Small but Terrible: Microbeads

Whether we like it or not, we are now living in a world where beauty becomes even more skin deep. But often times, our never-ending search for beauty comes with severe environmental consequences. In George Sand’s words, “vanity is the quicksand of reason.” While billboards that endlessly feature models that embody perfection provoke consumers to buy a range of products, most people are left unaware on the negative impacts these products pose to the environment.

Okay, so why are we talking about vanity here? Aside from the plastic bottles and toothpaste tubes we throw out after every use, there is something that deserves all the attention from environmental groups—microbeads.

What are Microbeads? 

Microbeads, also known as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), nylon and polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), are 1-milimeter plastic materials used in products for personal care. You know those tiny beads in facial scrubs, nail polish and toothpastes? Yes, those are microbeads, and they are now used by manufacturers to persuade consumers to buy their products. Unfortunately, this strategy works for so many people because they aren’t really aware of the environmental impacts.

What are Microbeads for? 

Other than posing threats to the environment, we cannot really say that microbeads play any role in making your skin more radiant or your teeth whiter and stronger. Originally used to replace seeds, sand and walnut kernels, these microbeads are said to turn back the hands of time by its anti-aging properties. Plus, they are also incorporated in the manufacture of exfoliating products. So with these microbeads as the ‘magic ingredient’ in your facial scrub, you are surely going to look your best in no time. Or are you?

Come to think of it, microbeads are just colorful plastic materials used to make products look like a fountain of youth in a bottle. Basically, when you use these products, the ‘power ingredient’ manufacturers have been bragging about are just plain plastic filling into those fine lines. Simply put, when you use any personal care product with the ‘power of microbeads’, you are cleaning up with plastic, along with contributing to environmental wastes.

Microbeads: Small but Terrible

So microbeads are plastic components? So what? They’re just less than 1 millimeter anyway! Small they may be, but microbeads can really cause severe environmental impacts. Whenever you use microbeads, the tiny components go straight down your drain until it reaches wastewater facilities. And while you might think they can be filtered by these facilities, the truth is, they can’t. Since they are tiny enough to pass through systems, they are able to reach lakes, oceans and rivers. Just imagine how many people use products with microbeads on a daily basis and you would be able to project how microbeads are piling up on different bodies of water.

Based on a study conducted by 5gyres, a non-profit organization that seeks to raise awareness on the negative impacts microbeads incessantly bring about, the pieces of plastic that are found in the ocean alone reach up to 5.25 trillion. Surprisingly, 92% of these components are microplastics. This means that these spherical plastic components are really causing environmental havoc without our knowledge.

But aside from this, there are so many reasons why microbeads are really small but terrible in all unforgiving ways. It doesn’t only affect the ocean, but it affects me… it affects you… it affects everyone around us. If you still don’t think ditching the microbeads is worth it, let’s just take a look at some facts that make it lethal:

Microbeads are a Toxic Sponge

Microbeads and other plastics rest at the sea floor, acting as a sponge for toxic components like PVCs and DDTs. As they absorb more toxic chemicals, they become even more dangerous. The problem is, since microbeads are small and spherical in nature, most marine species mistake them for eggs, making them an easy target for dinner. As we all know, plastics don’t really decompose easily, so when a marine organism consumes microbeads, they actually stay there and poison these creatures from the inside. Plus, not only are marine organisms at stake, but other animals that live close to the shore as well. Indeed, microbeads and other plastic compounds are fatal to different organisms in our ecosystem.

Microbeads Enter the Food Chain

Just like what they always say, what you throw to the sea will eventually come back to you. Other than posing harm to marine life, the microbeads also get into our food chain as we catch and consume fish that have ingested those not-so-friendly microplastics. And yes, you can guess what happens next.

Not really a fan of eating seafood? How about the different animals you eat that have ingested marine organisms that have mistakenly eaten microbeads? Indeed, there is no stopping this cycle. Even if we become cautious in picking the freshest meats and seafood, there is no way we can tell if the food we eat won’t pose health risks in the future. With a leak in our food chain, we shouldn’t wonder why so many life-threatening diseases plague our lands.

Microbeads Cause Dental Concerns

If you have always been fond of using toothbrush with microbeads, you may want to have a change of heart. According to a report from The Washington Post, these products are causing dental problems especially when used with a sonic toothbrush. In the like manner, there were cases when patients complained about tiny microbeads getting lodged into their gums, which consequently led to irritation or bone loss when not treated immediately.

Microbeads are Inefficient

Based on studies, microbeads don’t really act as efficient abrasives, so if you need a hand in bidding goodbye to dead skin cells, looking for products with microbeads is absolutely not the best option for you. While it may not damage your skin, it won’t help you achieve that natural, youthful glow you’ve been aspiring for. Ineffective, expensive and harmful to the environment, these personal care products are nothing but a pure hoax.

The Fight against Microbeads

Do you know that a single tube of your facial cleanser contains about 300,000 microbeads? Shocking, right? And it is definitely working its way towards polluting our waterways. Now, from a consumer’s perspective, you might think that companies were alarmed that their products are actually destroying the environment one toothpaste tube at a time, but unfortunately, it wasn’t after so many movements before some well-known brands decided to phase out their products containing microbeads.

Despite the fact that approximately 8 billion microbeads pollute the US waterways on a daily basis, many big names in the personal care industry first resisted the trend towards phasing out the use of these pollutants. It wasn’t until companies started to try to look for ways to stop the banning of microbeads by promising alternatives on their products that environmental groups and organizations like 5Gyres started to ask for legislative support.

So why ask for legislative support when in fact, the companies are trying to make amendments? For one, there is no assurance that the ‘alternatives’ they would offer would actually act towards the betterment of the environment, most specifically the marine life.

While we may not know the real reason why these companies have greatly opposed the banning of microplastics in their products, we can only see one motive—cost. Because microbeads are cheaper than other natural alternatives such as seaweed, pumice and apricot shells, it can be difficult for companies to reformulate using these resources. Not to mention, the cost of reformulation alone can already burn a hole in their pockets. So yes, we are scrubbing plastic on our face just so companies can maximize their profits. Life is so fair, right?

But thanks to the continuous movements from organizations and groups that aimed to stop the use of microbeads, a bill has been passed, antagonizing the use of microbeads. As a response, several companies have pledged to phase out microbeads in their production over time, and some of them are as follows:

  • Lush
  • Unilever
  • Adidas
  • Albert Heijn
  • All Natural Soap Co.
  • Ali Mac Skincare Ltd.
  • Avon
  • Ark Skincare
  • ASDA
  • B-Line
  • Beiersdorf
  • Boots
  • The Body Shop
  • Clarins
  • Colgate-Palmolive
  • Crest
  • Dermalogica
  • Ecco Bella
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • L’Oréal
  • M&S
  • Oral-B
  • Proctor and Gamble

The Battle Isn’t Over

While passing a bill is a big step towards phasing out these tiny environmental disasters, there is still so much we need to do to make sure we lessen marine pollution. Since most companies will only completely eliminate the use of microbeads by the year 2017, we still got a year to raise awareness and to make consumers understand the impacts of the daily choices they make. By being a responsible consumer and educating family and friends, we can all take bigger steps towards changing our ecosystem’s fate.

Last but not the least, let’s keep on reminding ourselves the importance of taking care of our environment. Not because the manufacture of microbeads would be over, it already means we have to be complacent. The fight isn’t over. There are still so many things we can do for our environment, and all we need to do is be pro-active and act towards the betterment not only of the marine ecosystem, but the world in general.