Putting the spotlight on microbeads

Microbeads may be small in size, but the consequences they are having on the environment are anything but. Under a new proposal announced by the Minister for the Environment, all cosmetic products containing microbeads will be banned in New Zealand.

Words Natalie Cyra

Microbeads may be small in size, but the consequences they are having on the environment are anything but. Under a new proposal announced by the Minister for the Environment, all cosmetic products containing microbeads will be banned in New Zealand.

Microbeads fall under the umbrella term of microplastics, meaning any piece of plastic less than 5mm in diameter. Manufactured microplastics such as microbeads are commonly found in personal care products such as body scrubs and exfoliants for their use as an abrasive. Because of their small size, they are unable to be removed by wastewater treatment plants and are discharged with the treated water into the environment.

The ban follows in the wake of many other countries’ initiative, including the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and the EU. Many companies have already begun phasing the plastics out of their products, turning instead to natural alternatives such as oatmeal or apricot husks. Says Sabrina Jamani, LUSH Australia and NZ Product and Brand Trainer, natural alternatives to microplastics include ground white rice, almond meal, charcoal, fine and coarse sea salt, and ground almond shell, pumice, caster sugar, dried cranberries to name a few. 

Many Australian and New Zealand natural skincare brands have been loud in expressing their support for the ban, and emphasising that natural skincare is the obvious choice for consumers – across all levels – environmentally, ethically and for success with your skincare regime. Weleda’s marketing manager Helen Wilkes says “at Weleda we are all for keeping the environment clean and green and we definitely support this ban on microbeads in personal care products. Our 100 per cent certified natural Birch Body Scrub contains natural beeswax and plant wax pearls to gently exfoliate and smoothen the skin. We do not use artificial ingredients, preservatives, fragrances, GMOs nor do we test on animals.” 

New Zealand’s Linden Leaves has a similar message. “At Linden Leaves we are staunch avocates of the policy and don’t use plastic in our products. We use jojoba and in the past apricot kernel, ground pumice and oatmeal…” says Linden Leaves Director, Juliet Blair. 

In addition to having dramatic and broad-spanning environmental effects, microbeads are not friendly to our skin or our internal organs, says Jamani. “In the case of facial cleansers containing microbead exfoliants, you are rubbing plastic over the surface of your skin, causing tiny micro tears on the surface of the skin. These are not visible to the eye, but with continued use, you are damaging the skin as opposed to reaching the desired effect of gently sloughing off excess dead skin on the surface, while bringing new healthy skin to the surface.” 

With regards to the environmental impact of microplastics, they are widespread in oceans and have been found in an increasing number of marine animals, says Dr Sally Gaw, senior Chemistry lecturer at University of Canterbury.

“Aquatic animals including fish and shellfish can ingest microplastics and animals may mistake them for food as they can look like prey items. Ingesting microplastics can trick animals into feeling full, causing starvation and microplastics can damage digestive tracts affecting the health of the animals. In addition, microplastics can concentrate contaminants from the water which may be transferred to the animals when they ingest microplastics.” “Banning microbeads in personal care products is a great step forward that will remove one source of microplastics entering the oceans. Further steps will be required to reduce the enormous volume of plastics entering our oceans each year. We need to re-evaluate our love affair with plastic, and get smarter about how and when we use plastic if we are to protect our oceans.” Gaw says.

Food for thought when it comes to purchasing your next round of beauty and skincare products! 

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