By Maneka Gandhi
When we were young – and even now – when we wanted to scrub our faces we used besan (gram flour) and milk, crushed almonds, oatmeal or wet clay. On our feet we used jhavas or pumice stones made of baked red mud, and the rest of the body was scrubbed with loofahs made of the skeletons of the tori vegetable. Now you get chemical cosmetics that claim to take the dead skin cells off. Do you know what is in these cream scrubs? These are particles of plastics that are purposefully manufactured to be of a microscopic size. They are usually used in facial cleansers and cosmetics, or in air blasting.
Plastic microbeads are used in over 100 different personal care products in the market today. They range in size from two millimetres to as small as a grain of sand. Many cosmetic companies in India – including Ponds, Neutrogena, Olay, Clinique, Clean & Clear – have replaced natural exfoliating ingredients with micro plastics.
These are the single biggest killers on the planet.
These microbeads are found in face washes, soaps, toothpastes, foot scrubs, hand sanitizers, body and shower gels. When you use them, they are washed into the sewage system. Their tiny size prevents them from being kept back by preliminary treatment screens at wastewater plants and so they pass unfiltered into rivers, canals and oceans.
Even countries which have good treatment plants cannot stop these microbeads. A recent study of 34 treatment plants across New York State found that 74 percent were discharging plastic microbeads. Similar studies by scientists all over the world have found that the pollution of all waterbodies by these plastics is incredibly high. A study published in Environmental Science and Technology says that up to eight trillion plastic microbeads enter aquatic habitats in the United States every day. Another study conducted in Michigan’s Lake Ontario found as many as 1.1 million of these tiny plastic particles per square kilometre in the lake. Of course, no study has been conducted in India yet to find out the extent to which our oceans and rivers have been polluted by these tiny particles, but it would be almost the same as the United States, because most of our towns send unfiltered sewage into our waterbodies and everyone in the towns (and most villages for that matter) uses millions of these products daily.
The chances of your drinking them back from your tap, and from superficial water pumps, is entirely possible.
Microbeads serve no real function or purpose except to give you the feeling that you are scrubbing. A single tube of Johnson & Johnson’s Clean and Clear facial scrub contains more than 3,30,000 plastic microbeads. Microbeads in toothpaste are just for superficial effect and don’t help in cleaning your teeth any better than a toothpaste without them.
While they certainly make no value addition to your life, they are steadily destroying life as we know it. And, all of you who eat fish and sea food are probably eating them every day. Imagine your stomach filling up with plastic beads which cannot be filtered out through your kidneys or your intestines. How many people will have died of “stomach ache” by now, undiagnosed by most doctors.
How do you end up eating them? A 2013 study at the University of Plymouth found that these micro plastic particles are ingested by the smallest creatures that live in all water – from ponds and rivers to oceans — plankton, algae, bacteria, eggs and larvae of larger animals. Algae are eaten by copepods which are also tiny creatures. They normally use their chemical and touch receptors to discriminate between what they can and cannot eat. But copepods have been found eating the plastic. Their receptors don’t recognise the plastic because of its minuscule size.
These organisms represent the base of all food chains. They are eaten by fish and crabs and other marine animals which are eaten by birds and mammals and humans. A study conducted by the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Exeter showed the steady movement of plastic beads up the ladder to humans. Once in the human body, the beads are excreted and find their way into the soil and from there to worms, ants and all sorts of insects and their predators.
In November 2015, scientists found plastic microbeads in table salt – eaten by all of us. A research conducted at the East China Normal University in Shanghai tested 15 brands of salt made by evaporating sea water. These sea salts contained 550 - 681 plastic microbeads per kilogram. At normal levels, this means you consume 1000 plastic particles a year, even if you just sprinkle salt on your food. Other studies have concluded that the microbeads found in toothpaste can get stuck in our gums and lead to cancer.
According to researchers at the University of Waterloo, these plastics can soak up other toxins like a sponge. Once they find their way into the waterbodies, they just sit in the water and act as vehicles for other pollutants. So when they get into the food chain, they carry synthetic chemical compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These chemical compounds are extremely dangerous and are cancer-causing contaminants.
Many cosmetic companies such as L’Oreal, Procter & Gamble and Unilever have promised to phase out microbeads from their products but no company has banned the use. Not even Bodyshop, which pretends to be animal- and environment-friendly. The scientists have cried themselves hoarse but until we, as consumers, do not understand that this may be the last straw in breaking the back of life on the planet, none of these companies will do anything. It’s almost as if the people making decisions in these companies come from Mars and have been sent with the single mission of destroying the world in the shortest possible time.
Primary microplastics have also been produced for use in air blasting technology. This process involves blasting acrylic, melamine or polyester microplastic scrubbers at machinery, engines and boat hulls to remove rust and paint. As these scrubbers are used repeatedly, until they diminish in size and their cutting power is lost, they often become contaminated with heavy metals (e.g. cadmium, chromium and lead). They too go into the waters and back into your food.
Don’t be a victim. Don’t use products with microbeads. Unfortunately they are not labelled on packages. So the best way to avoid them is to not to buy anything that has any grainy texture.
How do you know your product has microbeads? Check ingredients labels for polyethylene and polypropylene. Both are names for plastic.
There are plenty of exfoliants without microbeads, most of which use biodegradable and filterable products like jojoba, vitamin C paste and volcanic minerals. You can find a list of some of the best from Allure magazine.