At their peak in 2015, as many as eight trillion microbeads per day were being sent into aquatic habitats in the U.S. alone because they were too small to be caught in wastewater treatment plants. These particles did not dissolve or degrade over time. They were left simply floating there, collecting toxins and waiting for fish to mistake them for food. Once ingested, many of these toxins biomagnify up the marine food chain until they reach humans, like polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which have been linked to neurological, immune and fertility problems. “We know generally that if someone eats a fish, they risk eating any pollution that may be in the fish,” said Bradley Clarke, lead investigator of an RMIT University study that showed that fish can absorb up to 12.5% of pollution from microbeads.
Thankfully, the world smartened up over the following two decades, eventually resulting in bans on microbead usage in cosmetic products in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. in 2018. Many other countries like Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, China, India, Indonesia, Sweden, Taiwan and more are now in the process of doing the same, and the United Nations has even recommended a worldwide ban. This is great news because once microbeads are finally banned everywhere, the problem of plastic in our oceans will be solved … right?
Sadly, things are never that easy. Microbeads are actually part of a larger genre of plastic pollution called microplastics, which refer to any tiny particles of plastic less than five millimetres in size. As with microbeads, microplastics are ubiquitously found in personal care products and are often so small that they are barely visible to the naked eye. This has allowed even well-meaning consumers who are against microbeads to continue purchasing and using microplastic-containing products without even knowing. And of course, just because you cannot see microplastics, definitely does not mean that they are any less harmful to the environment.
As of 2020, scientists believe there is as much as 12–21 million tonnes of microplastic fragments floating in the Atlantic Ocean, which is up to 7,000 particles per cubic metre of water. Underneath all of that, there is another estimated 8–14 million tonnes of microplastics resting on the seafloor. As previously mentioned, these ocean-based fragments are ingested by marine life and then travel up the food chain. Birds feeding on river insects have actually been found to be eating 200 pieces of plastic per day, plus feeding thousands of plastic fibres to their chicks during development. And oceans are not the only affected areas—these bits of plastic have invaded nearly every crevice of the world now, from Canadian Arctic ice to Swiss mountain soil.
To help spread the word, Beat the Microbead, an organisation founded in 2012 to bring awareness to pollution caused by microbeads, has broadened their approach to advocate for the banning of all microplastics in personal care products. The group has now also certified over 80 cosmetic brands as microplastic-free with their Look for the Zero logo, and they have an app that allows you to scan products for microplastic ingredients. Consumers can also take things into their own hands and begin assessing ingredient labels for common microplastics, such as:
Polyethylene, the most abundant microplastic in our oceans today. It is used to increase product thickness and to keep emulsions from separating into their oil and liquid components. it is used in cosmetic products like eyeliners, mascaras, eyeshadows, eyebrow pencils, lipsticks, face powders and foundations, and is also routinely found in oral care products and all types of skin care products.
Polypropylene, a delivery agent that takes desirable molecules across the skin barrier, often included in skincare products. Also beneficial to skincare products is polypropylene’s humectant properties, which mean it retains moisture.
Acrylates copolymer, a group of polymers that are used for their elasticity, resistance to breakage and waterproofing properties. They are most often used in waterproof makeup products like mascaras and lipsticks, nail polishes and hair styling products. More recently, use of acrylates copolymer in gel hand sanitisers, often listed as Carbopol Aqua, has been a mounting concern, especially given that there has been a 600% increase in hand sanitiser sales in 2020 due to lifestyle changes related to Covid-19.
Carbomer, also known as polyacrylic acid, a thickening agent used in many gel and cream products like moisturisers, sunscreens, toothpaste and again, hand sanitisers. In fact, as much as 80% of hand sanitisers and gels contain microplastics like carbomer.
Despite how many products contain these ingredients, one thing is for certain: microplastic pollution through cosmetics is absolutely unnecessary. There are already many widely used natural alternatives to microplastics in cosmetics. Granulated nut or stone fruit shells, sugar, salt or silica can be used for exfoliation and glycerin, xanthan gum, guar gum, beeswax and hydroxyethyl cellulose are just a few naturally-derived product thickeners. With all of these other options and more, it is about time for the cosmetics industry to stop adding microplastics to products for good. But, as with any widespread change, it will ultimately be up to us, the consumers, to advocate with our dollars and support those products that put our environment first.
+ Words: Dorice Lee, Luxiders Magazine Contributor