Today’s blog post is about something I really don’t like. Specifically it’s about those awful plastic microbeads present in a lot of bodywashes. Apparently they improve skin exfoliation. I think it’s more like being attacked by ferocious plastic shards and should come with a warning to not use on sensitive areas.
It is, however, more than personal discomfort that drives me to write this anti-bead screed. I am also motivated by concerns for what happens to those beads after they get washed down the drain. These non-biodegradable pieces of plastic are generally not captured by sewage treatment processes and wind up in the ocean. Once in the ocean, filter feeding marine organisms like small fish, copepods, and mussels mistake either whole microbeads or pieces of microbeads for food and eat them. This can cause fatal intestinal blockages in either the filter feeder itself or in any organism above filter feeders on the food chain. Most marine animals that humans find appealing either eat filter feeders or eat things that eat filter feeders. This probably explains why micro-sized pieces of plastic have been found in fur seal poop (Eriksson and Burton 2003) and in the stomachs of dead seabirds (Provencher et al. 2014). Mechanical blockage, however, is not the only way plastic microbeads can harm marine organisms. They can also leach toxins into the body of any organism that ingests them. Some of these toxins, such as BPA, are added to microbeads during the manufacturing process and others, such as heavy metals, are absorbed and concentrated by the beads as they drift through the ocean (Cole et al. 2011).
One piece of good news in all this is that there is a way to fight this problem. We can simply refrain from buying bodywashes and other personal care products that contain these micromonstrosities and we can also support efforts to ban them from personal care products altogether. The State of Illinois has already succeeded in the latter. A second piece of good news is that people can still scrape away their dead skin without polluting the ocean. Numerous bodywashes are available with natural exfoliants such as walnut shells, sea salt, or pumice and it’s also possible to exfoliate just as well with ordinary soap and a loofa or even a reusable (gasp) plastic lather pillow.
Cole M, Lindeque P, Halsband C, Galloway TS. 2011. Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: A review. Marine Pollution Bulletin 62, 2588-2597 microplastic review
Eriksson C, Burton H. 2003. Origins and biological accumulation of small plastic particles in fur seals from Macquarie Island. AMBIO: A Journal of The Human Environment 32(6), 380-384 plastic in seal poo
Provencher JF, Bond AL, Mallory ML. 2014 Marine birds and plastic debris in Canada: a national synthesis and a way forward. Environmental Reviews 23, 1-13 plastic in seabirds