Microbeads: Cosmetic’s Ugly Omen

“In many species of sea birds, almost 100% in some, there is some kind of plastic in their stomach”

Heather Koldewey (Marine Biologist)

What are microbeads?

Microbeads are small pellets of plastic, no bigger than 1 or 2 millimetres, manufactured of different types of plastic (polyethylene or polymeric plastics like polypropylene, polystyrene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, nylon etc.).

Used widely by the cosmetic industry for exfoliation, skin whitening, acne and blackhead removal, ‘age-defying’ makeup, wrinkle filling, lip gloss, nail paint, soaps, body washes and for oral hygiene in toothpastes, they are highly toxic for marine life and water 4.These are banned in a lot of countries whereas, shockingly, India has no ban on these whatsoever. You’ve seen them a lot, the actresses advertising their power to transform your skin with ‘clear activated power of magical beads, exfoliating scrub to brighten your life, whiten your skin’ so on and so forth. Major brands like Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, P&G, Colgate Palmolive, Dior, Reckitt Benckiser, L’Oréal, Marks & Spencer etc. manufacture such products. The list of banned and toxic microbeads riddled products can be found here.

“One tube of facial scrub can contain more than 300,000 plastic microbeads”

– The 5 Gyres Institute

Why should we worry?

From our faces, down the drain, to lakes and rivers and finally in oceans- that is the only itinerary of microbeads. Wastewater treatments are incapable of filtering them, hence they continue their journey in all water bodies and percolate everywhere. Marine organisms unknowingly feed on plastics, for example misconstruing particles to be fish eggs, and that makes all the way up to humans in the food chain. Plastic in the ocean also serves as an absorber of various noxious organic pollutants like DDT, flame retardants, motor oil etc. The aquatic creatures feed on the toxin-coated plastic beads that get absorbed by their body tissues, further affecting sea birds and humans. Regardless of whether one consumes sea food and fish or not, everyone does depend on a water body- be it a river, lake or inland waterways. And microbeads seep into everywhere. Microplastics are rampant in crystallised forms in the Arctic ice, too.1

“A single microbead can be up to a million times more toxic than the water around it”

– (Rochman et al)

The 5 Gyres Institute found microplastics on 21% of the Earth’s surface in their expedition of estimating plastics in oceans.3 Since it is impossible to blame a country or a company for all that was found in the oceans, they started surveying rivers and lakes, bringing their study closer to land and to holding countries/companies culpable. This is how organisations like ‘Story of Stuff’ in collaboration with others fomented an intense campaign against microbeads and achieved having a major proportion of them being banned in the USA, it being not the only country to do so.4

Are any microbeads biodegradable?

Brilliant question! And the answer is quite eye-opening and simple – NO!

There is no such thing as a genuine biodegradable plastic, unless made entirely of plants and natural resources. However, they usually have synthetic sheets blended which are left in the environment after the natural part degrades.

Microbeads, being so tiny cannot be composted industrially, and are made to be drained in the first place. The wastewater treatments cannot filter them out, so compostable option is snubbed. Besides, the Bioplastics sold to be as environment friendly are really the opposite of it. Our blog on ‘All that Glitters is not Gold’ shares more details on these “biodegradable plastics”.

You would not get a product with plastic microbeads that are biodegradable. If you spot that, now you know it is pure deception. There you go!

“Awareness in the first step to change.”

Am I trying to whiten my face or teeth with plastic?

Sheesh! That doesn’t sound like the healthiest thing one would choose. But, perhaps. Most people are unaware of those beads being plastic particles. Although not mandatory in all countries, the ingredients are expected to be mentioned at the back of the products. 

Any products enlisting polyethylene or polymeric plastics like polypropylene, polystyrene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, nylon or such products all have plastic microbeads in them. Or if the product claims having biodegradable plastic, yes right, we are not falling for it now.

What can we do as consumers?

  1. Although banned internationally, India has no ban on microbeads whatsoever. We, as informed consumers, must completely refrain from purchasing these by checking the ingredients carefully. Sparkling toothpastes, cosmetics with hard particles and plastic ingredients etc. should be rejected at sight.
  2. You could replace these plastic particles by products really constituted of natural exfoliants like jojoba beans, apricot shells and pumice. These may look like plastic particles in the product, but natural particles dissolve while being used on face and do not stay hard and unchanged like plastic particles. This could be helpful in the event of bafflement at the listed contents in product description.
  3. Being Indians, we are conversant with the best cleansers and exfoliants like gram flour, plain flour, Fuller’s earth (multani mitti), milk, aloe vera etc. Nothing works better than these, and the last to transform your skin would be chemicals and plastics. The sole reason companies abstain from using the natural products is that plastics are smoother and cheaper than the former, making them less efficient and thereby increasing sales of these products.

Golden tip: – Microbeads have absolutely no capability of making you fairer, acne-free, clear skinned and all that jazz. Give them up guilt free. Let nature do its work. You mend it, it mends all…






References: –

1 https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/beating-plastic-pollution/article24213220.ece

2 https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/the-era-of-plasticdegrading-bacteria-has-begun/article8374753.ece

3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bic7QEVRNe4

4 https://storyofstuff.org/plastic-microbeads-ban-the-bead/

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