The Huge Consequences Of The Tiny Microbead
In the world of great discoveries that cure or add a positive element to our everyday existence, the invention of microbeads hasn’t proven to be one of them. Not alone in its quick rise to popularity and slow journey to extinction, the microbead is just one of numerous products rushed to market before its long term effects are uncovered. In the field of medicine, for instance, at least 35 drugs have been banned by the FDA – many long after they were approved and commonly prescribed. The same is true for the microbead, born from the development of thermoplastics, a result of the scarcity of natural rubber at the beginning of World War II. Found to have a multitude of commercial applications, the ingredient was quickly added to the formulation of cosmetic products.
What makes microbeads problematic
Microbeads are tiny particles of synthetic exfoliates mainly added to cosmetics but also commercial cleaning products. Starting in the 1990s, microbeads were a popular ingredient featured in body washes, shampoos, sunscreens and facial masques. But the silky texture did not outweigh the problems microbeads create for the environment as all the miniature menaces end up down the drain. They then enter lakes and oceans where the particles will remain for hundreds of years.
The demise of the microbead
While the products made with microbeads were found to be effective and were increasing in popularity, they were also making quite an impression on the water system. After rinsing down drains, the synthetic plastics were flowing straight into sewers, great lakes and oceans where they make up 60-80 percent of our water’s litter and debris. Once the enormity of the problem was known, it set off a “Ban the Bead” campaign by environmentalists leading to the eventual removal of microbeads from the market in the United States. The British government followed, stopping production in England as of January 2018, along with banning the marketing of cosmetic and household products made with the plastics beginning in June. Still, It took nearly fifty years from the time the tiny polystyrene spheres were first made available for public use in 1972 to scrub the plastic exfoliates out of commercial products.
Back to basics
Long before plastic was an ingredient in soaps and teeth whiteners, man was grinding up elements from nature to add to their hygiene regiment. Fruit pits, seeds, coconut shells and salt granules were used to keep skin clean and pores open. Baking soda was the grit that kept teeth white and shiny. And so it goes. Today’s most popular products have gone back to their literal roots, replacing damaging microplastics with the wonders of nature from which they were born.
On the bright side
We live in a world always eager for “the next great thing” to add quality to our lives. Often, that entrepreneurial spirit and intelligence results in excellent inventions, even miracle drugs. But sometimes there are negative consequences that come from such high aspirations. Thankfully, as diagnostic techniques continue to improve, problems arising from great new inventions will become as small a microbead.
Author: Lucy Wyndham