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Why banning microbeads in cosmetic products may not solve everything

October 7, 2015

OK so I’ve seen rather a lot of talk about this over the last few years, how those little scrubby micro-beads that are in your daily exfoliating scrub are clogging up the ocean, killing fish and turning the natural world upside down.  Before I go on I want it to be known that I agree, plastic is NOT so fantastic and intentionally releasing plastic beads that are easily digestible into the ecosystem for no other reason than it might just help you remove a bit of dead skin is appalling but the whole ‘cosmetics are clogging the seas’ thing just doesn’t smell right to me.

I wonder if the people sending out this ‘ditch plastic microbeads in your exfoliator and save the world’ message have ever stopped to consider where ALL of their plastic comes from and how ALL of their plastic starts off life?

Well, I hate to break it to you but it’s as microbeads or plastic pellets.

Plastic can be manufactured from petrochemicals or natural sources such as trees or other crops (cellulostics).

Factories that specialise in creating plastic ‘bulk’ usually turn those ‘feedstock’ raw materials into plastic pellets for transport around the world to factories that will mould or extrude them as required.

Basically most plastic beads can be shaped by heating and melting them into a mould or extruding them into a thin sheet that can then be shaped and cooled as it sets – there are different plastics for different applications but I’m pretty sure all types start off life as microbeads or pellets.

I am particularly worried about the effect that these plastic microbeads or pellets are having in the sea and this is one area that the cosmetic activists have picked up on only if you look here you will soon realise that the biggest risk factor to the health of ourselves and our planet is the urban runoff of un-processed microbeads or pellets from the plastic manufacturing industry and from spills that occur during plastic microbead/ pellet transportation.

Plastic Pellets


According to the Worldwatch organisation 299 million tonnes of plastic were manufactured globally in 2013.

All of that plastic started off as pellets and some of it would have been in the form of microbeads – yet more would end up as microbeads after being subjected to some environmental degradation once spilled or released.

It is hard to get exact figures on how much micro-bead including facial scrub exists in the market place but a very rough guesstimate could be as follows:

  • The majority of scrub products are also cleansing products and contain surfactants.
  • Of all surfactant sales anionics are sold in the highest volume at roughly 6.5 million tonnes per year.
  • The cosmetic market accounts for around 9.5% of the sales of anionics so that’s 617,500 tonnes per year (2010 figures).
  • Now anionics are mainly used in cosmetics in shampoo so we could conservatively half that volume as shampoo almost never contains microbeads which leaves us around 308,750 MT of surfactant for facial scrubs.
  • Anionic surfactants in a facial scrub formula would usually make up between 5-10% of the formula on a per-actives basis.  Scrub usually makes up 3-5% of the formula so if we used the minimum of the surfactant and the maximum of the scrub we have the same percentage – 5%.  Therefore we can say that 308,750 MT is the weight of surfactant used in facial scrub AND the weight of microbeads used in facial scrub per year.
  • Based on those calculations that roughly means that our cosmetic microbeads are 0.1% of the total plastic output per year.

Cosmetic microbeads are approx 0.1% of the total plastic production each year. 

To put that into context kids favourite (and let’s face it adults too) LEGO uses 6000 MT of plastic per year to make it’s popular and highly durable toy, a toy that started off life as plastic pellets or microbeads. That is 0.002% of the worlds plastic used in lego each year.

Going back to the Worldwatch institute figures it is reported that each year 10-20 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans each year.

That’s between 3.3-6.6% of global production!

Remember that cosmetic microbeads account for roughly 0.1%.

Which doesn’t make it right. I’m not trying to say that it does. What I’m trying to point out is that again, we can’t all sit back and FEEL like we are saving the world by avoiding plastic beads in our cosmetics while drinking wine from plastic cups and eating finger food of plastic plates around a plastic outdoor table while watching the kids play with a plastic kite and baseball bat.

I am a big believer in small steps leading to change and empowerment and I will always support that but we always need to be mindful of spending our whole life energy campaigning for and worrying about something that is only a small part of a very real problem.  These days it takes very little effort to avoid plastic microbeads in cosmetics but that action will not save the world. We need to get used to that and let that sink in as we go about making other, larger and more frequent choices IF we really care.

I recently enjoyed watching a program called ‘Bear Grill’s Island’ – Bear is an English survivalist guy who challenged two groups of Brits – one all women and one all men – to live, survive and hopefully thrive on a tropical island.  While I really enjoyed the program I found it deeply upsetting that this tropical paradise was awash with rubbish – toothbrushes, cups, dolls, plastic flowers,  nylon rope and so on – stuff that should not be there but is because of how most of us choose to live our daily lives.

So what would I like to see?

I’d like to see a continued outrage at the amount of plastic we use in daily life, I’d like to see greater biodegradability on one hand and greater durability of consumer goods on the other – why must things break down and need replacing every 2-3 years?

But most of all I’d like to see people digging a little deeper than the Meme and quick headline. I would like reporters in newspapers, ‘green living’ blogs and TV shows to bring depth, research and context to these headlines and I’d like some intelligent discussion because it is only then, when we know what is REALLY going on that we can make this better.

Amanda x





5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2015 2:16 am

    One thing that most layman don’t realize is that by far the vast majority of raw materials used in cosmetics and personal care products are used and are affordable only because the cosmetic raw material manufacturers are able to “piggy-back” on the manufacturing of similar raw materials for other industries.

    Building a factory just to make cosmetic raw materials would be incredibly expensive – but producing a special grade of raw materials for cosmetics in a factory that already makes similar materials is just an extra add-on to their usual operating costs, and is therefore affordable. Take colored mica, for example. Making it is an extremely expensive process that requires very precise and repeatable applications of pigment to really small flakes of mica. No one would ever be able to afford it if it was only made for cosmetics. Fortunately, there are already factories making hundreds of tons of colored mica for use in paints, plastics, printing inks, etc. The factory is already built, and making money, and the extra costs of cleaning and sterilizing their equipment to be able to make a cosmetic grade of colored mica are very small compared to the tens of millions of dollars it would cost to build a factory just to make cosmetic/pharma grade colored mica.

    The same thing is true for plastic microbeads. Nobody has a factory that just makes plastic microbeads for cosmetics – if they did, the microbeads would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a kilo, and only Estee Lauder and Lancome could afford to use them. One or more of the factories making those millions of tons of plastic microbeads stops every so often, cleans up, and makes a special batch just for cosmetics. Stopping the use of microbeads in cosmetics isn’t going to change a thing about how those factories do business – which isn’t to say that it’s wrong to get them out of cosmetics – just that there are many more steps to take before this problem is fixed.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      October 8, 2015 6:00 am

      So true with polyethylene beads, we used to use the sieved waste material from the plastics factory.

  2. Traci Drury permalink
    October 12, 2015 11:34 pm

    I’ve nominated you for the Lovely Blog Award. For more information check out my blog.


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