It’s in the ocean, it’s in our lakes, it’s in raindrops. It’s probably in the air. Of course, we’re talking about microplastic, tiny particles of plastic that have become ubiquitous in our environment. But what are microplastics? And how can well if they are in the products we use and consume?
I always pay close attention to the ingredients in food and my cleaning supplies. If I don’t know what something is, I don’t assume that its “safe” just because its in a grocery store. If I don’t know what an ingredient is, I look it up. When I see acronyms (e.g. BHT) instead of full words, that’s a red flag for me. I look into it more closely.
So what ARE microplastics? It’s any piece of plastic under 5mm in size. Any piece of plastic has the potential of becoming microplastic. For example, if a grocery bag ends up in the ocean, over time, it will break apart, resulting in microplastic particles breaking free. The smaller they get, the more likely they are to be ingested by marine life. Ingested plastic obstructs their gastrointestinal tracks and prevents nutrient absorption, often resulting in a painful death.
Many of us already recognize the names of common types of plastic: Polyester (Polyethylene Terephthalate, (PET/PETE), Polystyrene AKA styrofoam (PS), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) and Polypropylene (PP) are the usual suspects in the plastic pollution lineup.
If you buy a plastic water bottle, it’s probably PET plastic, and usually identifiable by a symbol somewhere on the bottom. But there are hidden plastics in other products, like cleaning products, beauty products, and EVEN OUR FOOD. And they’re not always as easy to identify.
Originally, I wanted to make an image with all the names of known microplastics to be used as a guide. The problem with that is that there are over 500 different names! Talk about a overwhelming Instagram pic.
MICROBEADS ARE MICROPLASTIC!
Microbeads became popular as an exfoliator in cosmetic products, usually added as cheap filler or emulsifier  . Neutrogena, Clean and Clear, Clearasil, Aveeno, Irish Spring, Oil of Olay and Nivea are just a handful of companies that have used and continue to use microbeads in their skincare products.
But it’s also in our toothpaste. Colgate notoriously used microbeads for decades, and on their website, they state:
Colgate-Palmolive used microbeads in a limited number of oral care and personal care products to enhance aesthetics and aid in cleaning. However, some groups raised concerns regarding the potential contribution of microbeads to pollution of the world’s oceans. Recognizing that consumers have questions, as of year-end 2014 we stopped using microbeads. More recently, consumer questions have extended beyond microbeads to some polymer-based materials, many of which dissolve in water and biodegrade. Colgate-Palmolive continues to monitor the science and evaluate our use of polymer-based ingredients to ensure continued improvements in the environmental profile of our products.
So they’re still still using a polymer. I looked up their ingredients, for the record. The polymer they use is “PVM/MA Copolymer.” And that’s not a microbead? Well, according to our wonderful red list, it is. Number 159.
So Colgate users are brushing their teeth with a vinyl based plastic that might dissolve in their mouth.
Up to 1.5 MILLION plastic particles in your anti-wrinkle cream?
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Cover Image: CAcoastkeeper.org