Soaps with microbeads — those tiny pieces of plastic that help exfoliate your skin — can keep you clean, but they also harm the environment. Microbeads don’t dissolve, so they enter water streams by the billions.
In 2015, the US banned soaps, toothpastes, and body washes that contain microbeads. The law calls for a phasing out of the beads from cosmetics beginning July 1, 2017.
But now members of Britain’s Parliament are calling for a worldwide ban on all products containing the beads.
“Trillions of tiny pieces of plastic are accumulating in the world’s oceans, lakes and estuaries, harming marine life and entering the food chain,” Committee Chair Mary Creagh told the BBC. “A single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean.”
Because they’re so small, microbeads don’t get filtered out by wastewater treatment plants. Instead, they are discharged directly into rivers, lakes, and the ocean. A 2013 study found as many as 1.7 million of the tiny plastic particles per square kilometer in Lake Erie, one of the bodies of water in the Great Lakes region where much of our debris ends up. In New York state alone, 19 tons of microbeads are washed down the drain each year, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“Microbeads are highly damaging to the natural environment and the wildlife that live there,” the Wildlife Conservation Society said in a press release. “Because natural alternatives already exist, a ban on their use in personal care products makes perfect sense.”
In waterways, over 250 species of marine animals mistake the tiny scraps of plastic for food, according to a 2013 study. And harmful pollutants like DDT can also stick to the beads as they pass through the pipes.
When fish, turtles, and other aquatic wildlife feed on the tiny bits of plastic, the microbeads can become lodged in the animals’ stomachs or intestines. When this happens, the animals often suffer health problems or stop eating and die of starvation.
“We have the evidence that the micro plastics do cause harm,” Marcus Eriksen, executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute, a research group that led the 2013 study, told Scientific American at the time. “I am hoping we can translate that research into some positive action.” If the proposed ban is implemented worldwide, Eriksen would certainly get his wish.
Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble have made pledges to phase out the most common kind of microbead from all products, regardless of where they’re sold.
The International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics has compiled a helpful list of the products that most likely contain microbeads, which will be banned in the US starting in 2017.