Putting poison in the pantry: Plastic microbeads

Plastic microbeads are found in many cosmetics, and they get into oceans and waterways. Environmentalists are alarmed at how they’re accumulating and the damage they’re causing. These plastics don’t break down, and they’re eaten by fish and other aquatic animals. What’s more, these pieces of plastic are like magnets to many chemical poisons. These poisons can end up in animals at the top of the food chain. Like us.

Politicians and policy-makers have even been convinced to take action. In the USA microbeads will be banned in cosmetics from 2017. Other countries are thinking about a ban. In Canada microbeads are now officially toxic (i.e. poisonous). Some cosmetics companies and supermarkets are phasing out microbeads in their products.

But you can do your bit NOW – you can make sure you don’t use products with microbeads. Plastic microbeads are found in cosmetics such as toothpaste, and exfoliants like facial scrubs. Don’t assume it’s safe if “microbeads” isn’t proudly announced on the label. Look for scientific code for plastic, for example polyethylene (PE), HDPE, polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), nylon etc, polyamide, polyesters, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride, which might be written in teeny tiny print in the  ingredients list, if an ingredients list is required in your country. Flora and Fauna International and the Plastic Soup Foundation have produced apps and websites that can tell you if a product is free from plastic.

There are safe alternatives. Facial scrubs that use natural exfoliants like apricot kernels have been around for far longer than those using plastic. Plant products are biodegradable – they can be destroyed by natural processes, whereas plastics like PE don’t disappear.


By University of Exeter from United Kingdom (Andrew Watts Face to Face with Plastic) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By University of Exeter from United Kingdom (Andrew Watts Face to Face with Plastic) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Andrew Watts (University of Exeter, UK): “This is an image of a plastic microbead from a facewash, taken via scanning electron microscopy; it is about 0.5mm wide. Microbeads are used for their exfoliating properties; many people don’t even know they are there. The major problem is they wash down the drain, pass through sewage works and into the sea and are ingested by marine animals. My work here in Exeter is to assess the effect this is having. Plastic microbeads are used as they are cheaper than more natural alternatives. They have been recently banned in many states of America and there are calls for the UK to follow suit. To see if your facewash contains plastic microbeads, check the ingredients list for Polyethylene or Polypropylene. Alternatively download the ‘beat the microbead’ app.”  




Kosuke Tanaka and Hideshige Takade. 2016. Microplastic fragments and microbeads in digestive tracts of planktivorous fish from urban coastal waters. Nature Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 34351 http://www.nature.com/articles/srep34351

Oyster reproduction is affected by exposure to polystyrene microplastics. Sussarellou R et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 2016.  http://www.pnas.org/content/113/9/2430.abstract

Microplastic articles threaten fish larvae. Koffmar 2016 (Uppsala University) http://www.uu.se/en/media/news/article/?id=6752&area=2,5,10,15,16,19,34&typ=artikel&lang=en

Environmentally relevant concentrations of microplastic particles influence larval fish ecology. Lonnstedt et al. Science 2016. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/352/6290/1213.long

Note re this article: Claim and counter-claim – This microplastic study reported in Science was recently the subject of a scientific misconduct investigation at the authors’ university (http://retractionwatch.com/2016/08/02/high-profile-science-paper-on-fish-and-plastics-may-earn-notice-of-concern/ AND http://retractionwatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Uppsala-letter2.pdf) and therefore also an Expression of Concern by the publishing journal, Science. The authors have been cleared: http://retractionwatch.com/2016/09/20/inquiry-finds-no-evidence-of-misconduct-in-high-profile-science-paper-flagged-by-allegations/

Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes. Eriksen M et al. Marine Pollution Bulletin 2013. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X13006097

Microplastic beads: how your exfoliating scrub might be harming the ocean. http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2014/09/10/4084109.htm

Plastic microbeads in products and the environment. New South Wales Environment Protection Authority 2016. http://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/resources/waste/plastic-microbeads-160306.pdf

The Good Scrub Guide. Tanya Cox – Flora and Fauna International. http://www.fauna-flora.org/initiatives/the-good-scrub-guide/


Plastic microbeads: Ban the Bead! The Story of Stuff 2016. http://storyofstuff.org/plastic-microbeads-ban-the-bead/

Beat the Microbead has a few links and summaries: https://www.beatthemicrobead.org/en/science

IMAGE AND CAPTION By University of Exeter from United Kingdom (Andrew Watts Face to Face with Plastic) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APlastic_microbead_Andrew_Watts_research.jpg