The Microbeads Dilemma: Does your facewash harm wildlife?

Face cream with microbeads.

The Society for Conservation Biology’s North America Policy Program

Face cream with microbeads photo by Chelsea Rochman

The world’s oceans are facing an unprecedented plastic crisis, and your morning routine may be inadvertently adding to it.

Plastic in the ocean is hard to track and quantities are growing every day, but scientists have estimated that concentrations can be as high as 580,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer (223,880 per square mile). Plastic pollution has become so ubiquitous that over 90% of seabirds and most sea turtles have eaten plastics in their lifetimes, with numbers increasing every day. If you’re like me, you probably imagine that this plastic problem stems from the large pieces of debris we’re likely to see washed up on beaches such as plastic soda bottles, shopping bags, and lighters. But while large pieces of plastic debris are certainly an issue, this huge problem boils down to some much smaller pieces: microplastics. Microplastics are technically under 5mm in size (about half the size of a grain of rice). They can be a result of those larger pieces of plastic breaking down into smaller pieces over time, or can be the result of already small plastics entering waterway. This is where you and I come in, because we might be unwittingly contributing to the microplastic problem in local and global waterways simply by washing our faces or brushing our teeth.

Micro Beads in Back River photo by Julie Lawson, Trash Free Maryland

I only realized that I was probably polluting plastic into the ocean when my friend and colleague, Dr. Chelsea Rochman, told me about her research. Chelsea is a marine ecotoxicologist and environmental chemist, and she specializes in studying how plastics get into our waterways and what the impacts of those plastics are on —> Read More