Updated 17 September 2014

Facial scrubs choking the oceans

The campaign against micro-beads is heating up. These tiny plastic balls, used in many body products, get into waterways, fish - and your gums. Know how to avoid them.

Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.

The US state of Illinois has banned micro-beads, and others are pushing to do the same.

They join several major cosmetics companies who've vowed to phase these pollutants out of their products.

What are micro-beads exactly?

Many personal care products like facial cleansers, body scrubs, shampoos, lip-gloss and toothpaste contain tiny plastic balls, or "micro-beads".

Only a few millimeters in diameter, micro-beads are used as exfoliators and cleansers; in some products even tinier beads are used to improve the flow and silkiness of creams and lotions.

Micro-beads are mostly made of polyethylene - the same substance found in plastic bags and bottles, and not what one wants in our bodies or in nature. Polyethylene isn't biodegradable; it breaks down into smaller particles that persist in the environment.

Read: Chemicals in plastics a health risk for kids

Plastic getting in our gums.. and guts?

They may feel pleasant and seem small and innocuous, but it's their very size and durability that makes micro-beads a problem.

Dental hygienists Erika Feltham and Trish Walveren have reported that the tiny pieces of plastic sometimes get lodged in patients' gums. It's uncertain how harmful this might be, but, as Walveren points out, hard insoluble plastic is not good for sensitive gum tissue.

It's also likely that micro-beads occasionally get swallowed; we all swallow a bit of toothpaste (children sometimes swallow a lot), and though small amounts aren't thought to be harmful, it's certainly better not to ingest it.

Also, like teeth-whitening products generally, toothpastes containing micro-beads have an abrasive action, which can damage tooth enamel over time.

Watch: What to eat for white teeth

Micro-beads make marine 'soup'

The major concern with micro-beads, however, is that they end up in the ocean: they slip past filtering systems when they're washed down our drains.

In the sea they contribute to microplastic "soup" - plastic fragments under 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.

Watch: How micro-beads are fouling our oceans

Micro-beads and other microplastics have a collective large surface area (as they're many tiny bits of plastic instead of one big piece), which makes them good at attaching to and absorbing other pollutant chemicals, rendering 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) which eat smaller ones that have 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.

Read: Where trash accumulates in the deep sea

Cosmetics companies respond

Some cosmetics companies are starting to phase out micro-beads. Unilever has lead the way in this; stating:

"We expect to complete this phase-out globally by 1 January 2015 and are currently exploring which suitable alternatives can best match the sensory experience that the plastic scrub beads provide."

Other companies - notably The Body Shop, Johnson and Johnson, and Proctor and Gamble - will be following suit.

Meanwhile, read product labels and avoid those that list plastics (polyethylene polypropylene, polyethylene terephlatate or polymethyl methacrylate) as ingredients. If they do advertise the fact that they contain microbeads, make sure these are made from alternative biodegradable materials - such as finely crushed nut shells and cocoa beans.

Micro-bead product examples

This list of products that contain micro-beads is also helpful, but note that it isn't comprehensive; it's still best to read labels.

Examples of products available locally include:
- Neutrogena Deep Clean Foaming Scrub
- Clarins Bright Plus Exfoliator
- Clean & Clear Blackhead Scrub
- Clinique 7-day Scrub Cream Rinse-Off Formula
- Dior Instant Gentle Exfoliant

If you find micro-beads in a product, contact the manufacturer and challenge them about it.

For more info on how to fight micro-beads and aquatic plastic pollution generally, see the organisation 5Gyres, which is championing the "Beat the Micro-bead" campaign.

Read more:

Pthalates in plastics linked to premature birth
What price pretty? The chemical load in cosmetics
The simplest way to recycle plastics

Walveren, Trish. March 2014. Crest Toothpaste embeds plastic in our gums. Dentalbuzz.
North Sea Foundation
Plastic Soup Foundation
Unilever position statement on microbeads

Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Lifestyle »

E-cigarettes: Here are five things to know

E-cigarettes have become hugely popular in the past decade, but a rash of vaping-linked deaths and illnesses in the US is feeding caution about a product that's already banned in some places.

Allergy »

Ditch the itch: Researchers find new drug to fight hives

A new drug works by targeting an immune system antibody called immunoglobulin E, which is responsible for the allergic reaction that causes hives.