Microbeads in Cosmetics – The Facts & What You Can Do

I have to be honest, until recently I didn’t know too much about microbeads in cosmetics – it just had not crossed my mind to think about it, even though I am very interested in and picky about the ingredients in my cosmetics generally. Luckily campaigns like Beat the Microbead and Plastic Free Seas have brought the issue into wider knowledge – mine also. This article is what I learned while intensively researching the issue of microbeads in cosmetics, and good information on what we can all do to get rid of microbeads as soon as possible!

What Are Microbeads?

First of all I want to set straight that this article is about microbeads in cosmetic products. Microbeads are used for other purposes too, such as science, but in this article I will be talking about the microbeads that can be found in personal care.

Having said that, microbeads are tiny plastic particles less than 1mm in size, that can be spherical or irregular in shape and produced in a multitude of colors. Microbeads are widely used in cosmetics, beauty and personal care products, like facial scrubs and exfoliators, soaps, bath gels and even toothpaste.  Microbeads are often used as a gentle exfoliating agent in skin and tooth care, especially because microbeads are a cheaper alternative to natural abrasives such as apricot seeds, coconut flakes or salt. Generally we can say that most microbeads are used in skin exfoliators and scrubs.

The types of plastic most commonly used as microbeads are polyethylene (PE), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), nylon polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene (PP) and nylon.

Microbeads were patented in the 1970’s, but have only been used in this scale in consumer products in the last years.  Currently there are hundreds of brand lines worldwide that use plastic for personal care, and globally, the number of products using microbeads is still rising.

Microbeads, being so small and porous, will absorb chemicals, pesticides and other toxins. As they are plastic, they are not biodegradable and once they enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove. This is where we come to the problems of microbeads in cosmetics.

Why Are Microbeads a Problem?

Microbeads, hardly visible to the naked eye, are small enough to easily be washed down drains, but as it turns out they are also tiny enough to slip through filters in water treatment plants and sewage systems and enter lakes, rivers and ultimately, straight into the seas and oceans, where they contribute to the plastic soup.

Once they are in the sea or lake, they can also enter the food chain. Sea creatures have been found out to absorb or eat microbeads. These microbeads are passed along the marine food chain. Since humans are ultimately at the top of this food chain, it is likely that we are also absorbing microbeads from the food we eat.

As you can see, although the full extent and consequences of this issue are not completely clear, the accumulation of plastic, including microplastics such as microbeads (but also other plastic trash which has been ground into tiny particles by the movement of the sea), in our seas and lakes is today recognized as a serious, global issue for the environment, the animals as well as us humans. 

Marine Species Mistake Microbeads for Food

Some marine species are unable to distinguish between food and microbeads and therefore feed on these microplastics. In a study published for the Convention on Biological Diversity, it was shown that over 663 different species were negatively impacted by trash in the seas with approximately 11% of reported cases specifically related to the eating or absorbing of microplastics. Also a large number of fish had microplastics in their stomachs.

Toxins In Microplastics

The surface of microplastics has been proven to attract and absorb dangerous pollutants such as PCBs and DDT from the marine environment.  In theory, these absorbed-into-plastic toxins could remain on the surface of the ingested microplastics and could be eaten by fish, mammals and humans. Scientists think that over time, these toxins will start accumulating in the food chain, transferring from species to species, with consequences ultimately for humans, too. The same goes for toxic chemicals added to plastic (such as plasticisers ) during the manufacturing process.

Once microbeads reach the marine environment, it is impossible to pinpoint the source of origin, but some studies suggest the biggest culprits are brand-name facial scrubs which sell millions of tubes per year, each tube containing hundreds of thousands of microbeads each. In light of growing evidence confirming the seriousness of this issue, there is a pressing need to address direct sources of microplastic pollution – something that is both avoidable and highly unnecessary.

What Are Companies & Politics Doing?

Following the pressure by NGOs a lot of action has been taken on behalf of manufacturers. Many brand name companies are phasing out microbeads in their products, which means that more and more of microbeads are being removed from personal care products and replaced by naturally biodegradable alternatives in the coming years. Also some US states have banned microbeads, but the effective date of all these laws is in 2018. The Netherlands wants to be microbead-free by the end of 2016. But as you can see, on a political and business level it will take a lot of time to get these changes made. It’s best to take action yourself and go microbead-free.  

What Can You Do?

It’s very simple: stop using products with microbeads in them! Check all your personal care products especially face scrubs and whitening toothpaste, but don’t blindly trust your laundry detergent and nail polish to be clean either! That plastic is literally hiding in all kinds of personal care products!

Having said that, some products actually list microbeads as an ingredient in their product descriptions.  If you see polyethylene or polypropylene listed on the labels, the products contain plastic. If you have any products with microbeads in them, you can decide to get rid of them overnight, or decide to use them up but take the pledge not to buy any more of these products until they go microplastic free.

There are a number of companies and products that don’t contain microbeads today.  You might want to check out the Beat The Microbead app that lets consumers know which products on the market contain microbeads. If your favorite is on the list, maybe it’s time to shop around for a more environmentally-friendly brand and try a natural face scrub or shower gel.

My Favorite Microplastic Free Skin Care Brand

Blissoma is a natural skin care and cosmetics company that uses no microbeads in their products.

Of course also their exfoliating products such as their Mild Rice Facial Cleanser are microbead free. This cruelty-free facial cleanser's unique construction makes it a good choice for dry skin types, normal skin, and oily, acneic and problem skin. The organic whole brown rice flour gently sweeps over the skin using natural grain fiber to effectively remove dirt and provide energizing B Vitamins while willowbark extract provides a rich source of natural salicins that exfoliate the skin gently.

This product is a huge customer favorite at Blissoma for its clean citrus scent and amazingly balancing results. Give it a try!