Monday, December 10, 2012

Are microbeads and microplastics in beauty products a threat to the oceans?

It is true that microscopic particles of polyethylene now bob around the high seas. It's also true that the origins of these microplastics are likely to be consumer products. Washing your face can be an act of pollution if you use a cleaner that contains zillions of plastic microbeads for exfoliation. Too small to be sifted out at sewage treatment plants, they end up in the ocean, where the plastic becomes a persistent pollutant.

As sea temperatures are low, plastic does not biodegrade; it is also ingested by wildlife. How could they avoid it? In some seas plastic fragments are more plentiful than plankton.

So let's dry our guilt-induced "mermaid tears" – as these polluting plastic particles are poetically known – and face this issue. Largely this involves staring down the behemoth cosmetics industry, which has developed something of a dependency on fragments of plastic – apparently even some companies that send out beautiful sustainable messages about other parts of their supply chain.

So why use such an ugly ingredient? Well, plastic is cheap and far more cost effective than traditional biodegradable exfoliators such as coconut husk. There is also a tendency for the beauty industry to stick its head in the sand. Show us proof that microplastics cause ecosystem collapse and we'll think about ending its use seems a pervasive message.

But experts have accumulated evidence that tells us the time to act is now. Last month, for example, scientists from Wageningen University in the Netherlands showed that plastic nanoparticles have an adverse effect on sea organisms such as mussels.

At the same time the beauty industry is ever more dependent on the oceans for its own survival. Recent beauty products developed courtesy of the oceans include sea fennel in sun creams, seaweed in anti-cellulite treatments and even ingredients derived from salmon hatcheries. The industry needs a reminder that an ecosystem driven to the edge will not be productive.

As consumers we are well placed to provide this. Follow the lead set by the Plastic Soup Foundation (, which quizzes all mainstream cosmetic companies on their use of microplastic. There's even an app, Beat the Micro Bead, to assist with shopping (scan the barcode – if the app turns red, the company is using microbeads and unrepentant about it; orange means the company has pledged to phase out microplastics).

Actively asking questions, boycotting and pushing for alternatives are things we can all do. It's time to scrub microplastics out of your skincare routine.

Source: The Guardian

Photo courtesy of TommyDavis209 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)