Microbeads: What they are and how they’re ruining the environment

They can even end up in your food


Most of us use products containing microbeads on a daily basis but the shocking effect they have on the environment has just come into the limelight.

Now, the UK government has pledged to ban these toxic beads used in cosmetics and cleaning products by 2017 – but what exactly are these beads and how are they harming our environment?

What are they?

The small, spherical beads usually measure less than 2mm and are made out of common plastics like polyethylene and polypropylene. They have the ability to break down into minuscule “nanoplastics.”

What products are they found in?

Microbeads are found in everyday amenities including toothpaste, exfoliators and soaps. Companies pledge that the microbeads help to “cleanse” skin and really clean out your pores, which is perhaps why they have become a household beauty staple in the UK over recent years.

They can also be found in household cleaning products, as well as makeup like lip glosses and nail varnishes.

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What are they doing to the environment?

The beads are non-biodegradable, and after cleansing they travel down your sink or your shower. They’re so small that they avoid wastewater treatment, and can end up in the sea. In fact, after a single shower, 100,000 of these beads can end up in the planet’s oceans. And the effect they have on marine life is devastating.

Microbeads are indigestible, meaning that sea creatures swallowing the pieces of plastic are effectively being poisoned. They’ve been found in sea life ranging from mussels and oysters to mammals like seals and whales. One study even found that almost 40 per cent of fish in the English Channel were contaminated by microbeads.

The extent of the harm to the environment is still being researched, but some studies have shown that ingestion of the plastic can impact sea life reproduction and severely interfere with feeding activity.

The plastic particles also absorb toxins (such as pesticides and oil) and industrial chemicals – a single microbead can be more than a million times more toxic than the water around it.

Do they have an effect on humans?

Recent fears are that microbeads are making their way up the food chain and are ending up on our dinner plates. This is because the toxins absorbed by the beads transfer to fish tissue – so that sushi that you were planning to eat may contain loads of hidden chemicals. It’s a scary thought considering no major research has been carried out to show the impact of these plastics on humans. To put it this way – you wouldn’t willingly ingest your plastic water bottle, because it would obviously be very bad for you.

What’s being done?

After several nationwide campaigns, the UK government has finally set up plans to eradicate microbeads from cosmetic and cleaning products by 2017. Around 25 UK brands will become or have declared themselves microbead-free.

Unfortunately, until then beauty shoppers are urged not to buy products which contain microbeads and plastics. You can usually check the ingredients to see if they use polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate or polymethyl methacrylate.

Are there alternatives?

You can’t replace microbeads with biodegradable plastic, because for something to biodegrade it has to become really hot – washing the beads down the drain cancels this out.

Companies are not keen to replace the beads with natural substances because the plastic is easy to source and very cheap. More importantly, the microbeads are smoother than natural alternatives like sea salt, ground coffee beans and pumice stones. However, these are definitely still effective and should be considered as suitable alternatives for the time being. The natural substances will probably also benefit your skin more.