By Dr. Mercola
Microbeads are advertised as the perfect way to exfoliate your skin, stave off acne, and even keep your teeth clean. But these tiny beads, which are found in body washes, toothpastes, facial scrubs, and many other personal care products, are nothing more than tiny bits of plastic.
Being so tiny, you might assume such plastics pose little environmental risk, but the opposite is actually true. Unlike a larger piece of plastic, which can hopefully be recycled and, if not, contained in the trash, microbeads are so small they get flushed right down the bathroom drain.
“Once discharged, there are no known methods to effectively remove microplastics or microbeads from the environment,” stated a report from the New York State Attorney General’s office.1
They travel right through wastewater treatment plants, too, because the filters used are too small to catch them. The result is our waterways are becoming increasingly clogged with plastic microbeads that have no business being in personal care products in the first place.
Microbeads Absorb Toxins and Are Eaten by Marine Life
Research has only begun to reveal the extent of environmental pollution that microbeads have caused. In a 2012 survey of the Great Lakes, it was found that the area has “some of the highest concentrations of microplastic found in the environment, and microbeads were prevalent.”2
Once in the water, microbeads easily absorb endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Plastics may concentrate such toxins at levels 100,000 to 1 million times higher than the levels found in seawater.3
The beads, which resemble fish eggs, are then eaten by many forms of marine life, including plankton, fish, seabirds, and whales. According to the New York State Attorney General report:4
“Microplastic concentrations in aquatic environments are increasing rapidly. This accumulation of microplastic is of particular concern because microplastic has the potential to be ingested by a much wider range of organisms than large debris, making it and the chemicals it carries bioavailable throughout the food chain.
…Wildlife ingestion of plastic also presents the potential for toxicity to both the ingesting species and other species higher in the food chain.
Harmful chemicals transferred to wildlife from ingested plastic include chemicals added to plastic during manufacturing, and ‘hydrophobic pollutants’ that collect on the surface of the plastic once in either salt or fresh water, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).”
The threat doesn’t stop with marine wildlife, of course. If you eat seafood that has been ingesting microbeads, you’re at risk of a potentially high dose of environmental toxins as well…
Over 100 Personal Care Products Contain Microbeads
Although microbeads have been around since the 1970s, they weren’t widely used by manufacturers until the 1990s. At that time, companies began replacing natural abrasives like ground almonds and sea salt with the plastic microbeads.
It was a clever move profit-wise; because microbeads are smooth and gentler on your skin, they could be used everyday, unlike products with rougher abrasive materials, which are meant to be used once every few days to once a week. This meant more product usage and greater profits.
Many products containing microbeads will advertise them on the label, although they may also be listed as “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” in the ingredients list. It’s estimated that Americans use 0.0309 ounces of microbeads per person per year. This sounds like a small amount, but it adds up to nearly 19 tons of microbeads potentially being discharged in New York State alone.5
In New York, the Microbead-Free Waters Act was passed last year to prohibit the sale of cosmetics or personal care products containing plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size.
Illinois law passed in 2014 also prohibits the manufacture of products containing microbeads by the end of 2017, and bans the sale of such products by the end of 2018. California and Ohio have also proposed bans on the beads, and a federal bill, Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2014, has also been introduced.
In the meantime, several large corporations, including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Colgate-Palmolive, and L’Oreal have pledged to phase out microbeads from their products.6
Avoid Microbeads in Your Toothpaste… and All Your Personal Care Products
There’s good reason to boycott any toothpaste containing microbeads, even aside from the obvious environmental threat. Last year, a Dallas dental hygienist reported finding the microbeads in patients’ teeth.
The bits were found in Crest microbead toothpaste and were getting trapped under patients’ gums. This gives food and bacteria an entrance to your gum line, which could actually cause gum disease.7 Procter & Gamble, which makes Crest, reported they would stop using the microbeads by 2016 as a result.
While it seems the use of microbeads is on its way out, the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) is lobbying to have microbeads made from biodegradable plastic, such as polylactic acid (PLA), remain in personal care products.
But PLA does not biodegrade in the environment. If you want to get involved, environmental group 5 Gyres has launched a petition telling PCPC to replace the plastic microbeads with truly natural alternatives. You can sign it now.
