Wait…There’s PLASTIC in my Soap ?!?
Here in Michigan, we’re literally surrounded by water. Both of our peninsulas (how many peninsulas does your state have?)are bordered on three out of their four sides by the largest bodies of fresh water in the whole wide world, the Great Lakes. If the Great Lakes weren’t awesome enough, we’re also spoiled rotten with literally thousands of lakes, rivers, and streams. We’re lousy with fresh water around here. And we’re pretty particular about keeping these waters clean. Or so I thought.
I like to keep up with environmental news, and I’m deeply disgusted with how we treat this planet. So I was naturally horrified to read that scientists are finding traces of tiny little bits of plastic in the nation’s waterways. More specifically, in our Great Lakes. What nefarious, dirty corporations are responsible for polluting our beloved waters with their billions of plastic microbeads?? None. The plastic microbeads are coming from us. I mean you. And me.
You see, some time ago the health and beauty industry came across what I’m sure seemed to them to be a brilliant idea: Put tiny little beads of plastic in soaps and cleaners. Even in toothpaste.The reason? To give consumers healthy, glowing skin and shiny white teeth.
Why Companies Put Plastic in Your Soaps and Cleaners
Americans love anything that promises to make them look youthful. We’re kind of obsessed with it, and the health & beauty industry knows it. They also know we’ll shell out ridiculous amounts of money for any product promising to make us look younger and healthier. They also realize that by using cheap ingredients in their products, they can maximize their profit margins. Capitalism 101. And there’s very little in this world cheaper than plastic.
The plastic microbeads in many body cleaners, shampoos and soaps are used as exfoliants. They promise to scrub away all those dead skin cells that are making us all look old and sickly, revealing the youthful glow we’re all looking for. In toothpaste, they help clear away stains and plaque. Do they work? Probably not. I don’t know…What I do know is that filling our soaps and toothpastes with tiny pieces of plastic is an incredibly stupid idea.
Why Plastic Microbeads in Soap is a Really Stupid Idea
Plastic is made from oil. You know that, right? And you know that plastic basically lasts forever, don’t you? If you know these simple facts then you should be able to figure out why putting all this plastic in simple soaps and cleansers doesn’t make much sense. Is the allure, the promise, of younger healthier skin worth dumping plastic into our lakes and streams? (Don’t answer that. It’s a rhetorical question. Of course it’s not worth it.)
As I mentioned, studies are finding lots of these little bits of plastic are ending up in the Great Lakes. And since all water is connected in one way or another, if there’s plastic microbeads in rivers and lakes and Great Lakes, it’s eventually going to end up in the oceans. Regardless of what body of water it’s found in, it doesn’t belong there.
Plastic microbeads are ending up in nature because of their tiny size. Water treatment plants aren’t able to filter them out of wastewater due to their tininess. And apparently there’s a lot of these plastic beads out there; downstream of large water treatment facilities, scientists have discovered 500,000 plastic microbeads in one square kilometer of a lake. Gross. And not to single out a particular brand, but the 330,000 plastic microbeads in ONE BOTTLE of Clean & Clear facial scrub are an indication of the huge problem here. The researchers discovered more of this plastic in the Great Lakes than any other body of water. We’re literally treating our lakes like a dump. All for clear skin. I’m getting mad just typing this.
Because this plastic is so small (around 0.355 millimeters across), when it gets into the water, it’s easily mistaken for food by fish and other water-based critters. The size and shape of these microbeads look awfully similar to fish eggs. The aquatic life eats it, and then run the risk of clogging up their digestive systems, keeping them from getting the nutrition they need from real food. The small critters eat the plastic first, and like PCBs, oil, and all the other nasty shit we dump into water, it gets passed up the food chain until eventually it’s found in the big fish, and who eats the big fish? You guessed it: We do. What comes around goes around.
‘Poly’ is the Problem
Why would anybody buy soap with plastic in it? I sure as hell wouldn’t. But wait… The other day in the shower, I reached for the bottle of facial cleaner, turned it around to read the ingredients, and there it was: POLYSTYRENE. Polypropylene and polyethylene are other types of plastic. (Pretty much anything that starts with ‘poly’ is likely to be plastic.) Which is another word for PLASTIC. People buy this stuff because they want clear skin. Can’t blame anyone for that. But they buy plastic-laden soaps because they’re not being told there’s a ton of plastic in it. And my family is as guilty as the next: who knows how long we’ve been buying, and dumping down the drain, plastic microbeads?
Education and Action Are the Solutions
When it comes to living a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly lifestyle, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit. A LOT. And plastic microbeads in facial scrubs has to be right near the top of easy fixes. Just stop buying it. By raising awareness and letting consumers know what to look for (and avoid) we can start cleaning up this mess. So, try to remember this: If a bottle of soap or facial scrub or any other cosmetic lists ‘POLYSTYRENE’ or ‘POLYETHYLENE’ or ‘POLYPROPYLENE’ as an ingredient, it’s got plastic in it. You often won’t be able to actually see the microbeads, they’re so small. But they’re there. (This reminds me of the time my vegetarian wife asked a waitress at a restaurant if there was meat in the soup and was told ‘There’s ham in it, but you can’t see it.’ Nice try.)
Marine biologists have been warning us that using soaps filled with tiny bits of polystyrene, polypropylene, or polyethylene plastic is bad for everything that lives in water; now is the time for us to take the threat seriously. The solution is simple:
AVOID BUYING COSMETICS AND SOAPS WITH POLYPROPYLENE OR POLYETHYLENE OR POLYSTYRENE AS A LISTED INGREDIENT!!!
Not buying plastic-filled soaps is great at the individual level, but that won’t stop the overall problem. Companies need to stop making the damn stuff in the first place. Fortunately, it looks like the writing may be on the wall for this nasty stuff. Many health & beauty companies like Unilever, L’Oreal, and Johnson & Johnson have pledged to voluntarily phase out plastic microbeads in their products. Kudos to them. In 2014 Illinois became the first state to ban the use of polystyrene beads in consumer products. Legislation is pending in New York and California. Write to your state and urge them to do the same thing. We’re choking the planet slowly with all of the plastic we’re dumping into the ocean; keeping the stuff out of our soaps is just one small way to start fixing the problem. Until quite recently, I was completely unaware that I was unwillingly part of the problem. I’m aware now; and now so are you.
Alternatives to Plastic Microbeads
There are better options out there for those of you in need of exfoliation, and like most better options, they’re more natural and have been around forever. Look for natural ingredients on products such as apricot shells, walnut shells, pecan shells, apricot seeds, rice, cocoa beans….the list goes on. All of these are safe, biodegradable, and have the gritty texture necessary for that good old deep-cleaning you’re yearning for. No plastic, no oil, no dead fish. Here’s to clean, fresh water and clean, fresh looking skin!