Can we just put microbeads in a casket already? The tiny synthetic plastic balls found in a slew of personal care products have already been banned in Illinois for polluting the water system and ending up in the bellies of fish and other wildlife. Now the nonbiodegradable spheres are getting a failing grade from some of the nation’s oral health care providers. Dentists and dental hygienists are finding that the microscopic balls are getting lodged in patients’ gums, where they collect bacteria and may cause infections.
Trish Walraven, a dental hygienist in Phoenix, first began noticing tiny blue particles between her patients’ teeth and just under the gumline a few years ago.
“We thought it was a cleaning product or something that people were chewing,” Walraven told WRBC.
Other hygienists told Walraven they were seeing the same specks. After consulting with one another, the dental care providers figured out what the blue bits were: microbeads from toothpaste.
The tiny balls are made from a material called polyethylene, which is the most common plastic in the world. It’s used to make everything from bottles to grocery bags and trash cans. Popular toothpastes from Crest, such as the company’s Pro-Health and 3D White, have made the microbeads standard for years. But many consumers don’t even know they’re brushing their teeth with plastic.
“If you throw away the box like most people do, the ingredients aren’t actually listed on the tube (sneaky, sneaky, Procter & Gamble!)” blogged Malvern over at Dental Buzz. “However, I was able to track down the box here at this link.”
The savvy hygienist confirmed for herself that the beads aren’t biodegradable. Malvern squeezed out the same amount of toothpaste she uses to brush her teeth, added water, and strained it, which left the little blue balls rolling around. She then tested whether the microbeads would dissolve in water—they didn’t—and then tried dissolving them in rubbing alcohol and acetone. That nonbiodegradability is why Illinois passed a law this summer that will prohibit the sale of microbeads in any personal care products, including toothpaste, after 2019.
Indeed, the beads’ ability to survive is what gave Malvern serious concern.
“Around our teeth we have these little channels in our gums, sort of like the cuticles around our fingernails,” she wrote. “The gum channel is called a sulcus, and it’s where diseases like gingivitis get their start. A healthy sulcus is no deeper than about 3 millimeters, so when you have hundreds of pieces of plastic being scrubbed into your gums each day that are even smaller than a millimeter, many of them are getting trapped.”
“They’ll trap bacteria in the gums, which leads to gingivitis, and over time that infection moves from the gum into the bone that holds your teeth, and that becomes periodontal disease. Periodontal disease is scary,” dentist Justin Phillips confirmed to WRBC.
So do the nation’s toothpaste manufacturers believe that plastic gets our teeth cleaner? Apparently not. Crest previously stated on its official website that the microbeads were only added to its toothpastes for color. It has since removed information about polyethylene from the site, “but I saved a copy of it here in case this ever happened,” wrote Malvern.
Malvern wrote to Proctor & Gamble and received a less-than-encouraging reply. “We will discontinue our use of PE micro plastic beads in skin exfoliating personal care products and toothpastes as soon as alternatives are qualified,” the company responded.
However, on Sept. 15, Chicago’s ABC 7 contacted both Colgate—the company said its products are now microbead-free—and Procter & Gamble. In an email, a spokesperson for the Crest manufacturer told the station that its products are safe.
“We understand there is a growing preference for us to remove this ingredient. So we will,” the spokesperson wrote to the station. The spokesperson also wrote that the company is eliminating the plastic beads in all of its products by March 2016.
That’s a year and a half from now—plenty of time for countless microbeads to keep getting lodged in Americans’ mouths and, through introduction to the water system, in the stomachs of fish. To avoid products with microbeads, check the packaging of all personal care items for polyethylene. There’s no use continuing to put the tiny balls into our bodies or our ecosystem.