Hundreds and thousands from hell

Last updated 09:20 10/07/2014

Facebook is responsible for a great many evils, amongst them passive-aggressive status updates, the perpetuation of hoaxes of all kinds, the inability to ignore the religious proclivities of your relatives, and (looks sideways with a rather guilty expression) Too Many Baby Photos. But one thing it is useful for is providing a feed of interesting internet tidbits and articles as selected by your friends and acquaintances. Sometimes it's stuff that you would never have stumbled upon on your own.

This is how I found out about microbeads.

Apparently I have been using microbeads for years and had no idea. Microbeads are the tiny, gritty bits of stuff that they put in face and body scrubs to give them that extra bit of exfoliating "oomph". They are like Paul Henry in your TV schedule, there to make things just a bit abrasive. Whereas PH leaves me wishing I could scour my skin from my body, microbeads in fact do this very thing.

For several years I have been using a facial scrub that contain microbeads and I never once thought to wonder what they were actually made of. If pressed I suppose I would have assumed they were made of something similar in formulation to the facewash itself, though hardened perhaps? Certainly the manufacturers wouldn't have just whacked a bunch of plastic in there. I mean, that would just be dicky.

I'll give you three guesses as to what microbeads are made of and you won't need two of those guesses.

Yes, that's right, microbeads are actually just teeny, tiny bits of plastic.

Now I'm as vain as the next person and I certainly appreciate how nice and fresh my face feels after it's had a good scrub but I'm also nearly forty. Any difference that microbeads might make to my face will be negligible at best. There are great valleys and divots and pores able to be seen from space. Unless microbeads have the powers of David Copperfield, who once made the Statue of Liberty disappear so surely would have no problem vanishing a few acne scars, they're probably not worth the hassle, frankly.

But that's not the worst bit. Microbeads are so small, we are told, that they can't be filtered out by wastewater treatment facilities. This means that all those little beads that exist purely to make your skin feel just a little bit nicer eventually make their way into the sea and other waterways where they get eaten (or drunk?) by fish and animals.

Now far be it from me to simply accept as truth anything I read via Facebook. So I contacted Johnson & Johnson who make my facewash to ask them if the microbeads really were made of plastic. I also got in touch with the someone at the wastewater treatment plant here in Christchurch to check that microbeads (or more correctly microplastics) really couldn't be filtered out by their facility. In both cases the answer was yes.

A nice lady at Johnson & Johnson informed me that they are phasing out microbeads from their products and are investigating alternatives. They aim to have "reformulated" by the end of 2015. And would I like a refund for my microbead-laden facewash? Well, that's very nice of you Johnson & Johnson. Not perhaps quite as nice as NOT PUTTING THEM IN THERE IN THE FIRST PLACE but, yes, I'll take that refund.

Meanwhile the manager of Christchurch's Wastewater Treatment Plant confirmed that microplastics smaller than 100 microns cannot be filtered at their facility. That stuff really is sliding off my face, down the plughole and out into the world.

I feel a bit silly about all this to be honest because this stuff about microbeads isn't a secret. As far back as 2009 local research was pointing out the risks to the marine environment and the foodchain. I just never imagined that my facewash had plastic in it. Why would I have?

But now that I do know I have switched to a facial scrub that buffs me with the awesome power of ground up walnut shell. And I'm telling you all about it just in case you didn't realise. If you wanted to you could return your unwanted product to the manufacturer or, like me, get in touch and ask them a few pointed questions.

Have you been using products containing microbeads without realising what they were? Will you continue to do so now that you do know?

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