Microbeads, which are often tiny plastic particles which are 5mm wide or less, have been used in a variety of products such as hand cleansers, face scrubs, soaps, toothpaste, shaving foam, bubble bath, sunscreen and shampoo.
They can be found in a number of different kinds of products from all sorts of industries, not just personal care, and many cosmetics manufacturers are phasing them out of their products following growing concern.
This new study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, saw scientists from seven institutions say that non-toxic and biodegradable alternatives exist for microbeads, which are used in hundreds of products as abrasive scrubbers, ranging from face washes to toothpaste.
"We're facing a plastic crisis and don't even know it," says Stephanie Green, the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow in the College of Science at Oregon State University.
"Part of this problem can now start with brushing your teeth in the morning. Contaminants like these microbeads are not something our wastewater treatment plants were built to handle, and the overall amount of contamination is huge. The microbeads are very durable."
Even though microbeads are just one part of the larger concern about plastic debris that end up in oceans and other aquatic habitat, they are also one of the most controllable.
As mentioned, with growing awareness of this problem, a number of companies have committed to stop using microbeads in their ‘rinse off’ personal care products, and in the US, several states have already regulated or banned the products.
Procter & Gamble, Estée Lauder, and Clarins have all committed to remove microbeads; though according to The Independent, they have not volunteered a timescale for this.
Unilever and Boots have pledged to end production by the end of next year, while L'Oréal, Johnson & Johnson, and Reckitt Benckiser are committing to eliminate the beads from products by 2017.
UN urges action
Earlier this year, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report recommending a precautionary approach toward microplastic management, with an eventual phase-out and ban of their use in personal care products and cosmetics.
Noting that not all cosmetics contain plastics, the report states that a large number still do and as most of the world does not treat its wastewater or incinerate sewage sludge, most particles will therefore end up in the environment, which can be a cause for concern.
Of course, it acknowledges that the presence of ‘micro size plastic’ in the water supply isn’t solely down to personal care products, as there are other key contributors, such as synthetic fabric being broken down in washing machines.
However, the UN says that cosmetics still contribute which is why the industry must take action.