After the response I got to my surprisingly non-vegetarian foods post (and a huge thankyou to for sharing it around, I’m so glad it was helpful!) I thought I would start a new series here on I Spy Plum Pie, focusing on ingredients we should all be avoiding. Sometimes it will be a food, and other times something that shows up in skincare, makeup or other household items and we’re kicking things off with microbeads!
First things first, what are microbeads?
Microbeads are those tiny little beads that are commonly found in facial scrubs, soaps and other exfoliating products, as well as in toothpaste. They are made from plastic, so every time we use them we are washing thousands of little plastic beads down our sinks and into our waterways (some products can contain over 300,000 beads per tube!).
Image source: 5 Gyres
Why is this a problem?
The beads are too small to be picked up by sewage filtration systems, so they are ending up in our rivers, lakes and oceans. There, fish are mistaking them for food and eating them, which is unsurprisingly not great for the fish! Even worse, the microbeads tend to absorb any toxins present in the water, which are then leeched into the fish after they eat the beads, and this toxicity can be spread into other fish and animals further up the food chain, including humans.
At present there is no known method for removing them from our waterways without also removing important species like plankton (who are equally as tiny as the microbeads), so the best way to help improve the situation is to make sure no more microbeads are ending up in our waterways in the first place.
What is being done?
A number of States in the US have passed laws (or are in the process of doing so) banning products with microbeads, and a number of European countries are following suit, although the bans won’t fully come into place for a few more years. Thankfully most of the big players in the skincare market have agreed to phase out the use of microbeads, with Unileaver committing to stop using plastics in all its products by 2015, with Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Colgate-Palmolive, and L’Oreal also beginning to phase them out. So far in Australia only the New South Wales Government has made any push to ban microbeads, with the Environment Minister calling for a national ban and leading an industry group to consider introducing the ban.
What are the alternatives?
Luckily there are many planet-friendly alternatives to microbeads so you won’t have to stop exfoliating all together (and you can use something much nicer than rubbing your face with plastic!). Many brands use walnut shells, sugar, salt, coffee beans, oats or coconut husks to provide the exfoliation. The website Beat the Microbeads has country specific product lists which show products that do and don’t use microbeads, so it’s worth checking to see if your favourite product is on the red list or green list! Personally, I’m a big fan of the Sukin facial scrub which uses walnut shells & bamboo extract as its exfoliants (in fact, I’m a big fan of Sukin all round!)
You could always make your own face and body scrubs at home using salt, oats, coffee grounds or brown sugar mixed with coconut oil and your favourite essential oil – then you’ll know exactly what’s in it!
Here’s a great infographic I found while researching this topic
It’s all a bit worrying isn’t it! At the very least it’s easy for us to make sure we’re not contributing to the problem, and hopefully some strong action will occur at an international level soon to help ensure no more microbeads are entering our poor waterways.