Microbeads: Could Your Toiletries Be Damaging the Environment?

T he use of tiny plastic microbeads in cosmetic products had been banned by the state of Illinois back in June  — as they purportedly cause damage to marine life — and several other states intend to follow suit with their own bans.

The bill passed by the Senate of the state of Illinois — known as the Non-Natural Cosmetic Ban, or SB 2727 — established a ban in Illinois on “microbeads”, which are small plastic beads comprised of polyethylene often used in toiletries and cosmetic products like exfoliating face washes. Concerns have been raised that these microbeads are entering into the water supply and releasing toxic chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyl — better known as PCBs — which are consumed by wildlife, and then in turn are consumed by humans. The use of such microbeads in Illinois is to be phased out by December 31, 2018.

Microbeads are one of those things when I first saw them suspended in some type of body wash, the first thing I wondered was what was their purpose — and why?!?

I never realized that they were created from a form of plastic. I had automatically assumed that they were created by some sort of benign biodegradable chemical compound which was safe for the environment. The human race has survived for thousands of years without microbeads. How exactly do they really improve our lives — and why would manufacturers of cosmetics and toiletries create something so potentially harmful to the environment?

Perhaps microbeads are not as beneficial to your health as you might think. According to this article written by Alexandra Sifferlin of Time magazine, “microbeads can also be vicious on your skin. While the little beads help deeply cleanse the pores, they can also cause tears if used too roughly. But if you love the feeling of rubbing dead skin off your face (that’s what they’re for)—there are some natural versions of face wash that use ingredients like oatmeal instead.”

In addition, the plastic waste caused by the microbeads are reportedly not filtered out during the sewage treatment process — contributing to the damage of water ecosystems conservatively estimated to cost $13 billion each year, according to this article posted at the official Internet web site of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Here is an abstract from the official Internet web site of the National Center for Biotechnology Information of the United States National Library of Medicine pertaining to a study of the translocation of ingested microscopic plastic to the circulatory system of the mussel:

Plastics debris is accumulating in the environment and is fragmenting into smaller pieces; as it does, the potential for ingestion by animals increases. The consequences of macroplastic debris for wildlife are well documented, however the impacts of microplastic (< 1 mm) are poorly understood. The mussel, Mytilus edulis, was used to investigate ingestion, translocation, and accumulation of this debris. Initial experiments showed that upon ingestion, microplastic accumulated in the gut. Mussels were subsequently exposed to treatments containing seawater and microplastic (3.0 or 9.6 microm). After transfer to clean conditions, microplastic was tracked in the hemolymph. Particles translocated from the gut to the circulatory system within 3 days and persisted for over 48 days. Abundance of microplastic was greatest after 12 days and declined thereafter. Smaller particles were more abundant than larger particles and our data indicate as plastic fragments into smaller particles, the potential for accumulation in the tissues of an organism increases. The short-term pulse exposure used here did not result in significant biological effects. However, plastics are exceedingly durable and so further work using a wider range of organisms, polymers, and periods of exposure will be required to establish the biological consequences of this debris.

According to this article originally posted in July of 2007 but updated since, Peter Thomas Roth AHA/BHA Face & Body Polish is among the products which contain micro-fine polyethylene beads. Hilton Worldwide is a lodging chain which features amenities produced by Peter Thomas Roth. However, “Peter Thomas Roth is phasing out the old body wash due to environmentalists’ growing criticism of microbeads, and the Palmer House was just clearing out its stock”, according to FlyerTalk member MS02113.

One easy solution to this problem is to simply stop using toiletries and cosmetic products which contain microbeads. When you travel, bring toiletries and cosmetic products which do not contain microbeads — especially if the hotel property at which you stay is known to supply amenities which contain microbeads.

I personally do not use products containing microbeads — whether at home or while traveling. The few times I have used them is if I was visiting the homes of friends or relatives whose washrooms were supplied with liquid soap which contained microbeads; and because I believe in properly washing my hands, I had no choice but to use it.

I can tell you that after using the liquid hand soap, I did not exactly exclaim “Wow! Those microbeads really made a significant difference in the cleansing of my hands! I have to get some for my home right away!!!” In fact, I did not notice any difference at all — other than the brief novelty of having the plastic equivalent of caviar all over my hands.

Then again, fashion, toiletries and cosmetic products bore me. I have no interest in any of them. Call me ignorant on those topics…

…but now it is your turn: according to your travel experiences, which lodging chains feature the use of amenities which contain microbeads? What are your thoughts on the use of microbeads in toiletries and cosmetic products?

2 thoughts on “Microbeads: Could Your Toiletries Be Damaging the Environment?”

  1. DWT says:

    I am in the same boat as you– until I recently starting seeing articles in the media about microbead bans, I (naively) thought that the microbeads were made out of something like hard clumps of soap that would eventually degrade as they were washed away. I have since learned that there has been a long existing practice of using oatmeal, crushed walnut shells, or other natural ingredients to exfoliate in beauty products, but microbeads (even in some toothpastes now) are largely used because plastic is a cheaper alternative.

    In any case, it’s good to hear that Hilton is switching to a non-microbead Peter Thomas Roth body wash; I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any hotel chains I’ve stayed in during the past few years where the body wash contained microbeads.

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