- One tube contains up to 2.8million microbeads, researchers have found
- The beads can cause physical damage or poison sea life who eat them
- When the beads are washed away they can even end up in farmland
Facial scrubs are used daily by millions of people to exfoliate their skin - but scientists have exposed the tiny toxic plastic beads hidden in the products. Each wash contains up to 94,500 microbeads, while one tube comprises up to 2.8million of the beads, which experts at Plymouth University extracted.
Microbeads, among the fastest-growing forms of marine pollution, can cause physical damage or poison sea life with the chemicals and microbes on their surface.
Richard Thompson, professor of marine biology at Plymouth University, published a photograph of the amount of microbeads extracted from popular facial scrubs.
He told The Sunday Times: 'It can be hard to convey in words how small these beads are and how many are released by one wash, but the picture shows the scale of the impact much better.'
He said the beads ranged in size from from a 0.01mm up to 1mm. 'Their size means they can pass through sewage treatment screens and be discharged into rivers and oceans,' he explained. When the facial scrubs are washed away, they are washed into sewage sludge and can spread onto farmland. Smaller beads can escape filters and are subsequently washed out to sea.
Experts say the size of the beads looks like food to plankton and baby fish - and can poison them when eaten.This is then passed up the food chain to larger fish and birds.
Mary Creagh, the Labour MP and chairwoman of the environmental audit committee, which is holding an inquiry into microplastics, told the Sunday Times: 'Most of us would be horrified to learn how many bathroom products contain this plastic rubbish.' The Plymouth researchers only examined facial scrubs but microbeads are widely found in many cosmetics.
Eleanor O'Connor, from the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, said that Cosmetics Europe, a representative body, now recommended that microbeads be phased out. Laurent Gilbert, director for international development of advanced research at L'Oréal, whose products were among those tested, said the company accepted the evidence against microbeads.
'We are phasing out polyethylene microbeads in our rinse-off products,' she said.
The US government has banned microbeads in consumer products under a law that will go into full effect in 2017.This month Waitrose announced it will ban microbeads from all products sold in its shops. The supermarket chain has already removed them from its own beauty products and has promised that from September it will stock only branded products which do not contain them.
Banning microbeads makes sense, campaigners say, because they are not necessary for washing products.Their abrasive effect can be replicated by natural exfoliants such as tiny fragments of rice, apricot seeds, walnut shells and bamboo. Banning microbeads, however, will not end microplastic pollution. All plastic items that end up in lakes, rivers and the sea tend to disintegrate, creating tiny scraps of plastic with a similar effect.
Synthetic fabrics, such as nylon and polyester, also disintegrate, and tiny plastic ‘microfibres’ are also eaten by marine life, with a similar effect to microbeads.