Microbead use, we’ve all been there. For years they have been present in everyday products like face washes, body scrubs, and even pregnancy tests. But microbeads are becoming an increasingly serious problem, especially when considered under the wider umbrella of microplastics.
These tiny pieces of plastic are already present in our oceans, our soil, and even in the air we breathe. And more are being unleashed all the time. Every year over 30,000 tonnesof microplastics reach the ocean, mostly coming from products we buy. That’s roughly the same amount of plastic waste created by five billion plastic bottles.
But what exactly are microbeads and microplastics? Why do we use them? What impacts do they have on our lives? And, perhaps most importantly of all, what can we do to reduce their damage?
What are microbeads?
Microbeads are essentially tiny balls of microplastic, often not measuring more than five millimetres, that are usually used in skincare and hygiene products to provide an abrasive scrubbing element. Microbeads are especially prevalent in products such as face washes or face scrubs.
“Beat the Microbead”, a campaign launched by the organisation 5Gyres.org, estimates a single bottle of something like Neutrogena’s Deep Clean can harbour 360,000 microbeads. Skincare products are often the biggest users of microbeads. Because microbeads are designed to be able to reach places that normal cleansers can’t get to, they have become popular in these kinds of products for their “deep cleaning” properties.
But microbeads also have other, more positive uses. Pregnancy tests used specially designed microbeads that react to different hormones in the urine and allow the test to show the result using the blue lines. Microbeads also have medical uses, such as making drugs more deliverable to the body or forming part of the way we carry out certain imaging techniques.
With the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic, many of us have been religiously using hand sanitisers. However, many of these products also contain microbeads and other microplastics. Beat The Microbead conducted a study and discovered that as many as 80% of the sanitisers on the market contain some form of microplastic.
What’s the difference between microbeads, microplastics, and nanoparticles?
Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic that measure under five millimetres. Microbeads are a single, specific type of microplastic. In comparison, nanoparticles are even smaller than microplastics, measuring less than 100 nanometres, ten thousand times smaller than a millimetre.
Microplastics can come from a variety of sources. They can be fragments of once-larger plastic items that have gradually broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. Our nylon and polyester clothes give off microfibres every time they are washed, which is another form of microplastic. Microbeads are pieces of plastic that have been intentionally created to be small, in order to reach difficult places like the pores of our skin.
Eventually, if given enough time to break down, these microplastics will eventually degrade to the size of nanoparticles, increasing their environmental impact even further. Because plastic is so durable, these tiny particles of plastic can continue to circulate for centuries.
Impacts of microplastics on the environment
Because of their extremely tiny size, microplastics can infiltrate the environment at almost every level. Whether intentionally created or through simply breaking down, these particles of plastic make their way into the oceans, the soil, and even the air.
Because they are so small, microbeads and other microplastics can be ingested by animals at virtually every level of the food chain. Nanoparticles can even be ingested by plankton, which are microscopic organisms that form the very bottom of the marine food chain.
Around 176,000 tonnes of unintentionally created microplastics, the pieces that originate from larger plastic items that gradually break down, enters the waters of Europe every year. Another study found that there were around 84,000 tiny fragments of microplastic per square metre of water in the River Mersey around Liverpool in the UK.
As the plankton get eaten by marine animals such as fish and whales, this plastic travels further up the food chain. Birds, seals, dolphins and sharks consume the fish. In turn, animals such as seals are eaten by orcas and polar bears.
Because microbeads and other microplastics are not biodegradable, they continue to travel through this chain, leaching chemicals and other harmful substances into the wildlife that eat them. For many animals, microplastics are indistinguishable from their usual food source. This means that they ingest the plastics plentifully, further increasing their exposure.
With their digestive systems unable to break the plastic down, many of these animals will die when the plastic essentially blocks their stomachs. A study of bird dropping in areas near rivers in Wales found that these birds were eating up to 200 pieces of plastic every single day.
Despite their small size, microbeads and other microplastics actually have quite a large surface area, especially if they eventually clump together in large masses. Over time, these networks of microplastic soak up harmful chemicals and pollutants that leak out of plastic refuse in the environment, as well as releasing their own chemicals. These are then transferred to the animals that end up consuming microplastics, often causing death.
The impact of microplastics on humans
Of course, humans also eat fish and other marine life that comes from the ocean. This means that we are also ingesting microplastics. One study estimates that around 8 trillion microbeads are flushed into the US drainage system from household use. These particles cannot be caught by current waste-water filtration systems, and therefore make it out into the oceans and rivers.
This in turn ends up in our water supply, in addition to the microplastics that break down into liquid from plastic water bottles. Plastic is made and treated with a lot of chemicals, many of which could be potentially harmful to humans. These include chemicals such as BPA’s. While studies so far haven’t shown huge dangers posed by microplastics on our digestive systems, the field is still young and more investigation is required.
There are multiple ways that microplastics can end up in our water supply. Microbeads come from our showers and baths. pieces of microplastic can be washed into the drainage system by a single shower. Microfibres are also released when clothing made from synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester. In a single washing cycle, more than 800,000 microfibres can end up down the drain.
The erosion of larger plastics as well as water run-off from landfills and artificial turf, which produces a lot of microplastics, can also carry particles of plastic into our water supply. Over 16,000 tonnes of microplastic enters the environment from artificial turf pitches every year.
