All About Microbead Pollution and How to Nix Beads from Your Bathroom

By Maureen Wise in Thinking Sustainably

Have you heard of microbeads? These tiny, scrubbing pieces of microplastic are found in many health and beauty products, such as toothpastes, facial scrubs, hand soaps, and body washes. They may be small, but they create some serious pollution in our waterways, beaches, and ocean. They can also cause some major harm to wildlife.

Here's more about this pollutant how you can make changes in your personal care routine to help cut down on microbeads in the environment.

closeup of small pieces of plastic in the sand

Why Microplastics Are a Pollutant

Many nonprofits and governments are working against microbead pollution. Environmental nonprofit 5 Gyres states that just one tube of facial scrub contains more than 300,000 plastic microbeads, which are too small to be filtered out in municipal water treatment plants. This means that every single one of these microplastics ends up in the ocean, since all watersheds and their rivers, lakes, and streams are connected to it.

You remember Rachel Carson's 1962 groundbreaking book Silent Spring that called attention to DDT's deadly effect on wildlife? This infamously strong insecticide has been outlawed in the U.S. and other countries, but traces of it still remain and have recently been found glued to microbeads inside the bodies of dead fish.

Chemical pollution and plastic are good buddies, which is part of the problem with microbeads. Pollution binds or "gloms" to plastics, especially flame retardants and other industrial chemicals, says Smithsonian Magazine. If a tainted plastic bead is swallowed by a small fish or other marine critter, it will travel up the food chain and poison the next smallest fish, all the way up to the large creatures at the top like sharks, whales, and humans.

Small pieces of plastic, including microplastics, are eaten by fish, birds, and other wildlife because it resembles their natural food. These animals' bellies fill with plastics containing pollutants, which are then absorbed by their internal organs. Their stomachs feel full, and so they don't get hungry and eat. They then starve with a belly full of contaminated plastic. Researchers at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration are studying the effects of plastic pollutant bioaccumulation, or buildup in animals' bodies.

Government Action

Former president Barack Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act in 2015, which laid down plans to phase out certain cosmetic products containing microbeads by 2019. Unfortunately, writes the Huffington Post, these new rules do not ban other industrial uses of microplastics such as in sandblasting products and detergents, or cosmetics such as lipstick that stay on the skin.

The Act set deadlines to stop manufacturing these products and stop selling them, with separate deadlines for non-prescription and prescription cosmetics. While not perfect, it's a great start and has brought many consumers' attention to the problem.

Your Action

Now that you know what microbeads are, how do you stop letting them into your house? First, read the labels on your toothpaste, facial scrubs, and body washes, along with all your other soaps and beauty products. If you've got anything that contains polyethylene or polypropylene, stop using these products and replace them.

This may be the only time you will hear us encourage you to trash anything on this blog, but these products will be better off in a landfill than down the drain, where they will ultimately harm wildlife and pollute waterways and beaches. Talk to your kids about why you're replacing their toothpaste or acne wash, and get them to brainstorm other ways you can help protect ocean life!

Beat the Bead offers an app and extensive online list (with international listings) that you can use to identify products in your home that contain microbeads. Beat the Bead also suggests plenty of microbead-free soaps and toothpastes to use instead. When reading new labels at the store, search for microbead alternatives like sugar, nut shells, crushed coffee, and other plant-based ingredients that will biodegrade.

stack of handmade soap

Tom's of Maine = No Microbeads

Remember that app I mentioned? You won't find a single Tom's of Maine product that contains microbeads on the list. You will find Tom's toothpastes listed with the bead-free alternatives. Tom's of Maine is dedicated to naturally derived and naturally sourced ingredients, and that means that tiny plastic scrubbers certainly do not make the cut.

Check your medicine cabinet and shower shelf. Do you need to make any replacements to eliminate your contribution to microbead pollution?

Image source: Pixabay | Flickr | Unsplash

The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.


Why It’s Good

Microbead pollution brings to light the idea that the smallest action, such as brushing your teeth, can have a bigger impact on wildlife and the world as a whole than you can imagine.