Ecological alert! Seas and lakes are filling up with polyethylene microbeads from cosmetic products. Environmentalists deplore the fact that we are caring for our skin but neglecting the planet. The cosmetics industry is looking for non-contaminant alternatives to the ubiquitous plastic particles.
Microbeads are minuscule particles of polyethylene that “scrape" the skin to clean or exfoliate it. They are present in many cosmetics, especially in exfoliating scrubs, gels and soaps, where they gradually started, many years ago, to replace other abrasive materials such as ground pumice, apricot or peach powder or almond or walnut shells – all ingredients that were more natural and biodegradable. But in addition, coloured microbeads also fade our wrinkles and are in makeup, lipstick, etc. One way or the other, the cosmetic today that does not include microbeads is rare.
Aside from being inexpensive as ingredients, plastic microbeads have important stability and duration characteristics from the perspective of the formulation of cosmetics.
Remember that a bottle of facial cleanser may contain 300,000 microbeads that easily end up in rivers and oceans because treatment plants are not always capable of recycling them. The oceans are filling up with plastic waste, and microbeads also pollute, even though they are virtually invisible. In fact, no one yet knows exactly how these products with miniscule diameters might alter the balance of different ecosystems.
But everything comes to an end and it seems that that the end for polyethylene microbeads is near. Pressure from conservation organizations like 5 Gyres has already led major industries in the sector to stop using them or to undertake not to include them in their formulas from a few years hence.
Companies are now looking for alternatives to polyethylene. For example, several teams are investigating the development of new types of microbeads from "biopolyesters", produced by bacteria and rapidly biodegraded by microorganisms that abound in the sea. So far researchers have managed to develop particles of different sizes and colours. Soon we will have them in our toothpaste.