How your cosmetic products are killing the oceans

The cosmetic products you use might have large impacts on marine life. This connection might seem strange, but true nevertheless. I am talking about plastics and the microbead in particular. Plastics do not degrade; they are here to stay. They are eternal molecules of pollution. Despite this, we continue spewing out plastics into the environment. Did you eat fish this week? I bet you then had some plastics too. I wish you a lovely meal!

A few small choices when you shop for cosmetic products can have a large effect on the environment and save the cute baby seals. Think of it: you do not want to kill the baby seals! OK, that last part was to get your attention. Environmental messages need to be packaged in fluff for people actually to react to them. Here is the hard science:

Baby seal (image credit: Matthieu Godbout)

Baby seals are really, really cute! (image credit: Matthieu Godbout)

The microbead does not degrade

The microbead is a tiny, tiny plastic bead that often can be found in body and facial scrubs and whitening toothpaste. It is there to act as a type of sandpaper to scrub away old skin and discolorations. Theoretically a good idea, but polyethylene is not biodegradable, and since these products are used in the shower or the sink, the beads are flushed out in into the sewage system.

The sewage treatment plants cannot collect the beads, so they will remain in the outgoing water from the plants and eventually end up in our waterways and finally the ocean.

Microbeads are often made of polyethylene, but can also contain polypropylene (PP), nylon, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA). Check your cosmetic products for these ingredients and never buy them again if they contain them. One single bottle of Neutrogena’s Deep Clean contains about 360 000 microbeads (data from 5Gyres).

It is a plastic fantastic world! (image credit: ImGz)

It is a plastic fantastic world! (image credit: ImGz)

How microplastics are accumulating in our lakes and oceans

Plastics make up 60-80 % of marine litter and up to 95 % in some extremely polluted areas. Only a fraction (1-5 %) is recycled.

In 2008, almost 300 species had been registered as negatively affected by plastics, yet little is being done.

The polyethylene microbead is miniscule (<1 mm in diameter) and will be ground into smaller and smaller particles, like sand, on its way to the ocean. Hence, even large pieces of plastic will eventually be ground down by UV-light and wave action to become part of the micro-plastic fraction to which the microbead belongs. Microplastics are rapidly accumulating in our seas, rivers, and oceans, and they are here to stay.

Did you know that the microbead can transport pollutants?

The surface of these beads has a structure that adsorbs and attracts many forms of organic pollutants such as PCBs and DDT. The smaller they are ground, the more surface is provided for such accumulation to occur. Hence, these little beads become something like tiny ant-footballs covered in toxins.

There are also chemicals added to the plastics during the manufacturing process that can have severe detrimental effects on marine and limnetic life. Hence, the microbeads are a kind of two-step-bomb: first the adsorbed pollutants and then a release of the plastic chemicals themselves.

Plastic pellets even found on the Antarctic beaches!

Plastic resin pellets are a few millimeter cylindrical granules that are used as a raw material in plastic production. They are shipped to the manufacturing sites where they are re-molded into their final shapes (toys, spoons, whatever). The pellets are often released into the environment, mostly unintentionally during transport (containers may fall off the ships) and at the manufacturing site.  These pellets can be found all over the world, even in Antarctica. These pellets do not degrade, and will eventually become micro and even nano-plastics and enter the food chain.

Reduce your plastics consumption!

Plastic pellets on a bech (image credit: Wusel007)

Plastic pellets on a beach (image credit: Wusel007)

You are eating plastics!

The presence of plastics in birds, fish, and seafood, has repeatedly been recorded. The most severe cases are the filter feeders. One study reports one piece of plastic per gram mussel flesh. This is a number that will increase every year.

The consumption of plastics by plankton that are the base of the entire marine food chain is also of great concern. The plastic-containing plankton are eaten by fish, that are eaten by us…

New methods have been developed that makes the plastics show up as a bright light under the microscope allowing us to observe even nano-plastic particles that might have entered a zooplankton gut. It was very hard before to try to separate other particles from the plastics and hence might be the reason for why it took so long for people to start reacting.

Lower reproduction and feeding rates have been observed in zooplankton exposed to micro- and nano plastic levels present in some aquatic ecosystems; this is not good.

When you get clean - keep the environment clean too! (image credit: SuicideGirls)

When you get clean – keep the environment clean too! (image credit: SuicideGirls)

How you can help

The International Pellet Watch is an incredible initiative where you follow the amounts of pollutants in collected plastic resins at ecological sampling stations all over the world. Have a look: INTERNATIONAL PELLET WATCH

You can participate by collecting plastic pellets at your local beach and send the samples for analysis. Thanks to this grass-root participation, they have managed to achieve a nice overview of the pellet pollutant problem. This can be fun and a useful thing to do with your kids if you are at the sea front. My daughter loves playing “find the plastics”. It is, unfortunately, a very easy game.

