Throw Out That Toothpaste Full of Microbeads

September 25, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Toothpaste containing blue microbeads.
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... and the exfoliating face wash too. Growing scientific evidence points to the harmful pollution caused by plastic microbeads in personal care products — why do we still use them?

Among all the things humans do everyday that harm the environment, you probably wouldn’t think attending to personal hygiene has much of an effect. But according to new research published in Environmental Science and Technology, our addiction to exfoliation is contributing to the growing plastic crisis in marine habitats, thanks to one ingredient pervasive in many personal products: microbeads. Chelsea Rochman, a lead author of the study, believes the problem is severe enough to warrant a complete ban on plastic microbeads in personal care products.

These tiny plastic particles are designed to add an abrasive punch when you scrub your face or brush your teeth, but they don’t just disappear when they swirl down the drain. Instead, they sweep through wastewater treatment plants and invade aquatic habitats. The authors of the study used highly conservative methods to estimate that 8 trillion microbeads enter aquatic habitats per day — enough to cover over 300 tennis courts. Even worse, a staggering 800 trillion more end up in sewage sludge that spreads across the land and can eventually run off into rivers and oceans.

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Another study focused on the San Francisco Bay, and found an average of 1 million pieces of tiny plastic per square kilometer floating on the water’s surface. Their diminutive size makes microbeads even better at sneaking into the guts of aquatic wildlife, and delivering a whole host of toxic contaminants like pesticides and PCBs, which disrupt hormones and nervous system operations.

A growing number of companies have promised to stop adding microbeads to their products, and some states have already regulated their use. But some of the bans have loopholes that allow companies to keep putting microbeads in products that aren’t advertised as “rinse-off,” or use materials that can biodegrade to a very slight degree but still persist in the environment. The report asserts that new legislation must include careful wording that more tightly restricts any materials that can accumulate and become toxic. Although microbeads do not represent the main source of plastic pollution, they are the easiest source to control.

There are plenty of natural and biodegradable alternatives we can use to replace plastic microbeads. In fact, gritty bits of rice, apricot seeds, nut shells, and bamboo can probably exfoliate our skin even better than the rounded edges of microbeads. There’s really no reason to continue using any products with microbeads: they provide few, if any, dermatological benefits, in exchange for serious risks to aquatic animals.

Although we’d need to revamp sewage treatment plants with new filters to deal with all the microbeads that are already in circulation, we can at least stop any additional input. By banning these useless bits of plastic, we could easily mitigate ecological damage. Compared to all the other uses of plastic on which we depend, it’s safe to say that we can get on just fine without microbeads.

Here's a list of products to avoid in the United States.

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