Attack of the Microbeads!!

It turns out that certain companies have been putting little plastic beads into products such as toothpastes and exfoliating scrubs. These “microbeads” are made from polyethylene, the same kind of plastic that’s used to make most beverage bottles. Why on earth would they do this, you might ask? In the case of scrubs they are used as a cheaper alternative to natural exfoliants. In toothpaste, believe it or not, the plastic was added purely for appearance. P&G added little colored plastic balls to several varieties of Crest toothpaste as a marketing ploy. Have we gone completely mad?!

Livin’ the dream – microbeads in your toothpaste.
Livin’ the dream – microbeads in your toothpaste.

Besides the unearthliness of cleaning your face with little plastic balls, or swallowing them when you brush your teeth, does it cause any problems? Well, yes. For one thing they are too small to be filtered out by municipal water treatment plants and have been found to accumulate in water systems such as the Great Lakes. Several groups (e.g., Chelsea Rochman at UC Davis) have documented the accumulation of microplastic in aquatic habitats and shown that the tiny fragments of plastic adsorb organic compounds that can affect fish fertility when ingested. 

Organic chemicals such as pesticides, flame retardants and petroleum hydrocarbons and metals such as lead and copper are found sorbed to plastic material globally. As a result, plastic debris in aquatic habitats is associated with a “cocktail of contaminants” that may be hazardous to aquatic animals upon ingestion.

Ingesting microplastic in your toothpaste is not a hazard to the FDA but I can’t say that makes me completely fine with the idea. Dental hygienist Trish Walraven has documented the accumulation of microbeads in patients’ gums and there is some concern over whether the beads will enable bacterial growth and hence dental decay. However, the fact that we even have to find evidence that it’s harmful before avoiding it seems somewhat nonsensical. Would you knowingly endorse having plastic beads in our toothpaste knowing that all it does it add little specks of color? Or in your skin products, knowing that the only advantage is that they are a little cheaper (for the company, not necessarily for you) than natural exfoliants?

By now, companies and governments are responding to pressure to phase out microbeads but let’s just think about the chain of events that led to this point. It’s a process that we’ve repeated over and over again; the case of microbeads is just one example. A company introduces a new process or a new ingredient into some of its products (either to boost sales or reduce material costs) even though they probably have an inkling that there may be social or environmental costs involved. This new product is launched and, if everything goes well, sales will increase and the company benefits (the consumer may or may not benefit – the primary target is the company’s bottom line). Then, some scientists think this all looks a bit dodgy and decide to investigate the impact of this new ingredient, spending millions in taxpayers money in the process. Then, after years of research, there may be direct legislation to ban the item or, more often, consumers begin to reject the product and seek alternatives. So the burden of proving that something is adversely affecting our planet or society rests firmly on the shoulders of the population at large, not the company.

Current cycle for response to new products with negative social or environmental impact. This timeline normally takes 10-20 years.
Current cycle for response to new products with negative social or environmental impact. This timeline normally takes 10-20 years.
If vigilant users post reviews expressing their concerns then this cycle can be cut short at step 2. Word spreads quickly through reviews; and the company will respond quickly by withdrawing or changing the product if sales revenue does not meet their targets.

Of course, a company rep will tell you that they have to meet very strict environmental and safety regulations with any new products or formulations. Well, it doesn’t look like anyone tested whether microbeads can evade the filtration systems in wastewater plants and end up in our lakes and oceans. You would think someone would have thought of this. Or that someone at the company might have objected to the idea of adding plastic to toothpaste when it’s completely unnecessary.

I was going to imagine the scenario of P&G product managers and market researchers briefing their seniors at on “Project Sparkle” where they plan to jazz up their toothpaste with little colored plastic balls. But (as hilarious as this vignette was going to be) we need to take a step back from this way of thinking. It’s easy to smugly point the finger at the corporations. I’m not saying that the senior managers at these companies are not responsible – they are. But they are also part of a system, quite likely doing a job that’s quite far away from their childhood or even college-age dreams, probably making compromises in their ethics in order to pay the bills. (George Monbiot says this more eloquently in his advice to recent college grads).

“Oh, boo-hoo,” I hear you cry… and yes, perhaps it is hard to feel sorry for them and their 6-figure salaries. But in other ways (when we’re feeling sanctimonious) we might feel sorry for the people who compromise their ethics in return for a fat paycheck. However, aside from the company execs who introduced the idea, the focus groups apparently liked it and then lots of people went out and bought it. So society at large doesn’t appear to be free of blame.

So, if we think about a way out of this recurring cycle of events, finger-pointing does not constitute a long-term solution – that is merely our ego’s way of making us feel superior in some way. Morpheus would say that “there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path” and assigning blame only covers the first part (that’s right – I’m quoting Morpheus). To walk the path, or to “be the change that you wish to see in the world” as Gandhi might have said (perhaps he didn’t literally say this but that’s not important right now) is quite simple really.

In this case, just avoid microbeads and in general be vigilant about the products you buy. Product reviews (on Amazon and other sites) that pointed out that polyethylene (plastic) is not an appropriate ingredient in toothpaste or facial scrubs have received a very positive response. Without significant sales revenue, a new product will not take off – it’s as simple as that. And consumers have the liberty to decide that if they’re just not comfortable with a particular process or ingredient they can simply not buy it (without any burden of proof or justification).

Here’s a list of products that contain microbeads and here’s a selection of brands that contain no plastic. You can also check ingredients and avoid toothpaste or cosmetics that contain the ingredient polyethylene. There are several good brands of toothpaste that are socially and environmentally responsible –  I’ve posted reviews (here and here) for two of them that received high gold and green star ratings. I haven’t reviewed any exfoliants, so please post a comment if you’d like me to review a particular product, or better again, share a review that you’ve written. After all, the whole point of this site is to encourage you to write green star reviews!

4 thoughts on “Attack of the Microbeads!!

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