The oceans are dying

Marine biologists and limnologists (people studying lakes and rivers) have a strong consensus on the severity of this problem, but once again people chose to worry about the “wrong” issues because they are more emotional (gluten, consumption of carbohydrates etc…). Therefore, let me make this issue more emotional for you:

“The waterways are f#####g dying so stop using your damn plastic body scrub you moron! Thank you.”

Politicians: OWN UP! Ban the microbead now!

U.S.: Click here to sign the 5Gyres petition and write to Congress:
EU: Beat the Microbead
The app: Beat the Microbead

Coffee grounds - make a scrub from your waste! (image credit: Shanegenziuk)

Coffee grounds – make a scrub from your waste! (image credit: Shanegenziuk)

My tip for a great eco-friendly, plastic free scrub (and it is cheap):

Make your own cheap, eco-friendly and great body scrub: Save the coffee grounds from your morning coffee, dry it on a plate, mix with an oil that does not have too much of a cooking-scent (I like to mix different types of oils based on their densities like thistle oil, avocado oil, olive oil and almond oil) and finally add some salt. It makes a mess in the bathroom, but it is the best scrub ever. You can exchange the coffee grounds for sand, but I would suggest first to sterilize the sand first in the oven at 150 °C at 20 min (and don’t use the cat’s). Also, be a bit careful with how much sand you pour down your drainpipes. However, anyone with children knows that drainpipes can withstand a lot of sand.

Did you know of the microbead and do you have any tips on how to reduce our plastic consumption? It is indeed a very hard thing to do: plastics is everywhere! 

Science Safely! a very angry marine biologist.

…is a very angry marine biologist.

Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium of Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment. Mato Y., Isobe T., Takada H., Kanehiro H., Ohtake C., and Kaminuma T. , Environmental Science & Technology, vol.35, p.318-324, 2001.

Concentration of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in Beached Resin Pellets: Variability among Individual Particles and Regional Differences. Satoshi ENDO, Reiko TAKIZAWA, Keiji OKUDA, Hideshige TAKADA, Kazuhiro CHIBA, Haruyuki KANEHIRO, Haruo OGI, Rei YAMASHITA, Takeshi DATE, Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol. 50, p.1103-1114, 2005.

NGO 5Gyres

Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing, long-term threat. By: Moore, Charles James. Conference: Workshop on Plastic World Location: Erice, ITALY Date: AUG 19-24, 2006. Sponsor(s): World Federat Scientists. ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH  Volume: 108   Issue: 2   Pages: 131-139   Published: OCT 2008

Posted in Biology, Environment and tagged , , , , .



  1. So is this a problem with all plastic bottles of shower products or does it depend on the type? And how can we know if the packaging is eco-friendly?

    • Hi Maria,

      it is unfortunately a problem for all plastic products. However, some plastic products are easier to recycle than others. For example, PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) which is often found in beverage containers and harder plastics, is fairly easy to recycle. On the contrary, LDPE (low-density polyethylene) found in plastic films is much more difficult to recycle. Sometimes, these different plastics ever requires the consumer to visit multiple recycling stations, which only results in confusion and lethargy and eventually the plastic bags, wrappings and containers end up in the normal garbage.

      Eco-friendly packaging rarely includes plastics and it is still an enigma to me how we can allow plastics to be used to carelessly.

      I am hoping for a fast development in proper biodegradable “plastics” such as starch based materials, but the development is slow since plastics is so cheap.

      I think we can move fast in the right direction if a few things happen:
      1. People start to understand the seriousness of the issue and recycle their plastics (stop using cling film and other unnecessary items).
      2. Politicians implement a ban on one-use plastic bags (like in Hawaii).
      3. Recycling stations for plastics become as common as those for paper or glass.

      I think once people start to understand, much will happen. There is often a lot of resistance to get a large mass rolling, but once it starts, it is hard to stand in its way! I have hope!

      The Imaginarium

  2. Thanks The Imaginarium. Great article.
    I have heard about the PEG abrasives on a general level, didn’t realize that they were accumulating so much that they could be collected from the beach.
    Some states have outlawed them in the US (like California). Formulators and their companies are resistant to switch to a biodegradable abrasive because of the cost difference.
    MCC (microcrystalline cellulose) is one alternative that is being promoted. I hope it takes off and is a suitable alternative.

    • Thank you Kristine!
      Yes, I agree with you. I really hope that the industry will switch to better alternatives. It gives me hope though that change seems to be on the horizon.

      Have a great week!
      / The Imaginarium

  3. Pingback: How plastics end up on your dinner plate | The Imaginarium

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