Your toothpaste and body scrub could be polluting our beaches with plastic—and lawmakers in New York want to do something about it.
Microbeads are small, multi-colored pieces of plastic used as exfoliant in many consumer beauty products. Because the beads are so tiny (5mm or less), products can contain hundreds of thousands of pieces. Microbeads are found in things like facial scrubs, skin creams, body washes, and even toothpaste and sunscreen.
Yep, that’s right: you could be scrubbing your face (and your teeth) with plastic.
This week, the NYS Assembly passed the Microbead-Free Water Act which would prohibit the distribution and sale of any product containing microbeads in New York State. Next the legislation must be approved by the NYS Senate and signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Wondering why lawmakers are in a lather over these pieces of plastic? We’ve got you covered.
5 Reasons to Ban the Beads
1. They get in our water—and on our beaches:
Products containing microbeads are supposed to be washed down the drain—but sewage treatment facilities are not designed to filter these tiny pieces from wastewater. That means they eventually make their way to lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Plastic, of course, is not biodegradable and once the beads enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove.
2. They attract and absorb toxic chemicals.
The surface of microbeads has also been shown to attract and absorb pollutants such as PCBs and DDT from the aquatic environment. These toxins can potentially accumulate in the fatty tissues of anything that eats them.
3. Microbeads (and their toxic pollutants) can enter our food chain.
Fish and other creatures can easily mistake microbeads for food. Scientists have found plastic in the digestive and circulatory systems of fish, marine mammals and reptiles, mussels, and worms. Scientific studies have shown that fish and wildlife of all sizes consume plastic and that the chemicals (like those pesky PCBs) can be passed up the food chain to larger fish, wildlife, and ultimately humans.
4. They can harm our feathered friends, too.
According to Audubon New York, microbeads also pose a threat to many bird species that feed at the water’s surface. Waterbirds can mistake plastics for food—and are susceptible to bioaccumulation of plastic in the fish they eat—with detrimental effect. They can be harmed by the toxic chemicals, and the plastic can build up in their stomachs, leading to decreased food-absorption and ultimately starvation.
5. Microbeads can get lodged in our gums (ouch!).
A number of toothpaste products contain microbeads made from polyethylene. According to the Official Crest Website, polyethylene is added to your toothpaste for color, not as an aid in helping to clean your teeth or to disperse anti-plaque or anti-cavity ingredients. Dental hygienists have found them lodged in the gums of their patients—see here, if you’re brave.
How to Avoid Microbeads
In the meantime, consumers can also avoid microbeads by reading labels closely: most products that contain them will show “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” in the ingredients list. A coalition of groups has also developed a “Beat the Microbead” app, which lets consumers scan the barcode of a product to see whether it contains plastics. For safe alternatives, look for scrubs with salt, sugar, walnut pieces, jojoba spheres or other natural substances.