Youthful Skin Versus the Ocean Food Web
by Sarah (Steve) Mosko
It’s time to eliminate plastic
micro-bead exfoliants from consumer products.
The beauty industry hits hard on the
importance of frequent exfoliation to keep skin looking young and healthy.
To that end, spherical plastic micro-bead scrubbers, no larger than a half
millimeter, have been introduced into hundreds of skin care products in
recent decades. But scientists are discovering that the ocean food web, and
maybe human health, could be imperiled as a result.
Photo (c) Shutterstock
As babies, our skin cells are
replaced every two weeks, but by age fifty the turnover rate has slowed to
six weeks or longer, fostering wrinkles and other unwelcome signs of aging.
Products containing plastic micro-beads profess to speed up cell
rejuvenation, and their popularity signals that consumers have bought into
the promise of exfoliating their way to a more youthful look. Whether or not
such products deliver on this promise, scientists have discovered that these
innocent-looking plastic micro- beads are insidious little transporters of
chemical pollutants into lakes, streams, and oceans and maybe onto our
Micro-beads are usually made of
polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP) and, like other plastics, they’re
thought to persist in the environment for a hundred years or more. They’re
added to facial scrubs, body washes, soap bars, toothpastes, and even
sunscreens and designed to be washed down the drain. However, micro-beads
commonly escape waste treatment plants and pollute bodies of water, because
the plants aren’t designed to eliminate them or because wastewater is
diverted directly to local waterways in heavier rains.
“Microplastics” are defined as
plastic debris smaller than five millimeters and include both manufactured
micro-beads and the breakdown products of larger plastic waste, which
fragments into progressively smaller bits during exposure to sunlight and
other environmental forces.
The Santa Monica, California-based
non-profit 5 Gyres Institute is studying the impact of micro-beads and other
microplastics on aquatic environments and found that a single tube of facial
cleanser can contain over three hundred million micro-beads.
In a study published last year in
Marine Pollution Bulletin, 5 Gyres reported that the surface waters of the
Great Lakes averaged forty-three thousand microplastic particles per square
kilometer: Many were tiny spheres matching those in personal care products.
Micro-bead density was as high as six hundred thousand per square kilometer
in one sample. Lead author Marcus Erickson has also informally sampled the
LA River and found an abundance of plastic micro-beads there too. These
startling findings add to a growing body of evidence that microplastics are
building up in all bays, gulfs, and seas worldwide.
In early June of 2014, a group from the
5 Gyres Institute set sail for the North
Atlantic Subtropical gyre and the Sub Polar “Viking Gyre,” from Bermuda to
Iceland, to study plastic pollution. Co-founder and research director Dr.
Marcus Eriksen was joined by thirteen professional sailors, scientists,
advocates, artists, filmmakers, photographers, and journalists.
“5 Gyres is on the frontier of
oceanic plastic pollution, conducting first-hand research to discover
garbage patches around the world,” Eriksen said in a statement. “We’re
working to both understand and communicate more about how plastics affect
the ocean ecosystem, which brings us to monitor remote seas, like the area
south of Iceland. These waters
are where microplastics, including the micro-beads we found in the Great
Lakes, likely find their final resting place. We’re going there to find
Plastic debris of any size
represents a dual chemical threat to aquatic environments, both from noxious
chemicals manufactured into them (like bisphenol-A and phthalates) and
because plastics are lipophilic, meaning oily pollutants found in water
environments are attracted to and adhere to their surfaces. As early as
2001, for example, scientists discovered that virgin pellets of PP exposed
to coastal Japanese sea waters adsorbed toxic chemicals, like
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and a breakdown product of the banned
pesticide DDT, up to a million times their concentration in the surrounding
water. Other risky chemicals, including flame retardants, have since been
added to the list of pollutants associated with marine plastics.
Consequently, plastic debris
ingested by sea creatures has become a potential threat to the ocean food
chain, and scientists have already documented the ingestion of plastics by
many fish species as well as marine creatures as small as barnacles and as
large as whales. Over half of sea turtles found dead have ingested plastic.
Studies are also emerging documenting the bioaccumulation of chemical
pollutants in fish and other animal tissues when plastics are ingested. For
microplastics, this threat is magnified by their small volume, which means
greater relative surface area to which pollutants can adhere.
Recent research suggests that
micro-beads are among the very worst offenders expressly because they are
made of PE or PP. A research team led by Chelsea Rochman at U.C. Davis
deployed various types of mass-produced plastics into San Diego Bay for up
to a year and found that, compared to other polymers, PE and PP soaked up
higher concentrations of measured pollutants: PCBs and polycyclic aromatic
In a particularly disturbing follow-up study published
in Scientific Reports in 2013, Rochman and colleagues observed liver
toxicity in fish attributable to pollutants picked up from San Diego Bay
when, for two months, the fish diet contained ground up PE previously
deployed in the bay. Such findings notch up the concern that human health
could also be impacted by plastics accumulating in the ocean food web.
According to Plastics Europe, an
industry association, global plastics production reached two hundred and
eighty-eight million metric tons in 2012 and is projected to continue its
rise. Oceans cover seventy-one percent of the earth’s surface (roughly one
hundred and forty million square miles) with an average depth of over
two-and-a-half miles. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that
there are already forty-six thousand pieces of plastic per square mile of
ocean, distributed on the surface and sea floor and throughout the water
column. The plastic burden of the Pacific Ocean alone is thought to total
eighteen million tons.
Given the ocean’s vastness, there is
no practical or impractical means to remove the existing plastic pollution.
The idea of somehow filtering out all the microplastic debris is doubly
The only rational solution is to
stem the inflow of further plastic pollution. For micro-beads, the means of
accomplishing this is straightforward. Industry must eliminate plastic
micro-beads from all products and replace them with biodegradable
alternatives, like apricot pits, cocoa beans, walnut shells, dried coconut,
The group 5 Gyres is spearheading a
global Beat the Micro-Bead campaign to both urge consumers to read product
labels and pressure retailers and manufacturers to eliminate plastic
micro-beads. So far, the list of corporations that have promised to
voluntarily reformulate their products without plastic micro-beads includes Johnson and
Johnson, Unilever, The Body Shop, L’Oréal, Colgate-Palmolive, Beiersdorf,
and Proctor & Gamble. None has yet delivered.
Some governments, including those in a handful of U.S.
states, might not wait
for industry to act. On June 8 of 2014, the governor of Illinois signed a bill
banning plastic micro-beads starting in 2017, and similar legislation has
been introduced in Minnesota, New York, and Ohio. In California, a
prohibition on the sale of “microplastics” in personal care products by 2019
passed the State Assembly on May 23, 2014.
[Micro-beads in consumer products have been banned in
both Canada and Britain as of January, 2018. ~Editor]
Plastic micro-beads are used for
maybe a minute before they’re mindlessly washed down the drain, exemplifying
a consumer society paying little attention to the makeup or fate of its
waste. The fact that micro-beads might come back to haunt us via our dinner
plates is food for thought.
Sarah (Steve) Mosko is a sleep
disorders specialist and researcher who also writes about contemporary
environmental and animal rights issues. You can visit
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