Andreas Späth

Face wash: good for you, bad for the planet

2013-08-12 14:30

Andreas Späth

There is considerable irony in the fact that our obsession with personal cleanliness is turning the natural world into a dumping ground for all sorts of dirty gunk. The latest culprit: those exfoliating microbeads in your facial scrub and body wash.

Until recently, I was using a face wash with cleansing “micro-particles” in the shower every morning. Tiny plastic balls that gently remove dead skin – how could that be a problem?

Well, the trouble starts when the little buggers are washed down the drain. Less than a millimetre in diameter, they are not filtered out by conventional water treatment plants and steadily make their way into natural bodies of water – rivers, lakes and oceans.

We’ve long known that massive quantities of plastic waste from all sorts of sources are washing up on our coastlines and accumulating in gigantic floating islands, particularly in areas where rotating currents trap them in so-called gyres in the North and South Atlantic, the North and South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean.

One study reported more than 300 000 plastic particles with a mass of over 5kg per square kilometre in the North Pacific Gyre, outweighing the amount of plankton found in the same area by over six times.

Now polyethylene micro-particles from our grooming products are adding to this mess. American researchers have recently documented millions of perfectly spherical plastic beads matching those used in beauty products in shape, size, texture and colour in Lakes Erie, Superior and Huron.

The environmental impacts of microplastics are significant as they are not biodegradable and only disappear very slowly.

That many marine creatures, including a variety of fish species, albatross chicks and other seabirds, as well as turtles, regularly ingest plastic waste, mistaking it for food, is well established. When they do, it can end up clogging their digestive systems while depriving them of real nutrients from actual food.

More worrying is the fact that plastic microbeads can act as efficient carriers for toxic substances. There is a great amount of scientific evidence that shows that these tiny plastic particles can absorb dangerous and long-lived pollutants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs), DDT and other industrial and agricultural waste products from the ocean water in which they float, concentrate them and cause them to accumulate up the food chain, potentially all the way back to the original polluters – us!

Isn’t it time that we stopped treating the world’s oceans as a boundless receptacle for our waste and rubbish – a global sewer? Yes, they represent an enormous natural reservoir, but we can’t continue to use them to dilute all of the harmful stuff we pour into them on a daily basis without expecting devastating consequences for the natural world and ultimately ourselves.

Join the California-based 5 Gyres Institute in urging manufacturers to remove polyethylene microbeads from their products. Some of them, including L’Oreal, the Body Shop, Unilever and Johnson & Johnson have already committed to doing so.

The very least you can do is stop using facial scrubs, toothpastes and body washes that contain plastic microbeads. There are plenty of alternatives ways to keep yourself clean and shiny, including products made from biodegradable and natural ingredients that won’t harm the environment.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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