How do you clean your face? Good old soap and water? Dermalogically tested facial wash? Or one of those fancy scrubs containing the latest facial fashion, microbeads? If you use the latter, you could be doing serious damage to the environment – and ultimately yourself.

13 01 2013 Microplastic Marinelife Header
The tiny microbeads might look harmless, but when they're flushed into waterways and oceans, they poison fish and other aquatic life. Image: Kris Krüg, Flickr.

Microbeads are tiny polystyrene particles less than 5mm in diameter. They’re small enough to be washed down the drain, where you may promptly forget about them ... but they go on to wreak havoc in the water systems into which they flow.

Studies in North America’s Great Lakes, for example, have found alarmingly high concentrations of small plastic particles in the lakes, suspected to be microbeads from personal hygiene products.

Because of their small size and buoyancy, microbeads escape treatment by sewage plants and are discharged into rivers, lakes and oceans. Mistaken for food, they’re ingested by small fish and other aquatic life. But the problem isn’t just the obvious belly-aching threat of swallowing plastic. The plastic beads also accumulate toxic chemicals that may be found in the water, poisoning the fish. 

These fish, of course, are then eaten by larger fish, birds and other animals. Fast-forward down the food chain, and humans may also be affected by the chemicals in the meat that we eat.

This week, the 5 Gyres Institute, a non-profit California-based environmental activist group, introduced ground-breaking legislation with New York’s Attorney General to prohibit the sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads in the eastern state.

“When people learn more about this issue, they will be unwilling to sacrifice water quality just to continue to use products with plastic microbeads.”

According to a press release, the Microbead-Free Waters Act will prohibit the production, manufacture, distribution and sale in New York of beauty and cosmetic products that contain tiny plastic particles marketed as microbeads. The beads, which were recently found in alarmingly high levels in the New York waters of Lake Erie, can persist in the environment for centuries and accumulate toxic chemicals on their surface, threatening fish, wildlife and public health.

Similar legislation is also on the cards in California. If passed, it would make the state the largest in the US to ban microbead-laced cosmetics. 

“I never met anyone who has wanted plastic on their face or in their fish,” commented Robert K. Sweeney, Chair of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee. “When people learn more about this issue,” he continued, “they will be unwilling to sacrifice water quality just to continue to use products with plastic microbeads.”

The crazy thing is that beauty buffs needn’t even sacrifice their skin. According to cosmeceutical company Natural Sourcing, you can get great glowing face results from organic exfoliants made from nuts, fruits and grains, or even sugar or salt.

Major beauty product manufacturers Proctor and Gamble, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive have already committed to phasing out the use of microbeads in their products, and we can only hope that others will follow – quickly. If you want to take a simple, sanctioned stand against the microbead threat, avoid products containing the ingredients 'polyethylene' or 'polypropylene'.

Top header image: Lizzie Pridmore, Flickr