How A Ban On Tiny Bits Of Plastic Could Affect Your Beauty Routine

1. You’d be
forgiven for not realising, but tiny pieces of plastic are
used in some cosmetics and personal care products.

You’d be forgiven for not realising, but tiny pieces of plastic are used in some cosmetics and personal care products.

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Nik_merkulov / Getty Images

Tiny, spherical bits of plastic that are added to beauty
products, especially scrubs and exfoliants, are called
“microbeads”. They’re mainly used as an abrasive, replacing
natural materials like ground walnut shells, and are a subset
of “microplastics” – pieces of plastic so small you almost
need a microscope to see them.

It’s not just exfoliating products that contain microbeads –
they’re found in sunscreens and toothpastes too, as well as
some make-up items.

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2. But
they’re bad news for the environment.

“They’re literally designed to be washed down the drain, but
they’re so small it’s hard to pick them out of the sewage
system,” Erik Van
Sebille, an oceanographer at Imperial College London told
BuzzFeed News. So they end up in our oceans and waterways.

“They’re so small you can’t even really see them in the water
anymore, but those are the plastics that do the most harm to
marine animals,” says Van Sebille. “At some point, I think
that in a few years we’ll look back and think, What were
we even doing putting plastics in cosmetics?!

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4. There’s
talk of banning them in the UK too.

Earlier this year the environmental audit committee
launched an inquiry into the environmental impact of
microplastics, and in June environment minister George
said the UK “fully backs” a microbead ban and would try
to push one through the EU.

Following the EU referendum, a DEFRA spokesperson confirmed
to BuzzFeed News that the UK will continue to support
international action to ban the use of microbeads.

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5. So what
would a ban do to your beauty routine? We went shopping to
find out which products on sale right now still use
microbeads. Here’s what we found.

All of these products listed polyethelene or another plastic
commonly used in microbeads on their ingredient list.

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12. Lots of
companies have voluntarily stopped using microbeads or are in
the process of phasing them out.

Companies starting using plastics instead of natural
materials because it’s easier to control the size and shape
of microbeads, and they tend to have a longer shelf life.

But following increasing public awareness some
companies are choosing to switch back to non-plastic
abrasives. For example, Unilever says it
stopped using microbeads in 2014, and L’Oreal has

said it will “no longer use microbeads of polyethylene in
[their] scrubs by 2017”.

“Some of the bigger-name brands have decided it’s just not
worth the PR risk,” says Van Sebille. “There are less and
less microbeads on the shelves, just because we’re talking
about it. It’s thanks to the power of the people and the
power of the internet.”

To find out if your favourite product uses microbeads, you’ll
need to read the label carefully. Look out for polyethylene
(PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET),
polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene
(PTFE), and nylon – all are plastics that are used as

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Microbeads aren’t the only plastic pollution in the oceans, but
they’re a problem that’s easy to solve.

Disposable plastic that’s sent to landfill is the obvious one,
but there are other sources of polluting plastic you’re
probably not aware of. Fleeces and some other high-tech
clothing items contain plastics, and tiny plastic fibres get
into the water when they’re washed. And when rubber tyres wear
they leave little traces of plastic on roads that can then get
washed into rivers and eventually reach the sea.

“Microbeads are the low-hanging fruit,” Van Sebille told
BuzzFeed News. “It’s a lot harder to get people to stop using
rubber tyres, for example, but with microbeads we already have
non-plastic alternatives.”

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