Lurking below the surface in most of your beauty products lie micro-plastics. NOAA defines micro-plastics as small plastic pieces, less than five millimeters long, which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life. Micro-plastics mostly start as large pieces of plastic debris, such as synthetic fabric or plastic packages, that further break down into tiny pieces over a period of time.
If you take a look around your household, you will be able to spot a few of these “plastics.” Your glittery eyeshadow is a great example, or your shampoos, conditioners, shower gel, shaving creams, and even sunscreens. However, not all plastic is visible to the naked eye.
While micro-plastics are categorized as being under 5 mm in size, there are even smaller plastics known as micro-beads, which are smaller than 1 mm, that show up notoriously in the beauty industry as “scrubbing” and “exfoliating” agents. Micro-beads are developed to be so tiny (on purpose!) so they can be used in products for an array of reasons. Thanks to these micro-plastics, and even more tiny micro-beads, there are many beauty products made of more than 90 percent plastic. According to the UN Environmental Programme, some of these personal care products can contain as much plastic as the packaging they come in.
Nano-plastics, which are even smaller than micro-plastics or micro-beads, are also present in these products and can easily pass through skin. These are the plastics that end up in our waterways. As you wash them off in your sink, the nano-plastics and micro-beads can travel down your drain effortlessly and, because they’re so small, wastewater filtration is unable to treat them, meaning they continue to flow into our oceans and rivers.
Now, if these micro-plastics are harmful to us and the environment, then why are we continuing to see them in our products? The answer is simple. Even the regulations against micro-plastics are being greenwashed.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, micro-beads are not a recent problem. They first appeared in personal care products almost 50 years ago, but even as recently as 2012, the micro-plastics issue flew under the radar as more and more plastics were increasingly replacing natural ingredients. Consumers were blindly unaware.
On December 28, 2015, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which banned plastic micro-beads in cosmetics and personal care products. However, the act did not address consumer safety, as there has been no evidence to suggest any human concern. As well, the law, according to the FDA, only covers “rinse-off” cosmetics, such as toothpastes, that contain intentionally added micro-beads and are intended to exfoliate or cleanse the body.
The only countries that have complete bans in place against micro-plastics include South Korea, which banned all micro-beads in cosmetics, and Canada, which banned all micro-beads smaller than 5mm. Bottom line is that these plastics are still ending up in a lot of the makeup and personal care products you use everywhere else.
The only good news is that you don’t need to contribute to the mass of micro-plastics ending up in your body or our oceans. You can help to reduce plastic pollution simply by giving your bathroom a plastic-free makeover and opting for beauty companies that refrain from using these micro-beads and micro-plastics. Cosmetic and personal care brands that are entirely free of plastic ingredients do exist, and aren’t that hard to find! In fact, most carry the ‘Zero Plastic Inside’ logo.
If you’re curious to know whether a product you’re using contains micro-beads, beatthemicrobead.org is an incredible resource. This site also contains a ‘red list’ or micro-plastic ingredients list, so you can stay away from materials such as polyethylene or polypropylene, which are the most commonly-used plastics.
While there is still a lot we don’t know about micro-plastics and their impact, along with Beat the Micro-bead, programs such as The NOAA Marine Debris Program are leading efforts to fully research this topic and eventually enact global field and lab protocols to allow us to compare how many micro-plastics are being released into the environment and what their impacts are.
While we don’t have all of the answers at this exact moment, there is still a lot that we can do. Switching to plastic-free packaging, pledging to stop using products that contain hidden plastics, and continuing to demand transparency and change from the beauty brands we love the most are all ways we can enact change and demand a better future for our planet.