Despite its small and seemingly harmless size, microplastics in cosmetics products pose a serious threat to the lives of marine animals, according to a recent study conducted in the United Kingdom.

Scientists at Plymouth University have discovered that around 100,000 tiny particles of plastics commonly known as microbeads, smaller than a millimeter in diameter, could be released into the environment in every single use of certain cosmetic products, such as facial soaps, toothpastes and exfoliants.

These microplastic wastes often combine into abrasives and bulking agents and their diminutive size make it difficult for conventional methods of sewage treatment to intercept them. This allows these harmful microbeads to reach river systems and oceans.

In their study, which is featured in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, the researcher found that cosmetics use in the United Kingdom alone contribute to around 80 metric tons of microplastic wastes that end up in the sea each year.

Lead researcher Imogen Napper said they were surprised to discover the amount microplastics that everyday cosmetic products contain.

"Currently, there are reported to be 80 facial scrubs in the UK market which contain plastic material, however some companies have indicated they will voluntarily phase them out from their products," Napper said.

"In the meantime, there is very little the consumer can do to prevent this source of pollution."

Cosmetics manufacturers use microplastics as a substitute for natural exfoliating materials. These microbeads are reported to be included in various cosmetic products such a toothpaste, soaps, hand cleansers, bubble bath, shampoo, sunscreen and shaving foam.

More and more plastic materials are being found in marine waters, with around 700 marine species reportedly encountering different pieces of debris in their natural habitats. Plastic materials account for more than 90 percent of these pieces of debris that the animals encounter.

To find out which types of cosmetic products contain microplastics, Napper and his colleagues selected facial scrub brands that list plastic materials among their ingredients. These products were then exposed to vacuum filtration in order to extract the plastic particles.

The researchers analyzed the plastic particles through the use of electron microscopy and found that each 150 milliliters of cosmetic products could contain around 137,000 to 2.8 million particles of microplastics.

Photo: Akira Ohgaki | Flickr 

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