How Our Toiletries Impact Our Oceans

We live in a world surrounded by plastics—but did you know they are also in our toiletries? Plastics and industrially produced synthetic chemicals have found their way into the products we use for self care. When washed down the drain, these products can have detrimental consequences in aquatic ecosystems.  

According to Statista, the global skincare market will increase from 121 billion US dollars in 2016, to 154 billion in 2021. Our increased consumption of these products also means an increased environmental impact as we continue to pollute the environment at the expense of our personal care.

Microbeads and Macro Problems

Check out this infograhic by 5Gyres for more information on the cycle microbeads take.

Check out this infograhic by 5Gyres for more information on the cycle microbeads take.

In recent years, discussion around the environmental impact of our toiletries has been emerging to the surface and is centered specifically on the sale of microbeads, the small plastic beads we find in our body and face scrubs, deodorants, toothpaste, and many other products.

When these beads were first invented, they appealed to many companies as they were cheap to manufacture, but also provided a nice exfoliating feel to the consumers. Their perfectly round shape is more gentle on skin than other natural products previously used for exfoliation, such as walnut shells. They come in many different shapes and sizes, some even less than 5 micrometers.

The problem with the beads is that when they travel from our sinks to our oceans, they damage our aquatic ecosystems. Once down the drain, many of these beads are too small to be decomposed by wastewater treatment plants, and are therefore emitted via raw sewage, applied on agricultural land, dumped in our oceans or lakes or end up in landfills. According to the Environmental Science and Technology Journal, there are enough microbeads emitted into oceans and lakes every day to cover 300 tennis courts.

Once in an aquatic ecosystem, microbeads do not biodegrade. Fish, turtles, seabirds  and other wildlife mistake the beads for food. The beads are then lodged into the stomachs and intestines of the animals, causing them to die of starvation. After ingested by fish, these small plastics make their way back onto our plates as seafood.

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Plastics found in fish. Photo by Sea Watch Foundation

Fortunately, the environmental disaster created by microbeads has been brought to the attention of the public through organizations such as Beat the Microbead and 5gyres who are researching the dangers of the particles and advocating for a solution. Due in part to the efforts of these companies, there has been a large movement to stop the sale and production of microbeads nation wide. In fact, President Obama recently approved a ban on microbeads in December 2015. Still, many organizations and consumers are worried that companies will replace the beads with ones labeled as “biodegradable,” which is a loophole that does not equate to less plastic.  

Ecosystem Damage is in Our Hands

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Check out this info graphic for more on triclosan. Photo by mamabee.com

An antibacterial chemical found in toothpaste and soaps, triclosan (sometimes referred to as TCS) has been known to also cause environmental harm. This chemical finds its way into our environment in a similar way as microbeads—through our wastewater.

According to the Environmental Working Group, once in an aquatic environment, triclosan accumulates into the muscle tissues of many wildlife species. In rivers and streams, triclosan accumulates in algae, snails, fish and amphibians, as well as worms and mussels. For many larvae species in these ecosystems, triclosan affects their feeding, their most sensitive stage, and causes developmental and anatomic changes in these organisms.

A study done by the American Medical Association showed that antibacterial soaps are not more effective against germs than regular soaps, making us question the purpose of this harmful chemical altogether.

Change to Environmentally Safer Products

As consumers, there are things we can do to make a change in the use of these harmful products. The first step is buying products made from natural materials. But do be mindful that many products today are advertised as “natural”—a greenwashing method implemented by many businesses to make us feel as though we are good consumers and persuade us to keep buying their product. Therefore, we must do more than just read the package and do extra research on the product we are buying.

To avoid plastics, look for words such as polyethylene, polylactic acid (PLA), polypropylene, polystyrene, or polyethylene terephthalate—the materials that make up plastic microbeads. Also look for ingredients such as triclosan when purchasing a product.

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Plastic Soup Foundation’s Plastics! app

To help us make educated choices, the Beat the Microbead Campaign, created by the Plastic Soup Foundation, has developed an app in which consumers can scan a barcode, or search from a wide range of brands, to find out if a specific product is plastics free.

In addition, look for companies that value our oceans and ecosystems. Many environmentally conscious cosmetic companies are emerging such as LUSH which has been heavily involved in anti-microbead campaigns and follows environmental principles when it comes to less packaging and water. RMS Beauty follows similar principles as they use only raw and non-processed materials. Try to support these companies and those that you know are making a difference in the industry.

To go above and beyond, make your own products! This way, you can be absolutely sure chemicals are not being added to your toiletries. Check out Lauren Singer, of Trash is for Tossers, and her recipes for toothpaste and deodorant if you are feeling extra inspired. Fixit.com also has recipes for healthy DIY options, and many are surpisingly easy to make.

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DIY deodorant recipe from Fixit.com

There is a lot we can do at the consumer level to ensure environmental integrity in our products. Purchase products that are free of microbeads and other toxic chemicals. By doing so, we are not only helping our environment directly in a small way, but we are also demanding change in the way our toiletries are made.

For alternative and reusable products to decrease your toiletries waste check out http://www.lifewithoutplastic.com

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