-flora.org/initiatives/the-good-scrub-guide/, or for other markets and more types of product, see http://www.beatthemicrobead.org/en/product-lists for 20 regularly updated local lists based on shelf tests. This information is also available via a smartphone app which can check a product by scanning the barcode, returning a simple traffic-light code – Red: Contains microbeads; Orange: Contains microbeads, but manufacturer has committed to replacing or removing them; Green: No microbeads.
If conscious consumers refuse to buy these gratuitously polluting luxury products, it does put significant pressure on all manufacturers, so look out for companies avoiding them, or at least read the label next time you’re buying a scrub, whitening toothpaste or anything glittery. If you find microbeads already in your bathroom, Beatthemicrobead.org suggests returning the product to the manufacturer.
To completely stamp them out we need to make sure absolutely no-one has the option to purchase them at all. Australian, Canadian and EU policymakers are already considering legal bans, while America is undergoing a process of banning them state by state. There are several national and international petitions online and you can pledge to boycott offending products through the Marine Conservation Society at www.mcsuk.org.