By Cori Nicole Wamsley Image courtesy of bossfight.co
If you look at the skin care products in your shower, chances are, your face wash or body scrub contains little plastic spheres known as microbeads. We use them to exfoliate our skin, and though these tiny beads may feel great and help give our skin that wanted glow, they can end up in our waterways because they are too small to be caught in the wastewater treatment plants. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that a typical container of exfoliating shower gel could contain enough plastic microbeads to equal the amount of plastic used to make the container itself. That’s a lot of plastic to wash down the drain!
These beads are usually made of polyethylene and polypropylene and lead to a rising issue with microplastic marine debris. They join with the plastics from bottles and other containers that find their way into the environment and break down. According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association article, “Plastics never really go away when they’re in rivers, oceans, or lakes. Instead, they can last decades, fragmenting over and over again into small pieces.” And we don’t know just how much microplastic is floating around in the environment.
So why is this a problem?
Birds, fish, and other marine life can mistake the tiny plastic beads and bits of broken plastic for food. That in itself can be dangerous, but consider the effect that the chemicals in the plastics can have on wildlife once ingested. Scientists haven’t had enough time to study the effects or whether the chemicals can transfer to humans who eat these animals.
An article on Forbes.com also noted that “dentists have expressed concern that microbeads that are intentionally added to toothpaste are getting stuck in patients’ gums, trapping harmful bacteria. Scientists in China found microbeads . . . in table salt.” Clearly these beads are everywhere they shouldn’t be!
Already, we have started taking action to reduce the amount of microplastics in the environment. Illinois banned the production, manufacture, and sale of scrubs and other such products that contain these plastic beads in 2014. California, Minnesota, New York, and Ohio are also considering bans. Thankfully, some major manufacturers of personal care products—Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and L’Oreal—recognized the problem and have pledged to find alternatives for the plastic microbeads in their products.
At the end of 2015, President Obama signed a bill known as the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which outlaws the sale and distribution of rinse-off cosmetics (like facial scrubs) containing microbeads. By mid-2017, microbeads are no longer allowed to be used in these products. However, because companies that use microbeads in “detergents, sandblasting materials, and cosmetics that can be left on the skin” are not mentioned in the legislation, they can actually continue using microbeads.
An article by the Huffington Post points out this loophole, saying that it’s easier for products monitored by the Food and Drug Administration to be made to adhere to the legislation. Essentially, because there isn’t an agency checking on the ingredients of all the other manufactured products, “[i]dentifying all those firms proved impossible.” Even checking patent applications doesn’t provide a clear list because some of the companies manufacturing the materials don’t hold the patent or are only selling directly to certain businesses.
As the problem continues to compound, other nations are looking to develop bans of their own. Together, we can conquer this problem, but we need to do it quickly. Watch for any petitions here that you can sign to support across-the-board bans and avoid products that contain microbeads.
To replace your favorite face and body scrub, check out these recipes for DIY sugar scrubs: