Microbeads: The smallest killer

What are microbeads?

How often do you use facial scrub or body scrub? If you use scrub products, you can easily see tiny beads in the products. Those beads are called microbeads. Microbeads are very tiny plastic particles, which are roughly 5 μm to 1 mm. Nowadays, the lakes and oceans of the world are suffering from microbead infestation. These microbeads in scrubs, shower gels, and toothpastes are insoluble in water; therefore, they cause many problems with marine life, the environment, and humans.



What are microbeads made from?

Microbeads are made from synthetic polymers, including polyethylene, polylactic acid (PLA), polypropylene, polystyrene, or polyethylene terephthalate. Microbeads are designed for cosmetic products that have an exfoliating effect; therefore, lots of cosmetic companies, such as Johnson & Johnson, Unilever and Procter, Rite Aid, etc., use microbeads in their products. Microbeads have lots of negative impacts on living organisms and the environment. If marine life or people consume these plastic particles, it would be very toxic for them. Toxin from microbeads can make fish egg shells thinner and it can cause a decrease in fish population. However, there are alternatives to microbeads. According to ELLE UK, there are several alternatives to microbeads, such as whole oats, salt, sugar, coffee, etc. These alternatives are all natural, easily available on the market, can replace microbeads, and are beneficial to our skin and planet.


Impact on human health and food sustainability

Because of its tiny size, microbeads easily go down drains and pass through water filtration systems. Microbeads ends up in the sea, and fish, shellfish, and other marine life ingest them. The evil cycle starts from here. Microbeads can absorb chemical toxins, such as pesticides, and once microbeads enter a fish’s body, it can transfer to fish’s tissue. This means if people consume fish that ingest microbeads, then people are consuming toxic fish. Also, the fish population is decreasing because of microbeads. According to The New York Times, microbeads have had a major impact on the Great Lake regions, and plastic pollution can lead to a disruption in the aquatic food web. Also, according to EarthSky.org, “The lakes likely contain varying amounts of micro plastic pollution because they have different numbers of wastewater inputs and different hydrological retention times.”

Microbeads directly impact in small fish because they are often confused about microbeads and their food. However, if large fish eat those contaminated small fish, then large fish are consuming toxins from the small fish. And if humans are consuming those contaminated large fish, then it also has negative impacts on human health. Another direct impact on human health comes from microbeads in toothpaste. Dental experts say that if people use dental products that have microbeads, it can cause more plaque, tartar and gingivitis.



Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015

The United States Government realized the seriousness of this type of environmental pollution and President Obama passed legislation banning microbeads in 2015. This was called the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. In summary, this act banned rinse-off cosmetics that contain intentionally-added plastic microbeads, beginning on January 1st, 2018, and banned the manufacturing of these cosmetics beginning on July 1st, 2017. These bans will be delayed by one year for cosmetics that are over-the-counter drugs. From mid-2017, in the United States, it will be illegal to produce any product that contains microbeads.


What can we do?

Because the United States and many large companies are banning the use of microbeads, it will restrict the use of them in products. Still, we should let more people know about the environmental impact of microbeads for saving marine lives and the environment. Beatthemicrobeads.org let us know which products have microbeads in them. The easiest way to save marine life, marine ecosystem, and our health from microbead infestation is not using any product containing microbeads.




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4 responses to “Microbeads: The smallest killer

  1. amyquandt

    What is the history of microbead use? How long have they been put into products?


    • jeongyeonlee

      In late 1970s, large scale production of plastic polymer reduced the cost of plastic, and microbeads were patented. From that period of time, people started to use microbeads in cosmetic and body care products for exfoliation ingredient.


  2. lizbrucker

    I have heard of this issue before in my chem class, but I was wondering if you knew how these microbeads affect different species as you move up the food chain? For example, how does the biomagnification of these microbeads affect a secondary consumer vs a tertiary consumer in aquatic biomes? You touch on the fact that this biomagnification effects human health, but how does it affect aquatic tertiary consumer health, i.e. do you know if biomagnification of microbeads responsible for declining fish populations or not?


    • jeongyeonlee

      Since all living organisms in the Earth are closely related together, the pollution from microbeads also have a negative effect on other marine lives population. For example, if birds consume the contaminated fish, which has microbeads inside of them, can cause health problems on birds and eventually decrease on bird population. Because birds normally just swallow their prey, so plastic particles can last long period of time and can be toxic to birds.


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