Every time you use exfoliating scrubs you are washing more than just dead skin cells down the plug hole, and the ocean is getting anything but a makeover….
A ‘PLASTIC PACKAGED’ WORLD
Regardless of the concerted effort we may make to minimise our individual contributions to plastic waste in our environment, there are plastics hidden in a daily routine that we all take for granted – personal hygiene. Exfoliation with the purpose of removing dead skin cells to reveal a more youthful, glowing complexion is believed to date back to the ancient Egyptians when it was used to maintain healthy and clean skin. However, these traditional methods would have involved the use of loofahs, brushes and pumice stones. Due to our insatiable appetite for plastics in our modern age, these environmentally friendly materials have been almost entirely replaced with microbeads and microcrystals made of plastic, which can take years to biodegrade. These tiny plastic beads, otherwise known as “mermaid tears”, were first recognised as a minor source of plastic pollution in the 1990s. Such plastic particles were predominantly present in hand cleansers, but these would have been used only occasionally by the average consumer. However, the majority of us now have at least one product containing plastics in our bathrooms and use it daily, or at least on a weekly basis. On average, approximately three out of four scrubs and peelings contain plastic beads which are commonly made of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). However, it is not just face wash that should come with an environmental warning: microplastics are even found in several products of toothpastes and shampoo.
Dr Sue Kinsey, the MCS Litter Policy Officer has noted how it is:
“incredible how many everyday products contain plastic beads. They find their way through our sewers and into our seas where they are easily eaten by all sorts of marine animals”.
But why replace naturally occurring products with man-made plastic? Well, the simple answer is that it is cheap and far more cost effective than the more traditional biodegradable exfoliators. What’s more, the beauty industry will claim that the perfectly spherical shape of plastic beads reduces the risk of irritating sensitive skin.
So there is a high chance that you will have a product containing plastic fragments lurking in your bathroom cupboards, and that you had no idea you were washing your face with a plastic concoction. Nevertheless, the dismal reality is that every time you use these products, you are flushing tiny particles of plastic down the plug hole.
CONTRIBUTING TO THE PLASTIC SOUP
Once used, the plastic beads flow down the plug hole and travel through city waste water systems, avoiding capture due to their miniscule size. As 50% of the world’s human population lives within 50 miles of the ocean, it is fairly easy for plastics to make the short trip to the sea. So after having only a fleeting purpose of exfoliating our skin, the plastic beads ultimately face an eternity sloshing around in the ‘plastic soup’ that our oceans have become. The majority of plastic found in the ocean are tiny fragments known as ‘microplastics’, which are defined as being in the size range <5mm. Browne found that microplastics accounted for over 80% of stranded debris in the Tamar Estuary of the UK.
Marine microplastics are predominantly generated by the fragmentation of larger plastics resulting from exposure to sunlight and wave-action. This is a relentless process, with plastic fragments becoming smaller and smaller over time until they become tiny enough to be defined as microplastics. However, the overriding issue of microplastics in exfoliating beauty products is that consumers are directly releasing a constant supply of microplastics into the marine environment, with no degradation and fragmentation required. These plastics have extremely harmful implications for the marine environment and the animals living within it.
Plastics never go away, they just become microscopic.
In a later post I will discuss the threats that microplastics pose to marine life and how these plastics could end up on your dinner plate….