Environment: Study helps quantify plastic pollution from household cosmetic and cleaning products

Microbeads are bad juju for world’s waterways and oceans

 This image captured by an electron microscope shows polyethylene microbeads widely used in shower gel. Photo courtesy Thompson/Bakir/Plymouth University.
This image captured by an electron microscope shows polyethylene microbeads widely used in shower gel. Photo courtesy Thompson/Bakir/Plymouth University.

Staff Report

FRISCO — Simple, everyday uses of some cosmetics and cleaning products releases huge amounts of plastic micropollution into the environment, potentially at levels harmful to marine life.

Scientists at Plymouth University recently tried to quantify the well-known environmental problem by studying brands of facial scrubs that listed plastics among their ingredients. They used vacuum filtration to sort out the plastic particles and analyzed the debris with electron microscopes, finding that each 150ml of the products could contain between 137,000 and 2.8 million microparticles.

The particles are used as bulking agents and abrasives in hand cleansers, soaps, toothpaste, shaving foam, bubble bath, sunscreen and shampoo. Because of their small size, many won’t be caught by conventional sewage treatment systems, thus ending up in rivers and oceans.

In their findings, published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, the scientists estimated this could result in up to 80 tons of microplastic waste entering the sea every year from use of these cosmetics in the UK alone.

“As the study unfolded I was really shocked to see the quantity of microplastics apparent in these everyday cosmetics,” said study leader Imogen Napper, A Plymouth University PhD student. “Currently, there are reported to be 80 facial scrubs in the UK market which contain plastic material, however some companies have indicated they will voluntarily phase them out from their products. In the meantime, there is very little the consumer can do to prevent this source of pollution,” Napper said.

There is growing evidence that the amount of plastics in marine waters is increasing, with around 700 species of marine organism being reported to encounter marine debris in the natural environment, and plastic debris accounts for over 90 per cent of these encounters.

“Using these products leads to unnecessary contamination of the oceans with millions of microplastic particles,” said Professor Richard Thompson, who has been studying the effects of litter in the marine environment for more than 20 years.”There is considerable concern about the accumulation of microplastics in the environment. Our previous work has shown microplastics can be ingested by fish and shellfish and there is evidence from laboratory studies of adverse effects on marine organisms.”

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