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Exfoliating microplastics and the environment

By Sustainability Office on November 7, 2014

By Lindsey Sagasta ’16

When at the grocery store looking for a new face wash to try out, I thought about some of the benefits and drawbacks of each brand and type: what would be best for my skin, what smells good, etc… I was basing my decision off of general labeling and not what is necessarily inside the wash or how the contents can harmfully affect our world. Average consumers know little to nothing about the products they use on an everyday basis- and that’s pretty concerning.

Plastics are, and always will be, a major environmental concern. There have been many initiatives to reduce the production of plastic products, encourage consumers to reuse items meant for one use, and recycle the waste once it has served its purpose. Disposable plastic water bottles, plastic grocery bags, and plastic take-out containers are a few of many products heavily publicized as hazards to the environment, and campaigns have been created to decrease our dependence on such items (i.e. www.banthebottle.com). But what happens to the plastics consumers don’t know they are using?

Recently, the exfoliating plastic microbeads used in cosmetics such as scrubs and toothpastes have alarmed environmentalists, prompting government and institutionalized research. Earlier this year, Illinois was the first state to ban the microbeads in personal care products due to their extensive damage to our skin and the environment. The microbeads cannot be filtered out of water during sewage treatment due to their size, and consequently, they continue with the flow of the water and contribute to the $13 billion in damage that plastic waste causes to marine life every year. Companies that are to phase out the microbeads will re-incorporate biodegradable alternatives such as ground nut shells and salt crystals that were used in the past.

Fish and other marine life involuntarily swallow the microbeads, leading to possible DNA damage and death. The Convention on Biological Diversity published an overview that states over 663 different species were negatively affected by marine debris, and approximately 11% of these cases were specifically related to the ingestion of microplastics. Larger organisms that depend on the smaller fish for food accumulate the toxins that are stored in the tissues. The chemicals used in the plastics are “biomagnified” throughout the food chain, and in some cases, the final consumers are humans. Thus, the DNA-damaging plastic that kill smaller fish can be transferred in larger amounts to humans.

It was reported that 1,500 to 1.7 million plastic particles accumulate per square mile in the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes are utilized for fish stocks that are distributed in the surrounding areas. This prompted the Illinois ban that requires manufacturers to phase out microbeads by 2017-2019, and encourages other states to pursue similar laws. New York, California, and Ohio have begun drafting legislation banning the plastics.

What you can do to make a difference (and it’s pretty easy): there are many natural versions of face washes that are good at removing dead skin off your face, like oatmeal, rice, apricot seeds, walnut shells, powdered pecan shells, and bamboo. Some products that Dr. Debra Jaliman, author of “Skin Rules” recommends are St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Scrub and Dermalogica’s Microfoliant, or any exfoliators that contain glycolic and salicylic acid. As reported by Huffington Post, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, The Body Shop, L’Oreal, Colgate-Palmolive and other major companies have already started phasing out microbeads in hopes to eliminate their use by 2015. Until the use of microbeads are completely eliminated, you can make a difference by avoiding products that still contain the plastics. When at the store looking to buy exfoliating face or body scrubs, toothpaste, etc., use the smart phone app “Beat the Microbead” to scan personal care products. The app will quickly inform you if the product contains the plastic microbeads.

There are more plastics that affect the environment than many people realize, the microbeads used in cosmetic products are a great example. So while you are using your Nalgene or stainless steel water bottles, or using reusable cloth grocery bags, you can increase your influence by being conscious types of exfoliating products you use. Reaching out and informing the consumer of the simple everyday choices they can make that can have a positive impact on our world can make the greatest difference.


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