Microplastics such as microbeads, once found in many cosmetics and other household items, are now being phased out due to their environmental impact. In some countries, talks of banning microbeads have begun, signaling the end of this type of microplastic.
What Are Microplastics?
Microplastics, technically speaking, are small plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters in length, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The most commonly used form of microplastics is microbeads: small round pieces of plastic, some so small they’re hardly visible to the naked eye. These pieces of plastic don’t dissolve in water, making them a key ingredient in many common household items.
The Many Applications Of Microbeads
Microbeads, while often overlooked as a form of potential pollution, have appeared in a wide variety of products frequently found throughout the home since the 1960’s. Many cosmetics and skin care products feature microbeads as an exfoliant, particularly acne products. Acne is the most common skin condition in the United States, affecting up to 50 million Americans every year; many people with this skin condition use microbead products as an exfoliant to help treat their symptoms. Microbeads are included in just about every health or beauty product imaginable, from toothpaste to shampoos to makeup to soaps and more.
Small Plastics, Big Problem
Despite their minimal size, microplastics have a massive impact on global pollution. How can these miniature plastics cause damage to the environment? Microbeads in soaps and cosmetics end up polluting the water supply due to the fact that they don’t dissolve. These small plastics end up eaten by fish and other wildlife, contaminating the food chain, even making their way into human diets. The chemicals used in these plastics can be toxic and damaging if ingested, and sometimes even the plastics themselves can be lethal to wildlife.
Because microplastics don’t dissolve, microbeads used in cosmetics can stay within ecosystems for centuries. Most clean-up methods will be unlikely to tackle these plastics, as the particles are too small for most cleaning techniques to catch and remove from oceans. While cleanup for this type of plastic pollution may be difficult, prevention is possible and is already underway in many parts of the world.
Microbeads On Their Way Out
When the world makes and consumes about 600 billion pounds of plastic yearly, even the smallest plastics can worsen an already alarming issue. Governments everywhere have started making progress towards restricting or outright banning microbeads and microplastics in cosmetics. This effort, combined with other environmental policies (such as the United States’ solar capacity growing past 47.1 gigawatts in 2017), could potentially help improve the current state of the environment.
With the anti-plastic movement in full swing, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before microbeads are phased out for good. Between government response to plastic pollution and general consumer rejection of plastics, more and more companies are likely to skip on adding microbeads to their products, possibly leading to the disappearance of these microplastics in daily household items.