Polyethylene, polycarbonate, polypropylene ... If any of these chemicals are listed in the ingredients of your cosmetics, it's not a good sign. What if you are unwittingly responsible for marine pollution when you apply your moisturiser or brush your teeth? For over 25 years, microbeads have been present in our cosmetics. Recently a real awareness of the danger of these components has come to light, on the advent of an international anti-plastic movement. 

What are plastic microbeads?

Microbeads burst onto the cosmetic scene in the 1990s. Extremely small, 1 millimeter or less in diameter, and perfectly round and smooth, they can constitute up to 10% of the volume of some cosmetics. Microbeads are manufactured based on ethylene oxide polymer components, which is the same basic manufacturing process as that of plastic bags, and replace natural products such as salt, sugar or pumice.

Omnipresent in our cosmetics

Microbeads are widely used in cosmetics because they give a softness and fluidity to soaps, creams and cleansing milks. They are also very present in scrubs, as well as toothpaste. In fact they can be found everywhere, in many of our everyday products. How tempting does putting plastic on your face everyday sound…

A danger to the ocean and our health

As they are essentially an oil product, they are particularly harmful to marine fauna and flora as well as our health. Once released into the water system, the small size of these beads allows them to pass through the filters of wastewater treatment plants. They then flow into oceans, lakes and rivers, then pollute the seabed and intoxicate micro-plankton, shellfish and fish.

Once in the ocean, the microbeads are ingested by marine species, including filter feeders such as mussels, whales and many fish species. A study published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, a small salmon in British Columbia could ingest up to two to seven per day. Follow the natural course of the food chain, and it is legitimate to wonder whether microbeads have made their way onto our plates. Appetizing!

What are the alternatives?

Some brands have pledged to ban microbead components. In December 2012, Unilever was the first brand to announce that it will stop using microbeads in their cosmetics by 2015. Following this announcement, other companies have followed suit. Colgate-Palmolive and L'Oreal have said they eventually will also remove microbeads in the composition of their products. The pharmaceutical company Procter and Gamble said its products will be free of microbeads at the earliest in 2017. The question is whether these promises are real guarantees of companies' commitment to the environment, or just to show a correct ecological image…

The best alternative is switching to completely natural products. Many natural products and cosmetics exist which are not only better for the environment but also better for our health. Julien Kaibeck is the creator of a movement called Slow Cosmetics, as well as its online store. Slow Cosmetics attempts to give the consumer a more informed choice by teaching us to decipher labels and return to less processed products that are truly natural. These products offer the same results, as well as giving us the peace of mind of being environmentally- and skin-friendly.

"Surfrider and Slow Cosmetics are fighting the same battle. The products that Slow denounce damage the health of the oceans, seas and water." Julien Kaibeck, president of Slow Cosmetics Association

Our battle against microbeads

Since 2014, we have promoted our “Beat the microbead" app, which can scan products to detect the presence of microbeads. To keep the app up-to-date, each country must keep a database of the ingredients of products and cosmetics. This is where we come in - we are responsible for completing and updating the French database. Until all the big companies stop producing cosmetics containing microbeads, and that they are banned in Europe, we strongly encourage you to use this application and to look more closely the composition of your products and keep the harmful components mentioned earlier this article at bay.

Like the United States, which recently passed a law banning the manufacture of cosmetics containing microbeads from 1 July 2017, our team has been active in Paris to draft an amendment to the law that would abolish biodiversity labelling of products containing microbeads in France. We will know more in the coming weeks, but it seems to be on track.

This anti-microbeads movement continues to gain momentum and we continue to raise awareness of the issue among the general population and the industry. We also hope that the European Union will continue in this process and that eventually measures will be brought into place to ban microbeads. Now that you're aware, you can't say you've not been warned!

Lea Daulan, Environment Editor

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