Cosmetics companies have promised to remove plastic "microbeads" from their products, following an investigation by The Independent on Sunday which revealed these tiny particles are ending up in fish and other marine creatures after being washed down bathroom sinks.
Thirteen companies, including international cosmetic firms that sell the exfoliating washes and creams with microbeads made from polyethylene and other plastics, say they are planning to stop using them. Only German discount supermarket Aldi could not give a firm commitment on removing the beads from its facewash. Tony Baines, of Aldi said: "This is something we continually review."
Tesco, Procter & Gamble, Estée Lauder, Clarins, Superdrug and Sainsbury's all said they will remove microbeads, but were unable to confirm when.
"We are aware of environmental concerns with certain types of plastic microbead. We are planning to phase these out of our brands and are working with our suppliers to investigate alternatives," a Tesco spokesperson said. Procter & Gamble said that it will not be adding plastic microbeads to any new products and Estée Lauder said that it is "currently in the process of removing exfoliating plastic beads in the small number of our products that contain them".
Superdrug said that it is currently working on a plan to remove the beads from its own products. Sainsbury's said it launched two products with plastic microbeads last year but now plans to stop adding them to any new items. "Once sold through, these will not be replaced," a spokesperson said.
Clarins, the French cosmetics company, said: "We have become aware [microbeads] could pose a problem to the environment. We have therefore decided to phase them out as quickly as possible and are already working diligently on alternative ingredients."
Unilever, Boots, Marks & Spencer, and King of Shaves all promised to end production by the end of next year, while L'Oréal, Johnson & Johnson, and Reckitt Benckiser said that they will stop by 2017.
"We stopped using plastic microbeads in new products in February 2014," Boots said. "We are also carefully managing our stock to ensure the vast majority of old-formulation products will be out of stores well before the end of December 2015." Reckitt Benckiser, producer of Clearasil, said microbeads were on its "not allowed" list and it has already begun the process of removing them from its existing product range.
Over the past two decades, plastic microbeads have become ubiquitous throughout the "personal care" industry, despite a lack of any comprehensive assessment into the effects on the environment or wildlife. A study, led by Mark Anthony Browne of the University of California and published last December, found that potentially toxic pollutants, such as nonylphenol, phenanthrene and Triclosan, stick to microplastic beads and are carried into the tissues of animals when they are consumed.
Dr Browne said that up to 78 per cent of "priority pollutants" – those deemed by the US Environmental Protection Agency as persistent, bio-accumulative or toxic, are typically found in close association with microplastics in the environment, which include the small particles formed by the breakdown of larger plastic waste.
In studies yet to be published, Dr Browne and his colleagues found that a typical household product with microplastic exfoliants, such as a facewash, can contain millions of beads, some as small as a few thousandths of a millimetre in diameter.
The smaller particles are more dangerous to wildlife as they are more likely to be absorbed through the lining of the gut or lungs and thence into an organism's vital tissues. "The research we've done to date shows there is a range of different sizes in each product, some around a millimetre and some as small as a few microns [thousandths of a millimetre]. Some look under the microscope as if they have been ground up. There is a concern about them being a vector for noxious substances," Dr Browne said.
Tests have shown that the kind of fat-soluble pollutants that environmental agencies worry about the most – such as cancer-causing PCBs – can accumulate on the surface of microplastic beads, which have a large surface area compared to their volume. Dr Brown said these concentrations can be up to a million times greater than typical background levels in seawater.
Chris Fowler, of the Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association, said it had made its members aware of concerns over plastic microbeads, but it was for individual companies to formulate their own policies.
"If companies have decided to move away from using plastic microbeads we must remember it will some take time before we start seeing this on the shelf, as reformulation needs to takes place," he said.
No one seems to know – or is prepared to admit – when plastic microbeads were first used, or which company pioneered their use. None of the 15 or so companies we asked could tell us when microbeads were first included in their formulations. But Unilever, one of the first companies to promise to end the use of plastic microbeads, offered a lead in the form of a 1972 patent to protect the intellectual property attached to plastic microbeads used as exfoliants.
The patent was in the name of Willis J Beach of Saginaw, Michigan, who proposed a skin-cleaner with a "plastic synthetic resin". The plastic resin particles will not "clog drains into which it is poured", the patent states. The microbeads are also too small to be caught in the filters used to treat waste water before it is discharged into rivers, streams and, ultimately, the sea. Few companies now try to justify the use of plastic microbeads, given the growing scientific evidence linking them to persistent pollutants such as PCBs.
"No producer will make a public statement. If they admit they're at fault, in so doing they are culpable for the pollution they've caused," said Stiv Wilson of the 5 Gyres Institute in the United States, which campaigns for microbead abolition.