Put Down That Face Scrub—It Just Released 100,000 Plastic Particles Into the Ocean
Go to a beach cleanup, and you’ll find that cigarette butts are one of the most abundant items polluting the marine environment.
But that’s only because we can’t see the millions of microbeads left behind when people use products such as hand cleansers, soaps, toothpaste, shaving cream, bubble bath, sunscreen, and shampoo.
A new report from Plymouth University in the United Kingdom found that with just a single use of certain cosmetics products—such as facial scrubs—100,000 tiny microbeads could be released into the environment.
Because the beads are so small—a fraction of a millimeter in diameter—the particles slip through sewage treatment facilities and end up in rivers and oceans.
In the study, published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, researchers measured the number of microbeads in different facial scrub brands. For every five ounces of product, they found between 137,000 and 2.8 million microparticles.
Add up that waste for the year, and the researchers estimate that just from the U.K., as much as 80 tons of microbeads make their way into the ocean annually.
“As the study unfolded I was really shocked to see the quantity of microplastics apparent in these everyday cosmetics,” lead researcher Imogen Napper said in a statement. “Currently, there are reported to be 80 facial scrubs in the U.K. market which contain plastic material; however, some companies have indicated they will voluntarily phase them out from their products. In the meantime, there is very little the consumer can do to prevent this source of pollution.”
The bits of plastic are having a big impact on the world’s oceans: More nonbiodegradable plastics are being discovered in the water and ending up in the stomachs of hundreds of species of fish, seabirds, marine mammals, corals, and more.
In the United States, microbeads’ potentially harmful impact on marine life is leading states including Illinois, New Jersey, Maine, and New York to put forward legislation to ban products containing the particles from being sold in stores. And cosmetics companies such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson have pledged to start phasing out microbeads from their products.