My friend Alice Horton is a genius. As part of her work, she is researching microbeads and publishing fantastic papers into the pollution done by microplastics in our environment. I was really interested in this, as I've been hearing a lot about microbeads in cosmetics. I asked Alice if she would write us some information about microbeads in cosmetics, and how to avoid them. Here's her piece below:
Image from the Good Scrub Guide
With the recent news that the UK government are banning microbeads in our face scrubs and cosmetics in 2017 there are sure to be a few questions. For example, what is a microbead? Why are they a problem? And how do I know if they are in the products I use? I shall attempt to answer these questions to help you make an informed choice about the products you are using.
What is a microbead?
A microbead is a very small ball of plastic, usually less than 1mm in size. These can be added in great numbers to products such as face scrubs to give you that ‘scrubbing’ feeling. A recent study found that one wash of your face can use anywhere between 5000 to 95,000 microbeads!
Why are they a problem?
Microbeads are essentially tiny pieces of plastic. They are too small to be collected by sewage treatment works so once you flush them down your plughole, they are fast-tracked into rivers nationwide, ultimately reaching the sea. Although plastics can break into smaller and smaller pieces, they don’t ever degrade completely (this can even be the case with some ‘biodegradable’ plastics!). Studies have shown that organisms can accidentally eat these plastics, which can then cause internal damage and chemical toxicity effects due to the chemicals that are incorporated into plastics. They have also been shown to be transported up the food chain with the potential to cause harm at a variety of levels.
How can I avoid buying them?
This is tricky as the companies who use microbeads don’t always want to advertise this, especially now that people are becoming aware of them as a problem. Whereas some products will advertise that they have exfoliating or cleansing microbeads, with others you will have to comb the ingredients to determine whether they contain plastic. What you are looking for are names or abbreviations including polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), nylon, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).
For further information and a list of plastic-free products, check out the Good Scrub Guide
Another thing to be aware of is that ‘microbeads’ are not the only plastics added to beauty products. For example, take glitter. I bet you never thought about the fact that glitter is really just tiny pieces of plastic! And this is not necessarily just obvious glitter that is easy to spot, but sometimes even shimmery particles in eyeshadows and face creams. Microbeads covered by the ban have been defined very specifically as those used in exfoliators and cleansers, and things like glitter will not be covered by the ban so beware (although glitter addicts you can breathe a sigh of relief)!
What if I can’t bring myself to give up my favourite product?
It is up to everybody which products they choose to buy and how they choose to use them. My job is simply to give you the facts so you can make an educated choice! The good news is that even if your scrub does contain microbeads, companies will be legally obliged to replace these with a non-plastic substitute by next year – and many have started to do this already. In terms of glitter and cosmetic plastics, think about how you could limit the possibility of this entering the environment, for example, you could use a face wipe and put this in the bin rather than washing your makeup off.
Are there any other problems?
One of the main issues with this ban is not the ban itself – it can’t be bad to reduce plastic pollution! – but the misconception that this ban will help ‘solve the problem’ of plastics. For a start, plastic is already everywhere in the environment. Just go to your local park, or even the path outside your house, and you are sure to see plastic bottles, bags and chocolate wrappers. But look closer again and not only are there large items like these, but there are many smaller pieces of plastic that have broken down from these items and are working their way into surrounding soils and waterways. These can’t be collected as they are too small and once in the environment will stay there forever.
Thank you Alice! I feel informed now and will be checking all my bottles in the bathroom.