Microbeads in Toothpaste Are Bad News for People and the Environment

Microbeads, those tiny plastic beads included in personal care products for exfoliating power, have been popular for a number of years, with a growing number of companies sneaking them into toothpaste, body scrubs, soap and more. That’s despite evidence that they cause significant environmental problems, an issue that’s led a number of states to ban them or seriously consider such bans in order to protect the environment. But there’s more: There’s evidence that microbeads are also harmful for human health.

One of the problems with microbeads is that their size allows them to pass through filtration systems intended to trap debris and pollutants we don’t want being released into the environment. Whether people are taking showers or brushing their teeth over the sink, the wastewater passes through processing facilities and the microbeads are flushed out right along with the clean water when it’s released into waterways. From there, they wind their way into the bodies of small aquatic animals, and a process known as biomagnification begins. As bigger and bigger animals eat animals contaminated with microbeads, the plastic chunks become more concentrated, and they leap to land as larger mammals consume animals like big fish.

For the environment, microbeads pose a problem because many contain harmful chemicals like PCBs along with other fat-soluble compounds known to cling to polyethylene, the plastic used to make them. That’s in addition to estrogen, a hormone that’s perfectly safe at normal levels in many animals, but one that can cause health problems if it builds up in the body. Estrogen-induced health problems can include behavioral changes in male fish along with damage to fish eggs that causes impairments and nonviability. Their size makes the problem even worse, as they look at a glance like fish eggs, a tasty snack enjoyed by many aquatic animals: It’s like setting out a chocolate cake laced with poison.

Humans face some challenges from microbeads as well. Some dental professionals claim that they can contribute to buildups of plaque, tartar and gingivitis by getting stuck under the gums, though the industry at large stresses that no studies have confirmed these claims and it hasn’t ruled definitively on the microbead problem. The more critical problem is one of biomagnification, as people eat fish contaminated with microbeads and consume PCBs, estrogen, and other compounds absorbed by the tiny beads.

Products like microbeads often make their way onto the market before we fully understand their environmental and health effects, and it can take years to regulate them. While they and the pollutants they contain will eventually break down, that’s taking place on a scale of hundreds of thousands of years, which is far too late for people and the environment. The growing use of the ingredient without providing notice to consumers is a problem while they were once advertised as a selling point, now they’re often slipped in as a routine additive.

For those who want to avoid microbeads, look for polyethylene on the label of a product before purchase. If you need some exfoliating power on your face or body, try a more environmentally-friendly alternative like ground walnut shells, coffee grounds, sugar or ground cacao husks. There are lots of different options, including those for sensitive skin and people with rougher skin (or those who need a little extra exfoliation on their hands and feet after long days in the garden).

Photo credit: William Warby

65 comments

Jenni B.
Jenni B1 years ago

Thank you, this needs even more attention as we are drowning in plastic already.......

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C1 years ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Tina de Ronde
Tina de Ronde2 years ago

Thanks for sharing!

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Valentina R.
Valentina R2 years ago

Thank you for sharing this important matter.

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heather g.
heather g2 years ago

What possesses these huge corporations... One would think that they all have a system of 'quality control !

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Paulinha Russell
Paulinha R2 years ago

Thanks

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Miya Eniji
Miya E2 years ago

Yet another reason 2 B smug i haven't used toothpaste 4 many years and guess what, my teeth r in better condition. No dentist visits either. Use Na2HCO3 (bicarbonate of soda ) bamboo salt, and essential oils such as grapefruit ( actually cheaper aroma oils, but so far no worries ) Also eucalyptus/tea tree oil 1 or 2 drops in water for mouthwash, B sure 2 spit out
AS 2 microbad... OMG- haahah- that was a genuine spelling error ^^* !!

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Dt Nc
Dt Nc2 years ago

Thanks for addressing a problem that is borne of vanity. It is so unnecessary to have microbeads.

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Natasha Salgado
Past Member 2 years ago

Just only found out these evil beads were in toothpaste too--unbelievable. Imake my own which is also cruelty free. thanks

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Ruhee B.
Ruhee B2 years ago

Agree that they should be banned! People might find the following from the MCS interesting:

In October 2013 an international version of the ‘Beat the Microbead’ App was launched, which previously had only been available to Dutch consumers.

The App works by scanning the barcode of products and telling the shopper whether or not the product contains plastic microbeads. Products are divided into the categories Red, Orange and Green. Red: the product contains microbeads; Orange: the product contains microbeads but the manufacturer has pledged to stop using microbeads in the near future; Green, the product does not contain microbeads.

Download the App at www.beatthemicrobead.org.

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