The UK government has just announced plans to ban microbeads, commonly used in cleaning products and cosmetics by the end of 2017. The ban has been brought in primarily over environmental fears, plus concerns that they could enter the human food chain.
But what exactly are these microbeads and what does the ban mean for us and the environment?
The technical bit
So… what exactly are microbeads? To put it simply – they are tiny bits of plastic used for their abrasive properties in cleaning products and cosmetics. For example, shower gels contain them to help the user remove dead skin and provide smoothness.
Microbeads are the preferred choice of manufacturers because of their uniformity in terms of size and hardness.
However typically the product won’t state ‘microbeads’ as an ingredient. So be aware and avoid any products that contain Polyethylene, Polypropylene and Polymethylmethacrylate – the chemical name for plastics. They may also be referred to as Nylon, or by the abbreviations PET, PTFE and PMMA.
But why ban microbeads?
Often measuring under 5mm, microbeads are small enough to pass through water filtration plants. This means these plastic particles are ending up in lakes and oceans where they are inevitably digested by marine life.
So, lets put it into context – 100,000 plastic particles can be washed down the plughole, during one single exfoliating shower.
But the environmental facts and figures are even more astonishing. More than 280 marine species have been found to digest microbeads and a recent study discovered that 90% of birds had microbeads in their stomachs.
Since humans are at the top of the food chain, it is highly likely that we are also consuming these particles. In fact a plate of six oysters can contain up to 50 microbeads.
So you can see why the UK government has taken the decision to ban them. It is worth noting that this decision follows years of campaigning by organisations like Greenpeace and a petition signed by 357,000 people.
Before the ban, many brands had already voluntarily committed to phasing out microbeads by 2020. However, following the Government’s decision – what happens next?
Final details are unclear, but a further consultation will take place later in the year to work out how the ban will work and the implications on companies. But in the meantime, Waitrose are leading the way and have pledged to stop stocking products containing microbeads by the end of September 2016.
25 companies in the UK have also already pledged not to use plastic particles in their own brand products. These include Asda, The Body Shop, Avon and Boots, with Proctor and Gamble following suit soon.
It is quite a grey area, but for a full, comprehensive list of who is and isn’t using microbeads, Beat The Microbead offers a useful guide.
German brand Worlee have also recently announced an environmentally friendly solution to the microbead. Worlee Soft Beads have a special composition and are currently available in Aloe Vera, Sunflower Oil, Vitamin E and Cranberry varieties. This offers brands an environmentally friendly, but man-made, alternative – however, there are other options…
Alternatives to Microbeads
When the ban comes into place, you shouldn’t notice too much of a difference to your beauty regime – brands are already thinking ahead to alternatives. For example, natural jojoba beads/esters are being used by many of the big names and offer the same exfoliating properties.
The best environmentally friendly options are, of course, naturally occurring exfoliants. So why not get ahead of the game and make the switch to natural alternatives like ground apricots and seeds, clay or rice powder.
If you’re still unsure about what products to avoid, download the Beat the Microbead app to use whilst out and about shopping. This genius app allows you to scan products, so you can see what still contains microbeads, and purchase alternatives.
Also check the products in your cupboards and ditch them if they contain microbeads.
Think about the harm you could be causing to the environment just for smoother skin.