Updated 26 July 2013

Teeny tiny scary plastics

Are you putting microplastics in the ocean? Read your product labels.

Many personal care products like facial cleansers and body scrubs contain tiny plastic beads. They're also found in other products like some shampoos, lip-gloss and toothpaste. These "microbeads", only a few millimeters in diameter, are used as exfoliators and cleansers; in some products even tinier beads are used to improve the flow and silkiness of creams and lotions.

The microplastic "soup" in our oceans
Microbeads may feel nice and seem innocuous, but there's been concern for some time now that they can end up in the ocean: their small size allows them to get past filtering systems when they're washed down our drains.

In the sea they contribute to the growing amount of microplastics - plastic fragments under about 5mm from various sources (including artificial clothes fibres from our washing machines), and from larger pieces that get broken down by sunlight and wave action.

Impact on marine life
Microbeads and other microplastics have a collective large surface area (on account of being lots of tiny bits of plastic instead of one big piece), which makes them good at attaching to and absorbing other pollutant chemicals, thus making them even more toxic than they were in the first place.

Then they get ingested by marine organisms, both particle feeders who can't distinguish them from proper nutrient particles, and bigger creatures (fish, turtles, gulls, seals) who eat smaller ones who've already swallowed the microplastics. Animals that ingest microplastics risk being deprived of nutrients, taking in toxins, and developing blockages in their digestive tracts.

Humans may potentially also be affected by this kind of pollution if they eat contaminated seafood.

Cosmetics companies respond
Some cosmetics companies are starting to phase out microbeads; Unilever has lead the way by committing to doing so by 2015, and others (The Body Shop, Johnson and Johnson, Proctor and Gamble) will be following suit.

Meanwhile, avoid products that list plastics (polyethylene polypropylene, polyethylene terephlatate or polymethyl methacrylate) as ingredients and, if they do advertise the fact that they contain microbeads, make sure these are made from alternative biodegradable materials - finely crushed nut shells are one example.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor

Info sources:
North Sea Foundation
Plastic Soup Foundation
Unliver position statement on microbeads

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