The scientists, who are based at the University of Plymouth in Southwest England, show that the quantity of plastics contained in products such as scrubs and facial cleaners, means that as many as 100,000 of the tiny microbeads are released with every single application.
In the US, environmentalists and regulators have been quick to react to the growing body of evidence concerning the impact of the non-biodegradable microbeads in marine and waterway environments, but the latest research may lend yet more gravitas.
Breaking down microbead cosmetic formulations
Although the study was focused on the impact of microbeads and microplastics in the UK market, the data is still relevant to the US, where many of the products available are either the same or formulated in similar ways.
The study was carried out by a group of scientists that included PhD student, Imogen Napper, who had significant involvement in researching and analysing the formulations for the personal care products.
“As the study unfolded I was really shocked to see the quantity of microplastics apparent in these everyday cosmetics,” Napper stated.
“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.”
A little problem becomes a big problem
Perhaps of ultimate concern is that a research report compiled by the Plymouth University scientists and published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin journals, highlights the fact that this could result in up to 80 tons of micorplastic pollution in the UK alone – a country with a population around one sixth the size of the US.
The study selected cosmetic and personal care brands that listed plastic microbeads as part of the ingredient, and used a vacuum filtration to obtain the plastic particles.
The analysis of the plastic content showed that each 150ml of product could contain anywhere between 137,000 and 2.8m microparticles.
Adverse effects on marine life
“Using these products leads to unnecessary contamination of the oceans with millions of microplastic particles,” said Richard Thompons, Professor of Organic Geochemistry and one of the lead scientists involved in the research.
“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.”
The growing body of research illustrating the impact on the environment of these microbeads has led regulators in both Europe and North America to initiate measures to outlaw the ingredient, which has led many of the big cosmetic players to start phasing out the ingredient.
Time for legislation to get tough
In the US, legislation has been introduced to ban microbeads in Connecticut, New Jersey and Illinois at some point in the course of the next two years, whereas similar legislation is still being mulled in a long list of other states, including New York.
But while state legislators are upping the ante, similar legislative moves are also happening at a federal level.
Representatives Fred Upton (R-Mich) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) introduced federal legislation to ban plastic microbeads from personal care, taking a similar stand to the legislations that have already been passed at a state level.
As the bill gathers momentum in the Washington D.C. legislative process, mounting awareness of the environmental harm microbeads cause, which has resulted from concerted campaigns behind the state legislations, is likely to offer a smoother passage to this federal legislation.
If passed, the federal bill would ban the sale or distribution of cosmetics products containing plastic microbeads throughout the US, effective January 1st, 2018.