Microbeads, those tiny plastic beads included in personal care products for exfoliating power, have been popular for a number of years, with a growing number of companies sneaking them into toothpaste, body scrubs, soap and more. That’s despite evidence that they cause significant environmental problems, an issue that has led a number of states to ban them or seriously consider such bans in order to protect the environment. But there’s more: There’s evidence that microbeads are also harmful for human health.
One of the problems with microbeads is that their size allows them to pass through filtration systems intended to trap debris and pollutants we don’t want being released into the environment. Whether people are taking showers or brushing their teeth over the sink, the wastewater passes through processing facilities and the microbeads are flushed out right along with the clean water when it’s released into waterways. From there, they wind their way into the bodies of small aquatic animals, and a process known as biomagnification begins. As bigger animals eat animals contaminated with microbeads, the plastic chunks become more concentrated, and they leap to land as larger mammals consume animals like big fish.
For the environment, microbeads pose a problem because many contain harmful chemicals like PCBs along with other fat-soluble compounds known to cling to polyethylene, the plastic used to make them. That’s in addition to estrogen, a hormone that’s perfectly safe at normal levels in many animals, but one that can cause health problems if it builds up in the body. Estrogen-induced health problems can include behavioural changes in male fish along with damage to fish eggs that causes impairments and non-viability. Their size makes the problem even worse, as they look at a glance like fish eggs, a tasty snack enjoyed by many aquatic animals: It’s like setting out a chocolate cake laced with poison.
Humans face some challenges from microbeads as well. Some dental professionals claim that they can contribute to build-ups of plaque, tartar and gingivitis by getting stuck under the gums, though the industry at large stresses that no studies have confirmed these claims and it hasn’t ruled definitively on the microbead problem. The more critical problem is one of biomagnification, as people eat fish contaminated with microbeads and consume PCBs, estrogen and other compounds absorbed by the tiny beads.
Products like microbeads often make their way onto the market before we fully understand their environmental and health effects, and it can take years to regulate them. While they and the pollutants they contain will eventually break down, that’s taking place on a scale of hundreds of thousands of years, which is far too late for people and the environment. The growing use of the ingredient without providing notice to consumers is a problem – while they were once advertised as a selling point, now they’re often slipped in as a routine additive.
For those who want to avoid microbeads, look for polyethylene on the label of a product before purchase. If you need some exfoliating power on your face or body, try a more environmentally-friendly alternative like ground walnut shells, coffee grounds, sugar or ground cacao husks. There are lots of different options, including those for sensitive skin and people with rougher skin (or those who need a little extra exfoliation on their hands and feet after long days in the garden).