The government intends to ban the use of microbeads in household beauty and hygiene products by the end of next year and similar legislation is in development in Europe. But what are microbeads and what’s so bad about them?
Microbeads are minute pieces of plastic, added to a variety of cosmetic products. The little coloured bits in your toothpaste each morning or the tiny spherical lumps in your shower gel are examples of microbeads. They are found in skin creams, hand soaps, and facial creams among others, enhancing the effects of the chosen products.
Environmentalists argue that microbeads cause damage to the environment. When we use products containing microbeads, we inadvertently wash them down our drains and, eventually, into lakes and oceans. As microbeads are plastic, they are hence not biodegradable, meaning that they do not break down naturally and can remain in the environments into which they are placed for many, many years.
Microbeads are designed to be of a specific size, but other plastics can be reduced to a similar size by other effects – plastic shopping bags floating in the surf, for example – all contributing to the same kind of environmental damage.
Furthermore, microbeads can be consumed by marine animals. The nature of the microbeads makes it difficult for an animal to digest them; an excess of microbeads could damage the animal’s internal system. If we consume these animals later, as a result of a process called Biomagnification, it might mean that the damage caused by the microbeads could also affect mankind.
Microbeads pose no immediate health hazard but the long-term effects on the environment have been enough to prompt the British government to propose a ban on the plastics.