A closer look at microbeads

Plastic microbeads in cosmetics are getting into oceans and waterways. They soak up poison and get into the food chain. Many organisations are pushing for awareness and banning the microbead (there are links at the end of this post). This is a serious enough problem that governments are starting to ban them.

I took a closer look at some facial scrubs for myself. I have a fairly basic USB microscope so I examined three products with microbeads in them. Last time I looked at a “natural” product:

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This one with the natural goodness of kiwifruit and aloe vera

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and microbeads.

 

 

This one lets you know it contains “powerful microbeads”:

It's got some jagged blue bits (plastic again I'm guessing) and some clear round beads.

It’s got some jagged blue bits of plastic and some clear round beads.

Here’s one of those beautifully round beads next to a 2 millimeter grid (each square is about 1/12 inch wide). The bead is less than a millimeter wide.

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In the third product, “tiny spherical beads gently buff, refine and smooth”.

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These bits of plastic aren’t so spherical.

This product felt very gritty. I diluted it with water to get a clearer look at the beads, then let the bits of plastic settle. Then I put the settled sediment on a glass microscope slide.

Besides the bigger bits, at 20x you could just make out some very small dots – here they are with the 2 mm grid:

At 20 times magnification next to a 2 millimeter (about 1/12 inch) grid.

At 20 times magnification next to a 2 millimeter (about 1/12 inch) grid.

All the images above are at 20 times magnification. Lets take a closer look at these tiny dots.

Here they are at 200 times magnification. The largest ones are about 1/10 of a millimeter wide and the smallest (arrowed) less than 1/100 of a millimeter, or ten micrometers.

Here they are at 200 times magnification. The largest ones are about 1/10 of a millimeter wide and the smallest (arrowed) less than 1/100 of a millimeter, or ten micrometers.

So these must be the “tiny spherical beads”. According the the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) microbeads can be as small as one micrometer.

Links

Microbeads and microplastics in cosmetic and personal care products. Oliver Bennett. House of Commons Briefing Paper May 2016. http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:LjCahOMK214J:researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-7510/CBP-7510.pdf+&cd=12&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=au

Plastic in Cosmetics. UNEP Fact Sheet. Are we polluting the environment through our personal care? http://unep.org/gpa/documents/publications/PlasticinCosmetics2015Factsheet.pdf

Microbeads – A Science Summary. July 2015. Where the Canadian Government recommends listing microbeads as a toxic product. http://www.ec.gc.ca/ese-ees/ADDA4C5F-F397-48D5-AD17-63F989EBD0E5/Microbeads_Science%20Summary_EN.pdf

For more links see Putting Poison in the Pantry (Fireside Science).

Can you tell if that product contains microbeads?

Maybe cosmetics with microbeads are easy to spot because it’s proudly written on the label. Like this one:

g--r_blurb

Why would you want to know? Microbeads are tiny plastics that are polluting the oceans and waterways. Once they’re in the ocean they don’t go away. Poisons stick to them, and these poisons get into the wildlife that eats them. There’s more detail in a previous post.

But they’re not always the company’s selling point.  On the face of it this one is all natural and wholesome.

Hmmm - its green and you can see little black bits of exfoliating kiwi fruit seed, right? Wrong.

back-kiwi-2

Hmmm – it’s green and you can see little black bits of exfoliating kiwi fruit seed, right? Wrong!

Check the ingredients list.

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Polyethylene is plastic (i.e. microbeads) and it’s there, near the top of the ingredients list, and kiwifruit extract is much further down, a few before the chromium oxide greens. And where’s the aloe? (Ingredients are listed in order, from what it contains the largest amount of, to what is present in the smallest amount.)

What about those seedy bits?  I took a closer look with a simple low-powered microscope.

kiwi-black-microbeads-png

These were big dark microbeads and there lots more smaller clear ones.

Look out for polyethylene in your cosmetics. You can find out about other plastics that are used for microbeads in my last post or The Story of Stuff.

Putting poison in the pantry