Plastic Confetti – but Where’s the Celebration!

You have no idea that the little exfoliating grains that give you a tingling refreshing feeling after a facial wash or a good brushing of your teeth and gums are actually bits of plastic! You are cleaning up with plastics!

Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic widely used in cosmetics and personal care products as exfoliating agents. They are a cheaper replacement to natural exfoliators and most frequently made of polyethylene but can be of other petrochemical plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene.

A single tube of face wash can contain more than 300,000 beads and approximately ¾ of an ounce is in a 7oz bottle of face cleanser is microbeads. Microbeads are smaller than micropastics, being smaller than 1mm.

Where can you find them?

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In cosmetic products like face wash and toothpaste, body scrubs, “age-defying” makeup (yes, you are filling in those wrinkles with plastic dust!), as well as lip gloss and nail polish.

Some of the major brands using microbeads in their face wash, body scrubs, and toothpastes include Proctor and Gamble, Johnson & Johnson , L'Oreal , Proactiv, Nivea and Estee Lauder.

How does this tiny plastic confetti impact us? 

Could the plastic you are washing up with, end up in your sushi?
Could brushing your teeth with plastic cause you to develop gingivitis and periodontal disease?

Microplastics may be small, but they are no party confetti. They cause big problems to our environment and health. Being so tiny, they get washed down the drain pipes by the billions every day, slip through the filtration systems of wastewater treatments and end up in our lakes, rivers and oceans.  An estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans each year and between 15 and 51 trillion tiny plastic particles are estimated to be floating in the world’s seas.

They do not biodegrade easily and pollute the oceans. But more harmful is their ability to absorb toxic chemicals like pesticides, flame retardants, motor oil and other industrial chemicals. And when marine life consumes these toxic-coated beads they pass them up the food chain to humans.

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Those bits of blue plastic stuck in your mouth absorb industrial chemicals and bacteria more readily leaving your mouth at a greater risk of infections and causing gingivitis and periodontal disease, and can even be hormone disruptors!.

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Why not a natural exfoliating substitute?    
Plastics are cheaper and easier to source than natural products. And it could be that being smoother than natural exfoliators they are less effective at exfoliating so consumers use them everyday, which means buy more of the stuff!

How much of a success has there been at putting a stop to plastic microbeads?
Starting in 2017, microbeads will be phased out of all products in the US until they are totally banned in 2019.  Other countries including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom are considering microbead ban legislation as well.

Whilst the UK government have not yet taken affirmative action on banning them, a number of UK retailers, namely Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, Marks and Spencer, Boots, L’Oreal and Johnson & Johnson, have already pledged to phase out plastic microbeads from their own-brand cosmetic and beauty products.

One issue with banning them is that it leaves the opportunity for greenwashing!  Companies are tempted to claim that their microbeads are actually "biodegradable."