What Else Is Lurking in Your Personal Care Products?
Unfortunately, microbeads are only one toxin to look out for in your cosmetics and personal care products. The average US woman uses 12 personal care products and/or cosmetics a day, containing 168 different chemicals, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
While most men use fewer products, they’re still exposed to about 85 such chemicals daily, while teens, who use an average of 17 personal care products a day, are exposed to even more.8
Clearly, such chemical exposures are not insignificant, especially when they occur virtually daily for a lifetime. When EWG tested teens to find out which chemicals in personal care products were found in their bodies, 16 different hormone-altering chemicals, including parabens and phthalates, were detected.9
Further, in a study of more than 31,000 US women, researchers examined blood and urine levels of 111 mostly man-made chemicals commonly found in plastics, personal care products, and household items, as well as which may contaminate air, water, and soil.
Women with higher levels of the chemicals in their bodies were found to experience menopause two to four years earlier than women with lower levels.10 Fifteen chemicals in particular (including nine PCBs, three pesticides, two phthalates, and a furan) were significantly associated with early menopause, which suggests an early decline in ovarian function. Some of the most hazardous chemicals found in many personal care products and cosmetics include:
- Paraben, a chemical found in deodorants and other cosmetics that has been shown to mimic the action of the female hormone estrogen, which can drive the growth of human breast tumors. A study published in 2012 suggested that parabens from antiperspirants and other cosmetics indeed appear to increase your risk of breast cancer.11 The research looked at where breast tumors were appearing and determined that higher concentrations of parabens were found in the upper quadrants of the breast and axillary area, where antiperspirants are usually applied.
- Sodium lauryl sulfate, a surfactant, detergent and emulsifier used in thousands of cosmetic products, as well as in industrial cleaners. It’s present in nearly all shampoos, scalp treatments, hair color and bleaching agents, toothpastes, body washes and cleansers, make-up foundations, liquid hand soaps, laundry detergents, and bath oils/bath salts. The real problem with SLES/SLS is that the manufacturing process (ethoxylation) results in SLES/SLS being contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, a carcinogenic byproduct.
- Phthalates are plasticizing ingredients that have been linked to birth defects in the reproductive system of boys and lower sperm-motility in adult men, among other problems. Be aware that phthalates are often hidden on shampoo labels under the generic term “fragrance.”
- Methylisothiazolinone (MIT), a chemical used in shampoo to prevent bacteria from developing, which may have detrimental effects on your nervous system.
- Toluene, made from petroleum or coal tar, and found in most synthetic fragrances and nail polish. Chronic exposure linked to anemia, lowered blood cell count, liver or kidney damage, and may affect a developing fetus.
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How to Find Safer Personal Care Products
The Environmental Working Group has a great database to help you find personal care products that are free of potentially dangerous chemicals.12 Products bearing the USDA 100% Organic seal are among your safest bets if you want to avoid potentially toxic ingredients. Be aware that products boasting "all-natural" labels can still contain harmful chemicals, so be sure to check the full list of ingredients. Better yet, simplify your routine and make your own products. A slew of lotions, potions, and hair treatments can be eliminated with a jar of coconut oil, for example, to which you can add a high-quality essential oil, if you like, for scent.
It's important to remember that your skin is your largest and most permeable organ. Just about anything you put on your skin will end up in your bloodstream and distributed throughout your body. Once these chemicals find their way into your body, they tend to accumulate over time because you typically lack the necessary enzymes to break them down. This is why I'm so fond of saying "don't put anything on your body that you wouldn't eat if you had to." What you’ll notice if you browse through the ingredients in any of my personal line of natural skin care products is just that – ingredients you’ll know and recognize, like organic coconut oil, orange oil or rosemary extract.
If you’re worried about giving up your exfoliating microbeads, there are many more natural options that will leave your skin glowing. Dry skin brushing, for instance, removes dead dry skin, improving appearance, clearing your clogged pores, and allowing your skin to "breathe." You can also make a homemade exfoliant simply by combining a natural abrasive, such as salt, sugar, or coffee grounds, with a carrier oil such as coconut oil.