Microbeads, the tiny colourful pellets found in face wash, body scrubs and toothpaste, are often a topic of discussion on the Internet, particularly their harmful effects on the environment. These microbeads, which are a form of plastic, are one millimetre (or less) in size. These tiny particles, often found in cosmetics and skincare products, are washed down the sink, escape the filtration process at wastewater treatment plants and end up in oceans. Eventually, they are ingested by marine organisms.
But the environmental hazards aren't the only way microbeads cause damage: They're likely hurting your skin as well.
Countries such as the United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand have already banned the use of rinse-off microbeads in cosmetics such as exfoliating scrubs, soaps, shampoos, etc.
In India, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) announced the ban in October 2017. However, the ban here will only be implemented in 2020. Hence, some Indian products may still contain the banned microbeads, which means, many of us could still be rubbing plastic on our skin.
Here is how you, as consumers, can read labels to check if your skincare product has plastic in it. But first, hereâ€™s why you should be wary of including plastic microbeads in your skincare routine.
Rubbing plastic on skin
Imagine rubbing a polyethene bag or plastic bag on your face. That is the equivalent of rubbing microbeads on your body. Polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP) is the common composition of plastic microbeads. Using these plastic particles wonâ€™t necessarily slough off the dead skin, but the skin itself, say experts.
Sudheendra Udbalker, a dermatologist at Fortis Hospital in Bengaluru, explains why products with plastic microbeads are harmful to skin: â€śThese plastic particles can cause skin abrasions and make the skin more dry. It can also make the skin prone to irritation and allergy. We never recommend scrubbing on the skin in any manner, not even with loofah. The ideal practice is to gently wash face and body with mild soap.â€ť
The effects are almost similar - and more painful - if one were to use a toothpaste packed with millions of microbeads. These particles are likely to get stuck in the gum line, and in turn, can attract more bacteria.
â€śAlthough some companies claim that these microbeads are added to remove stain from teeth, they are mostly used for cosmetic reasons like whitening. But these microbeads are abrasive in nature and can wear down the teeth enamel faster. They do not dissolve in water and so stays around in the grooves of the teeth,â€ť explains Dr Abby Abraham, a Chennai-based dentist.
How to read labels
Some Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies like Procter and Gamble (P&G) and Unilever have stopped or replaced the plastic microbeads in their products with soluble and bio-degradable pellets. For example, the labels of some products have ingredients like microcrystalline wax and Prunus Armeniaca (Apricot) seed powder - the latter being common in many products. While these may not be harmful to the skin, their implications on the environment are yet unknown.
Meanwhile, some Indian companies are yet to rid their personal care products of plastic microbeads. As consumers, when you pick up a bottle of face wash or body wash with tiny particles in it, look for words like "Polypropylene" and "Polyethylene" on its label. They indicate the presence of plastic microbeads.
Some of the other plastic derivatives to look out in these products are Terephthalate or Polymethyl methacrylate.