As far as human consumption of fish goes, when marine animals ingest microplastics, the particles usually end up in the stomach. When these animals are prepared for our food, these parts of the body are usually discarded. This means that, as far as we know, there is not a direct transfer of microplastics from fish to humans.
Some microplastics are so tiny that they can even be blown around the world on global winds and dust currents. This increases the movement and coverage of microplastics exponentially. Scientists at Utah State University conducted tests and found that every year over 1000 tonnes of microplastic particles fall on America’s National Parks and other wilderness areas. We could also potentially be breathing in microplastics and not even realise it.
Why you might want to avoid products containing microbeads
To prevent microbeads and other microplastics from having a continued impact, a number of governments and companies are taking actions to ban products using these particles, or banning the use of microbeads altogether. This includes passing legislation to make the use of microbeads illegal.
Several European countries banned the use of microbeads since 2014. The Netherlands was the first of these, followed by Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg and Sweden. The United States brought in its own legislation in 2015, but not to the same degree of strictness as the UK, which banned microbeads in cosmetic products that were rinsed off in 2018. Initial US legislation allowed biodegradable plastics to be used for microbeads in cosmetic products.
A ban on microplastics was proposed by the EU Chemicals Agency in 2019, proposing that over half a million tonnes of microplastics could be prevented from entering the environment over a period of 20 years. China announced plans to halt production of new products containing microbeads by the end of 2020, with sales of current products containing microbeads set to end in 2022.
The legislation mainly aims to curb the production of microplastics and microbeads from the cosmetics industry, but also from cleaning products and artificial turf. From 2017, the US also banned the use of microbeads in cosmetic and hygiene products.
But these plans are not without criticism. It is difficult enough to measure microplastics, which measure around 5 millimetres. However, nanoparticles are almost impossible to detect, and companies may simply substitute microbeads for versions as small as nanoparticles.
Powerful industries that rely on plastic have also involved themselves, affecting lawmakers to curb the boundaries and effectiveness of anti-microbead legislation. The influence of these companies can be seen in relatively long targets for banning certain products, as well as asking plastic nanoparticles to not be counted as part of the ban.
Several cosmetic companies started to remove microbeads from their products, such as Unilever, Procter and Gamble, and L’Oreal made plans to stop using microbeads by 2017 in varying degrees. However, some companies perform token gestures to get around the legislation. Microbeads are now simply hidden as other ingredients such as polypropylene.
The bans may also not currently be tough enough. While rinse-off cosmetic products are the main focus of the legislation, other products such as some types of make-up also contain microbeads and are not currently regulated. Having companies volunteer to regulate their products also removes urgency to enforce a blanket ban.
Alternatives to microbeads
The main catalogue of alternatives to plastic microbeads come from the cosmetics industry. Before the advent of plastic microbeads, the industry used natural products such as oats, nut shells, and coffee. These ingredients also have the properties and texture of scrub-like microbeads, but are more sustainable and more biodegradable.
Oats have been used in skincare for years. As an ingredient, they are good for those with sensitive skin, and when ground up can replace microbeads in cosmetic products. Oats are also good for both moisturising and anti-inflammatory properties. Oats, whole or ground, also soak up oils in the skin.
Jojoba beads come from the Jojoba plant, and are a form of natural wax. They mimic the orb-like shape of plastic microbeads, but are biodegradable. They are also very smooth, which allows them to be a gentle ingredient that is good for the skin and helps prevent damage. The exfoliating properties of jojoba rivals that of microbeads.
Coffee is another natural ingredient that can replace microbeads. Coffee can help create energising and exhilarating scrubs which also contain antioxidants. It is a good treatment for cellulite. Like many of these alternatives, they can be used in DIY skincare recipes, making them more accessible than microbeads.
When it comes to mirroring the abrasive cleaning properties of microbeads, salt is a great alternative. While not necessarily suitable to be used on the face, salt can be used on rough skin. Salt helps boost circulation and also helps dissipate toxins and is a naturally purifying ingredient.
A company based at the University of Bath, called Naturbeads, has created a potential alternative to microbeads. Their beads are made from cellulose, which is a material that forms the essential building blocks of all plant life on the planet. These plant-based beads are biodegradable, and the material to create them is arguably more abundant even than plastic.
While these alternatives could help replace microbeads, they would also require a lot more agricultural land devoted to growing these supplies, which could have an adverse effect on areas of natural land. The rush to secure supplies of these ingredients, often as cheaply as possible, can also have adverse effects on local farmers. These more sustainable alternatives are also often more expensive than plastic microbeads.
What Else Can We Do?
There are two main ways we can all help stop the spread of microbeads and other microplastics.
The first is to reduce our plastic use as much as possible, particularly of single-use products. The more plastic that is discarded into the environment and landfill, the more will gradually break down to become microplastics and spread into the wider environment.
These single-use products that we should avoid include takeaway coffee cups, plastic straws, and single-use cutlery. 6 billion tonnes of single-use plastics are thrown away every year. Moving to using alternatives such as reusable coffee cups and cutlery, as well as recycling and reusing where possible, can help stop the spread of microplastics.
The second is to switch to buying products from companies that are certified as free as microbeads or use natural alternatives. Beat the Microbead pioneered a certification system that identifies products that are completely free of microbeads and other microplastics, and have a list of brands that follow this system.
If we can all take actions like this, we can halt the tide of microplastics flooding into our oceans, burrowing into our soil, and blowing through the atmosphere.