Why Microbeads Are Bad For You & The Earth

They may be convenient and useful in some respects. But microbeads are SO bad for you & the planet for many reasons!

By Diane Small

How much are whiter teeth and smoother skin worth to you? Are they worth your health? How about fresh water?  Would you destroy a coral reef in exchange for brighter skin?

If you use beauty products like body scrubs, skin brighteners and whitening toothpastes that contain  microbeads, you may be paying a very high price for beauty. In fact, it’s a price we will ALL end up paying.

These tiny bits of plastic, which are less than five millimetres in diameter, and usually from one-third to one millimetre, are turning up everywhere, especially in oceans, lakes and along shorelines.

Of course, they aren’t biodegradable, and they’re so small, they don’t get filtered out by water purification systems. So you end up drinking them in your tap water, and eating them in fish.

Don’t think the situation could be all that bad, given these are just wee pieces of plastic? You may be surprised to find that research by the 5 Gyres Institute found an average of 43,000 beads per square kilometre in the Great Lakes, with concentrations averaging 466,000 near cities. Tests on fish from Lake Erie found an average of 20 pieces of plastic in medium-sized fish and eight in small fish.

Canadian scientist David Suzuki reports that microplastics have been found in the oceans and even under Arctic sea ice. Australian scientists at James Cook University found corals starving after eating the tiny beads, as their digestive systems became blocked.


Tiny Plastics, Huge Problem

As the video above explains perfectly, these beads are deadly beyond the fact that they are made from toxic plastic. Their material actually allows them to absorb toxic chemicals, making them poisonous to any creature that mistakes them for food or that eats another that has ingested the plastic all the way up the food chain, which affects those at the top. Us.

The stupidest thing is that exfoliators could use loads of natural, harmless natural ingredients, like baking soda, oatmeal, ground seeds, sea salt and even coffee grounds instead of plastic. But with so very little regulation of cosmetics, these toxins have gone by generally unnoticed. And cosmetic companies are so short sighted and greedy, they didn’t even think of the long-term implications of using the beads.

But microbeads are among the newer developments in the brief history of our plastic lifestyle. The 5 Gyres Institute launched a campaign asking companies to remove them from products. So far, L’Oreal, The Body Shop, Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have agreed to do so. Several U.S. states and European countries are planning to ban the beads, and Environment Canada is studying the problem.

What Can We Do?

As consumers, we can avoid products containing microbeads (look for Polyethylene (PE) and Polypropylene (PP) on the label!) and put pressure on companies and governments to end their use (5 Gyres has an online petition. Why not sign it?). And, because more than a third of all plastic is disposable packaging, such as bags and bottles, we can and must limit our overall use, and reuse or recycle any that we do use.

Awareness is everything; knowing what to avoid is half the battle. Estee Lauder, one of the most heavily chemical beauty companies, packs their Clinique and Elizabeth Arden exfoliators with them, and even some brands like that use ‘greenwashing’ techniques that trick you into thinking they’re good for your health (even when they’re not) are using microbeads, including Kiehl’s, L’Occitane en Provence, Caudalie and Elemis.

Other scrubs and exfoliators to avoid are those by Victoria’s Secret, Neutrogena, Dior, Guerlain, Aveeno, Garnier, Laura Mercier, Nivea, Clarins, Shiseido, Superdrug, Clearasil, Clean & Clear, Bliss, Tesco and Disney even puts them in children’s bubble bath products, and  Colgate actually puts them in toothpaste! That’s right, you could be swallowing these little beads directly if you brush with their Max White New Look.

This is far from a complete list; please check here for more brands. And remember that glitter in any children’s products or beauty products is just another form of microplastic!

Look on the Bright Side

But let’s not be negative! Scrubs are super-easy to make at home! Just grab a packet of sugar (or sea salt, or baking soda) put it in your palm and make a paste with a bit of almond (or olive) oil. Massage into your face, and voila! Can’t be bothered? No worries, there are plenty of awesome scrubs out there that do NOT use microbeads; in fact, they use 100% natural and/or organic ingredients. Here are just three of many excellent brands we know of:

John Masters Raspberry & Orange Body Scrub

This sweet and sumptuous USDA certified-organic sugar scrub combines 15 organic oils and extracts to gently exfoliate and nourish the skin. Raspberry seed extract, high in antioxidants and omega-6 fatty acids, nourishes and tones, while Valencia orange oil helps brighten the skin and sweeten the senses. Geranium & ylang ylang oils hydrate and soothe skin.



2. Skin and Tonic Facial Scrub

Use this Oat, Rosehip and French Pink Clay face scrub once a week to gently detoxify your face and to leave your skin feeling softer and better nourished. It’s fully natural, with 74% organic ingredients, and suits all skin types.



3. Hollybeth Grits & Honey Scrub

Doesn’t this one just sound good enough to eat? You can rub this all over your body in the shower, any time. Organic honey  ensures good hydration, whilst sugar particles are used to exfoliate. Sweet!



To take further action, why not do at least one of these:

  1. Refuse to buy personal care products containing polyethylene or polypropylene microbeads or glitter.
  2. Support the Campaign against microbeads by donating directly to 5 Gyres Institute via PayPal or credit card.
  3. Share the 5 Gyres Petition to ban the sale of products containing polluting plastic microbeads.
  4. Post our microbeads infographic   (at right) on social media and share with friends! You can also download the poster to print and display it in a public place, your office, at school, etc.
  5. Instagram products containing microbeads in stores, tag @5gyres and use the hashtag #banthebead
  6. Send any partially used products containing microbeads to 5 Gyres HQ. Products will will be utilized in The 5 Gyres / Chris Jordan Arts Outreach Piece.  5 Gyres HQ:  3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404

Sure, plastic may have made life more convenient in many ways, but many of us remember a time when we got along fine without it–especially in beauty products! It’s time to take action, for your own sake, and that of the next generation.

Chere Di Boscio
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