Does Your Face Wash Have a Dirty Little Secret?

woman washing her face

What happens to the plastic microbeads in some facial cleansers after they wash down the drain?  (Photo credit: Blend Images/Alamy)

Little plastic microbeads that scrub your pores clean might sound like a great idea to maintain a clear complexion, but what happens to all those plastic microbeads once they’ve gone down the drain? Turns out, more often than not, they end up in aquatic habitats, where they can wreak havoc on ecosystem health.

Plastic microbeads were first recognized as a minor source of pollution when they were found in waterways in the early 1990s. At the time, their use was limited to a hand cleanser not available to the general public. Today, however, more the 200 consumer products – including face cleansers, soaps, toothpastes, and shampoos – contain plastic microbeads. Originally, most consumer products companies used natural materials, such as ground nut shells, in their exfoliating products. In the late 1990s, some companies began using plastic microbeads, and the trend caught on. The plastic microbeads were simply more cost-effective than the natural ingredients were. As the consumer products requiring such an ingredient became more and more numerous, companies turned to exclusively using plastic microbeads simply to meet their own manufacturing demands. Today most major consumer products companies, such as Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever, use plastic microbeads in at least some of their products. Plastic microbeads can also be found in supermarket and chain store house brands, as well as in high-end cosmetics brands such as L’Oréal and Clarins.

Microbeads are typically less than 1 mm in diameter, with the majority measuring less than 0.5 mm in diameter. While some are smooth and spherical, others may be ovoid, ribbonlike, or threadlike in shape. A study conducted by researchers at the Institute for Environmental Studies in the Netherlands determined that, for every 200 mL bottle of a product containing microbeads that is used, 21 grams of microbeads go down the drain. A separate study calculated that each year in the United States alone, 573,000 pounds of microbeads enter wastewater systems.

Though intended to be washed down the drain, unfortunately, most sewage treatment plants aren’t equipped to remove them from wastewater due to their tiny size. Some microbeads enter waterways when extreme weather events cause sewage drains to overflow. And microbeads can also enter waterways from runoff that occurs on agricultural fields or public lands fertilized with sewage sludge. According to 5 Gyres, an organization dedicated to reducing plastic pollution in waterways, microbeads can be found in all oceanic gyres, bays, gulfs, and seas worldwide, as well as in all five of the Great Lakes.

During the summer of 2012, Dr. Sherri Mason, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia led the first-ever survey of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. Over a period of three weeks, Mason, along with collaborators from her university, 5 Gyres, and the University of Wisconsin-Superior, collected samples from Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and Lake Erie.

In their study, the researchers collected samples from a total of 21 sites, consisting of five from Lake Superior and eight each from lakes Huron and Erie. Samples were taken using a trawl attached to their research vessel with a 60-cm wide fine-mesh net (0.35 mm) to sieve the top layer of water. Each sampling period was 60 minutes long and covered two nautical miles (a surface area approximately equivalent to the size of one football field). The results of the research indicates there may be concentrations of greater than 1.1 million microplastic particles per square kilometer in some parts of the Great Lakes.

The scientists were surprised by the amount of microplastics they collected, the majority of them being less than 1 mm in diameter. The greatest concentration of microplastic particles were found in lakes Erie and Ontario, both of which are surrounded by heavily-populated cities and towns and also receive water inflow from the other Great Lakes. Back in the lab, the scientists used an electron microscope to compare the tiny spheres they collected with those found in commercial products. They found the beads were similar in size, shape, and composition. “It was like someone had taken an entire bottle of facial cleanser and poured it into our sample container,” Mason told a reporter from Mother Jones.

Once in an aquatic ecosystem, microbeads pose several threats. First, because they look like fish eggs, many organisms may ingest the beads, mistaking them as a food source. Indeed, they have been found in sea cucumbers, mussels, oysters, lobster, fish, and invertebrate larvae. Echinoderms, barnacles, marine worms, and other filter feeders also are known to be able to consume anything less than 2 mm in diameter. Animals that ingest the microbeads are at risk of starvation and death, because they can gain no nourishment from them. One study conducted by Dutch scientists showed that mussels fed tiny nanoparticles of polystyrene ate less and grew less in size. A separate study indicated that mussels that consumed microplastics retained the materials in their systems for up to 48 days.

Plastic microbeads are also problematic because they can absorb other organic chemicals – such as PCBs, DDT, and PBDE (a flame retardant) – and so allow these chemicals to enter the food chain. Bioaccumulation is a concern as the contaminants are moved up the food chain as one animal eats another – a food chain that could eventually lead to humans.

“Microbeads are highly potent concentrators, feeding toxins into plankton at the bottom of the food web,” Dr. Callum Roberts, a marine conservation biologist at the University of York, told a reporter from The Independent. “These chemicals then biomagnify up the food web, and it ends up meaning the top predators have the highest concentration of this stuff, and the top predators are precisely the things we like to eat, like tuna and swordfish. It really is a case of what goes around comes around.”

Removing microbeads from water is virtually impossible – any attempts to skim them out of the water column would inevitably also remove plankton and other key parts of the aquatic ecosystem. This could potentially cause even more harm. Currently, the best action against microbeads is to prevent them from getting into waterways altogether.

Currently, both New York and Illinois have legislation pending regarding the use of plastic microbeads in consumer products. In Illinois, an agreed-to bill intends to ban the manufacture of microbeads by 2017 and their distribution within the state by 2018. According to the New York bill, manufacturers have until December 2015 to phase out the use of microbeads in their products. Additional microbead-related legislation is also pending in Minnesota, Ohio, and California. Most major consumer products companies are already voluntarily discontinuing the use of microbeads in their products, though on a more drawn-out time schedule than some would prefer. Natural alternatives already exist – and were the predominant exfoliating ingredients prior to the adoption of plastic microbeads – so replacing microplastics with eco-friendly alternatives should not be a problem. The difficulty is in figuring out how to meet the demands of all the products that require the properties plastic microbeads provide.

What to Look For:
* Consumer products that contain plastic microbeads often contain ingredients such as PE, PP, or PMMA
* Microbeads can be found in products such as facial washes, body scrubs, soaps, toothpastes, and shampoos
* Natural exfoliating ingredients include pecan shell powder, jojoba beads, oat kernel flour, almond meal, ground apricot kernels, crushed walnut shells, and dried coconuts

More to Explore
Tiny Plastic Timebomb — The Pollutants in Our Cosmetics
Don’t Later, Don’t Rinse, Don’t Repeat
Why Those Tiny Microbeads In Soap May Pose Problem For Great Lakes
Scientists Turn Their Gaze Toward Tiny Threats to Great Lakes
Great Lakes Filled with Plastic Bits
More Plastic Pollution Found in Lake Erie, Group Raises Alarm
Microplastics in Consumer Products and in the Marine Environment [pdf]

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