A significant step towards saving the environment has been taken as countries such as the US and the UK have banned microbeads for good. Back in 2015, the tiny beads were first outlawed in the US as President Barack Obama signed a bill that prohibits selling and distributing products that contain microbeads. Having microbeads—tiny plastic orbs—in toothpaste, facial washes, or exfoliants was fairly common up until recent times, and now, the UK has also joined the fight against these seemingly innocuous plastic beads, which are not as harmless as they appear to be. Find out why more countries are banning microbeads and how these can harm your health and the environment.

What Are Microbeads Made Of?

If you have ever used a personal hygiene product that has specks in them, then you know what a microbead looks like. Microbeads are made of plastic and are added by manufacturers to body washes, toothpaste, and other cleansing products for their scrubbing or exfoliating properties. They range in size from about the size of a pinhead to 1 micrometer, which is undetectable to the naked eye. To know if your facial scrub contains microbeads, take a look at the ingredient list—if it has names like polyethylene or polypropylene, then you can be certain that your everyday cleansing product has these tiny spheres.

What Happens When Microbeads Go Down The Drain?

After washing your face or brushing your teeth with products that contain microbeads, you’ll probably feel a sense of well-being as it can give you that fresh and squeaky-clean feeling. However, once the plastic spheres make their way down the drain, they don’t just disappear. Because wastewater treatment plants aren’t equipped to filter out microbeads, they enter the water system and contribute to the pollution of lakes, rivers, and oceans. Moreover, instead of dissolving, these microbeads begin absorbing toxins such as oil and pesticides from the water.

Experts and activists say that microbeads ending up in bodies of water have a greater negative impact on our resources compared to the amount of damage inflicted by whole plastic bottles in lakes or oceans. Stiv Wilson, an associate director of 5 Gyres, a non-profit organization that aims to reduce plastic pollution, told VICE that he would prefer a single milk jug in a lake over a milk jug’s worth of microbeads in the same lake.

“[That’s] because by volume, microbeads have a much bigger surface area to absorb these toxins than a milk jug does,” Wilson explained. “That’s what increases their threat.”

The Dangers Of Microbeads To Marine Life And Humans

Apart from exacerbating water pollution, microbeads can also pose a threat to fish and other marine life. After the tiny specks from your exfoliating body wash end up in the water system, they get mistaken for fish eggs and are eaten by small fish. Once the microbeads are consumed by aquatic life, they enter the food chain and eventually, humans get to eat these toxin-covered plastic beads too.

Once the particles make their way into the human body, it can cause harm in different ways. Dentists have already previously expressed concerns that microbeads added to toothpaste may affect gum health and that these could lead to periodontal disease. Meanwhile, Professor Frank Kelly, director of the Environmental Research Group at King’s College in London, told CNN about all the ways that ingesting plastic can affect our health, and ultimately, our future. Kelly told the news outlet that in sufficient concentrations, the chemicals can injure or kill cells.

“The cells may be replaced successfully, or they may not,” said the expert. “[There could be] damage to protein and DNA and things like that.”

Doing Our Part For The Environment And For Our Future

As the microplastic ban came into effect in the UK in January 2018, it is expected that more countries will follow suit as the threat to marine life and humans posed by these plastic spheres are very real. Moreover, it’s likely that scientists and experts in the field of plastic pollution will find out more about how microplastics can affect the environment and humankind through further research. But while the use of microplastics has been banned, there are other ways that we can help to prevent these plastic spheres from making their way into our waters and our bodies.

While the microplastic ban is a step in the right direction, there are more things that need to be done as over 330 million metric tons of plastics are produced worldwide every year, which means that the potential for plastic pollution remains to be a big threat. Doing research to find out a product’s ingredients, choosing natural, vegan, or cruelty-free toiletries and beauty products, and being aware of the dangers of microplastics can all help in the fight to have cleaner oceans, and hopefully, a microplastic-free future.

Resources & Further Reading:

1. Microbead Ban Signed By President Obama, CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/30/health/obama-bans-microbeads/index.html

2. What You Need To Know About Microbeads, The Banned Bath Product Ingredients, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/carmendrahl/2016/01/09/what-you-need-to-know-about-microbeads-the-banned-bath-product-ingredients/

3. Plastic Microbeads From Body Wash Are Contaminating the Great Lakes, VICE, https://news.vice.com/article/plastic-microbeads-from-body-wash-are-contaminating-the-great-lakes

4. Why dentists are speaking out about the plastic beads in your toothpaste, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2014/09/18/why-dentists-are-speaking-out-about-the-plastic-beads-in-your-toothpaste/

5. It’s not just the oceans: Microplastic pollution is all around us, CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/04/22/health/microplastics-land-and-air-pollution-intl/index.html

6. Plastic microbeads ban enters force in UK, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jan/09/plastic-microbeads-ban-enters-force-in-uk