Tiny Cosmetic Microbeads are Becoming a Major Pollution Problem

Capt. Charles Moore pulls pollutants from the ocean. Photo from Algalita Marine Research and Education.

Billions of tiny plastic fragments are flowing into our oceans every year, courtesy of cosmetic products. Christie Moffat investigates the environmental impact of cosmetic microbeads and how the problem is being dealt with.

When most people think of plastic pollution in the ocean, they think of candy wrappers, drink bottles and shopping bags, bobbing on the surface in plain sight.

But there’s more to this issue than meets the naked eye particularly when the problem involves fragments barely bigger than the width of a human hair.

Microbeads are tiny particles of plastic found in a range of cosmetic and personal care products such as facial scrubs and toothpaste. These miniscule fragments flow freely into our waterways and oceans via the bathroom sink, too small to be properly caught by water treatment plants.

The main ingredient found in most cosmetic microbeads is polyethylene (PE), the most common kind of plastic. However, other chemicals include polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon.

These microbead particles are not marine degradable, meaning that they simply float in the open sea, absorbing any chemicals also present in the water.

Dr. Marcus Eriksen is the founder of the nonprofit 5 Gyres Institute, an organization dedicated to reducing plastic pollution through education and research. He says that trying to stop microbeads from reaching the ocean is a difficult task.

“They are designed to slip by our systems of recovery. They are not even captured by all sewage processing systems. Then, they resemble fish eggs, so they are like a food mimic,” he says.

“Like all plastics, they absorb toxins in the environment, like PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls], DDT [dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane], PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons], flame retardants, etcetera… the important point here is that they are hazardous waste.”

A 2012 report released by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity found that not only was ingestion of microplastics sometimes lethal, but also had the ability to interfere with digestion, migration, and survival instincts of marine wildlife.

In 2004, researchers from the University of Plymouth published a paper outlining the widespread distribution of microplastics, with a focus on the accumulation of these particles in the northeast Atlantic Ocean.

Prof. Richard Thompson, lead author of the study, has been researching the effects of plastic in the marine environment for more than 20 years.

He says that in 2004, his study was the only published paper that fully described microplastics and their distribution in the ocean. Within ten years, that number has swelled to around a hundred, indicating the growing concern among scientists about the problem.

While more and more researchers are turning their attention to microplastics, Thompson believes it is a problem that is only bound to get worse.

“It seems likely that microplastic abundance will only increase in the future if we continue with business as usual, and that’s both a consequence of direct imports of things like the microbead, as well as the fragmentation of larger items,” he says.

As larger plastic objects get swept out to sea, they are broken down over time into smaller fragments, eventually reaching a similar size as a typical microbead.

The combination of these fragments and manufactured microbeads means that microplastics, as a group, are increasing at a rapid rate in our oceans, threatening the survival of wildlife as well as potentially transferring chemicals into human food.

Cosmetic companies are well aware of the issue, following furious lobbying efforts by environmental groups. As more research has become available, some have taken it upon themselves to eliminate microbeads in their products altogether.

The first multinational cosmetic company to do this was Unilever in 2012, when it announced the phasing out of microbeads in all its products by Jan. 1, 2015.

Unilever claims that the decision to phase out microbeads was made because the company believed it could “provide consumers with products that deliver a similar exfoliating performance without the need to use plastics.”

Prior to the announcement, Unilever says various stakeholders had expressed concerns about the growing presence and potential impact of microplastics in the marine environment.

According to Unilever, the plastic scrub beads had been used as an ingredient in their exfoliating face and body washes because of their effectiveness in removing dead skin cells, and because “many consumers enjoy the clean feeling that using products with the beads provides”.

A spokesperson for Unilever says alternative exfoliating ingredients such as ground pumice, apricot kernels, walnut shells, cornmeal and silica had replaced the microbead.

“The phase out is for manufacture; we are no longer manufacturing with plastic scrub beads but some products may still be selling through on shelf,” the spokesperson says.

L’Oreal, the largest cosmetics company in the world, has also committed to phasing out microbeads from its products. In February 2014, it announced that it would eliminate all polyethylene microbeads from its scrubs by 2017.

“The phasing out of an ingredient is a complex process that follows a staggered approach (identify the impacted formula, find alternatives, evaluate the overall cost),’ Marnie Carroll, a corporate communications manager at L’Oreal says. “We are in the process of adapting our product portfolio accordingly in order to meet our 2017 commitment.”

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Photo from Algalita Marine Research and Education, courtesy Capt. Charles Moore.

Other cosmetic companies that have committed to phasing out microbeads include Revlon, Colgate-Palmolive, Proctor & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson.

With so much evidence to support the negative impact of microbeads, there has been global discussion around introducing laws to ban them from use.

However, Thompson says he favors voluntary responses from the cosmetic industry on the issue.

“I’m not a big fan of hefty legislation. I think it’s really nice when industry takes these warning signals and starts to act on them,” he says. It’s certainly action that’s needed at the product design stage to remove [microbeads], whereas with microplastics in generalnot microbeads, but other sources in particular, larger plastics, I think all of society needs to play a role.”

Another scientific figure that has doubts about the legislative process is Capt. Charles Moore, an ocean researcher and sea captain based in Long Beach, California. He is credited with the 1997 discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch after accidentally sailing into waters that were heavily polluted with visible plastic debris.

Moore is highly critical of a recent bill passed in Illinois, which bans most microbeads but still allows the sale of products containing PLA (polylactic acid).

While PLA is biodegradable and can decompose with the aid of warmth, fungi, bacteria and insects, it is not marine degradable, meaning that it cannot break down in the ocean.

“They kind of mixed up the concept of biodegradable and marine degradable two really different standards,” Moore says. “The legislative route is cumbersome and always has flaws. The best solution is to have the responsibility laid on the corporations that are making this stuff and have it conform to a moral imperative within the company’s ethos.”

Although few companies explicitly state their reasons for using synthetic ingredients, the extraction of natural ingredients to use as abrasives in cosmetic products can be costly.

But even if companies return to using natural ingredients instead of plastics, Moore says that adding land-based nutrients to the marine environment isn’t ideal.

“The idea of adding something that’s eventually going to be food to marine organisms has been a problem ever since work on the Great Barrier Reef found that algae from nutrients from runoff was destroying the reef,” he says.

“To really do it right, you want to use pumice something that’s not biodegradable. You don’t want a lot of food getting to the ocean with your abrasive.”

The general consensus between Eriksen, Moore and Thompson was that the cosmetics industry faced an important ethical question about the continued use of microbeads in their products.

“With over five trillion particles of plastic clouding our oceans and harming wildlife, why would a company want to be responsible for adding more? On ethical grounds, rather than financial ones, I want companies to do the right thing,” Eriksen says.

While it may fall to companies to remove microbeads from their products, consumers are not totally powerless. Moore says that by thinking critically and questioning the origin of products, everybody can help.

“Consumers can question their products. Question the value to not only them, but also the environment,” he says.

“We, as consumers, need to take the time to understand and make a choice based on the least harmful of the products that fulfill the needs that we have.”