Plastic Microbeads : bidding farewell to the use of plastic exfoliants in personal hygiene products… or not?

You might have already heard about plastic microbeads – small spherical particles less than 5 mm in size known for their important role in cleaning and exfoliating products. For these properties, plastic microbeads have been incorporated in just about every type of soap, toothpaste, exfoliant, scrub, and cosmetic product over the years – which has led to higher standards in personal hygiene and more satisfied consumers. However, these are all examples of single-use products. We wash our faces and brush our teeth and consequently flush these tiny plastic particles down the drain. In the United States alone, a 2018 study found this to be to the order of 8 billion microbeads released into the ocean every day. This pollution has led to significant problems in marine ecosystems, but there is still great consumer demand for exfoliating products.

As a result of these findings, the Plastic Soup Foundation, a Dutch non-profit organization, has lobbied many countries to ban the manufacture and sale of plastic microbeads in personal hygiene products. In Canada, such a ban went into place in 2018. However, many of these products still contain plastic microbeads or other types of plastic not specified by the current legislation. To be sure your products are plastic-free, always check the ingredients lists. Apps such as Beat the Microbead can help simplify this process by allowing consumers to scan the barcode of their products to quickly find out if they are truly plastic-free. Otherwise, a practical and simple generalization is to avoid ingredients that begin with ‘poly’, contain the word ‘polymer’ in the name, or in the case of an abbreviation, begin with the letter ‘P.

The problems caused by the accumulation of plastic microbeads in the environment are serious and numerous. Not only are these particles a source of visual pollution, but they serve as sponges for other contaminants found in our oceans. These particles are also often attractive to fish and other marine life, who mistake them for food and eat them. In certain species, this can lead to the  death of the organism or their incapacity to reproduce, which then disrupts the entire food chain. Finally, these particles are present in food and water destined for human consumption. A Californian study showed that one in four fish in seafood markets contains plastic. Another report revealed that 92 % of drinking water samples in the United States and 72 % in the European Union are contaminated by tiny plastic particles. Although the specific effects of ingesting plastic on humans is still unknown, it is widely documented that repeated exposure to the additives present in plastics, or the aforementioned contaminants that plastic microbeads adsorb, have various negative effects on human health.

Think of Nemo: avoid plastic microbeads!

Even if certain companies haven’t yet caught up to the law, more and more products are becoming available that use other types of exfoliating agents that aren’t harmful to the environment. While coffee, sugar, or ground apricot pit-based exfoliants have existed since long before the creation of the petrochemical/plastics industry, by the 90s they had largely been replaced with non-biodegradable, synthetic, plastic spheres. The man-made nature of plastic microbeads allowed them to be tough, uniform, and perfectly round, allowing for gentle abrasion appropriate for daily use on skin and teeth. Now, new alternatives provide the best of both worlds. By extracting naturally occurring, biodegradable plastics from plants, tough, uniform, and round exfoliating agents can be produced without concerns for environmental pollution or harming the health of humans or animals. These products can help eliminate dirt, oil, and dead skin cells through daily use without excessive irritation and disintegrate once washed down the drain. Furthermore, these natural plastics can be sourced from food waste that would otherwise be destined to end up in a landfill. All in all, they allow for a consumer to maintain a high standard of personal hygiene all while keeping their environmental footprint to a minimum.

After all, who doesn’t want clear skin and clean oceans?

Advice to consumers:

  • Check the labels of your personal hygiene or cosmetic products
  • Look for eco-friendly alternatives made with plant-based exfoliants

Note: This article is inspired by my master’s research, which is on finding new ways to use brewer’s spent grain, which is the waste resulting from the production of beer and other grain alcohol. Like many other types of plant-based waste or by-products from animal agriculture, brewer’s spent grain contains many interesting molecules that can be extracted or transformed to make a wide variety of new materials. My project has two main components : investigating how to dissolve brewer’s spent grain under eco-friendly conditions and developing a method for the industrial production of biodegradable plastic microbeads from the resulting bio-based plastic solutions. If anyone wants to hear more about these topics, feel free to reach out!

A French version of this article was originally presented for ComSciCon Quebec, a science communication forum for French-speaking students in Canada that I was lucky to attend earlier this year. Thank you to the other presenters, organizers, and reviewers for your feedback and your encouragement in this initiative!

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