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Science. Communication. Community.

Little Plastic Catastrophe

What squishy products do you use every day? You may have thought about their chemical impact on the environment, but have you thought about their physical impact? 

by Kerstin Nordstrom

Photo Credit: Julie Kertesz from Paris neighbourhood, France (Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons

A rule of thumb: if you add small particles to a fluid, it gets thicker. Anyone who has thickened up a sauce with some flour or cornstarch knows this firsthand. In fact, a lot of low fat yogurts and ice creams are laced with little (non-toxic) particles to give them a thicker, creamier texture. Just another reason to stick to the full fat stuff, IMHO.

Those particles are really small, so small that you can’t see them. But you might be familiar with larger particles, like those placed in face washes. As fluids go, these face washes feel pretty thick and gooey, and that’s partially due to the little plastic particles inside them. Those ‘microbead’ washes are designed to ‘exfoliate’ your skin, which roughly translates into scouring your face with a Brillo pad.

And for some reason this works to rejuvenate your skin cells. Like making your epidermis do some strength training everyday? Or thinning out the weak cells from the herd?

I have no idea.

In full disclosure, I use one of these overpriced products daily. Even scientists succumb to good marketing. If something is not obviously snake oil, and it makes you feel good, I err on the side of saying “you do you.” I am not worried about the economic impact to my wallet or the ramifications of my occasional eight dollar support of a face scrub marketing campaign. (This is Walgreens luxury, not Neiman Marcus luxury.)

But I am going to phase it out of my life. These products are having unintended environmental consequences. I am more than happy to find a new soap if it means I can stop contributing to the problem, even just a little bit.

When you use these washes, the soapy part dissolves in water. The beads go down the drain with the soapy water, but remain undissolved, since they’re plastic. But they are able to pass through wastewater treatment unscathed, thus polluting the water, and end up in our own food supply as fish ingest them. The beads can collect at the surfaces of lakes, preventing algal blooms from taking hold. They can also leach hazardous substances and so chemically pollute the water.

Some organizations now propose banning these products. I don’t know if that is a good solution to the problem. If you ban just consumer products, you ignore the fact that these microplastics are in a dizzying array of industrial products, and so face washes are a tiny piece of the puzzle.

And if you simply ban microplastics, you are ignoring the fact that these are in a dizzying array of products, and some of these products are more important to our well-being than face washes. It also seems weird to ban a material because of its size, but with metal nanoparticles we are already thinking about this issue. What I didn’t know before was that wastewater treatment doesn’t capture these particles. Perhaps this is where the solution lies?

(In my next piece, I’ll look into the environmental benefits of some related substances.)

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3 comments on “Little Plastic Catastrophe

  1. Please, please tell me it isn’t the St. Ives Apricot Scrub. I was always under the impression that the exfoliant was walnut shells, not tiny plastic beads.

  2. kerstinnordstrom
    February 6, 2014

    Haha, no it’s a Neutrogena product. I would trust that the exfoliants they are using are shells for the St Ives. However, a lot of these products also have much tinier plastic particles in them that function as thickening agents. One big problem of course, is that the cosmetics industry is pretty unregulated so it’s hard to know exactly what’s in a product, even when you have an ingredient list. The ingredient list just lists the chemical names. For instance, If a polymer is an ingredient, is it just that polymer in solution, is it a nanoparticle, is it a microparticle? What shape is the particle and how tightly is it crosslinked? All of these properties affect how it will, in turn, affect your body / the environment.

  3. Janelle Hrycik
    February 13, 2014

    Good article, especially with NY making the news lately for wanting to ban face wash:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/11/new-york-microbeads-ban-great-lakes_n_4768253.html

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This entry was posted on February 6, 2014 by in Research, Science Journalism.
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