The most robust ban on microbeads in the world has come into force this week in the UK, but what are microbeads and how do you know if a product you’re using contains them? Here’s your guide to the murky world of microbeads
Microbeads: tiny plastic particles between one millimetre and one micrometre in size that cause enormous harm to our natural environment and marine life in particular. They’re added to many toiletries and personal care products, and while the UK government has just this week introduced the most stringent ban on microbeads ever seen after much campaigning from consumers and environmental groups, you could still be using microbeads unknowingly within your daily routine- it’s thought that around 680 tonnes of microbeads are used within cosmetic products in the UK every year. All such products containing microbeads will be swept off the shelves come 30th June 2018, but until then, here’s your ‘need to know’ on microbeads according to cosmetologist, pharmacist and founder of Twelve Beauty Pedro Catalá , from what the new legislation covers to to what to look for on the back of the bottle.
What’s happening between now and when the ban comes into force in July 2018?
“From now on manufacturing companies in the UK cannot include microbeads in their formulations. They can still sell products containing microbeads until July 2018 but cannot manufacture them.”
Which products are microbeads mainly found in?
“They predominantly appear in face washes, shower gels, face and body scrubs and toothpastes.”
Which other products might we be surprised to find them in? Have we been ingesting them by accidentally swallowing toothpaste, for example?
“They can be found in household products and cleansers and in many exfoliators, and some face masks too. Toothpastes are definitely an area of concern, and I was surprised to find microbeads in chewing gum, so personally I am sure that we have ingested them.”
Incidentally, dentists have also warned that pieces of microplastic can become lodged in our gums, leading to gum health problems as they harbour bacteria and are very difficult to extract. Also, no one wants a mouthful of potentially toxic plastic.
The ban is only for rinse-off products. Are there other products that have them that aren't rinse off?
“Unfortunately plenty of products contain microbeads, such as makeup (particularly lipsticks), deodorants, hair gels and even skincare, suncare, hand creams and body lotions.”
How do microbeads get into the water supply?
“If you’re using a product containing microbeads, the plastic spheres get rinsed down the drain afterwards. They’re so tiny that our water treatment plants can’t filter them out, and as a result they end up polluting our oceans, rivers and lakes.”
To add to the issue, not only do these minute plastic particles physically pollute our marine environments in that they do not degrade, but they’re also coated in toxic chemicals. The microbeads are often ingested by marine life, fish, birds and other creatures. We don’t fully understand the implications of this on animals, or indeed humans, as yet, but it’s fair to assume that it’s not good.
What do I look for on an ingredients list?
“The most common ingredients of microbeads are polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). Other ingredients to watch out for include nylon/ polylactic acid (PA), polymathy methacrylate (PMMA) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).”
How about if I buy products from abroad? Where else is the ban in force and where is it not?
“Unfortunately you can still buy products containing microbeads in several countries. The US was the first country to implement the ban, Canada will ban them this year and the European Union has issued a recommendation to start the discontinuation of microbeads, but it hasn’t come into force yet. Manufacturers around the world are currently sourcing alternatives, but in many regions and countries it’s a work in progress.”
You can find lists of cosmetic products containing microbeads globally in this chart compiled by The International Campaign against Microbeads in Cosmetics , although bear in mind that it’s not exhaustive- check the back of the bottle before using anything suspect.
If I buy organic, vegan or natural products, will they be microbead free?
“Yes- microbeads should be replaced by natural alternatives such as oat flakes, powdered nutshells, sugar, salt or jojoba beads. Again, always check the ingredients list if you’re ever in doubt.”