Microbeads in cleansing products contaminating the Great Lakes

MISSISSAUGA – Plastic microbeads are used in cosmetic products to enhance the beauty routine, used to scrub the face and body for a few seconds – but they are having a long-term effect on the Great Lakes.

The microbeads are so tiny, scientists say they are literally being washed from our faces into the lakes.

“They’re too small to get caught by sewage treatment plants,” Nancy Goucher, an activist with Environmental Defence said. “They’re discharged right into our rivers and our lakes.”

Microbeads are plastic and most commonly made from polyethylene.  According to Environmental defence that is the same type of plastic often used to make plastic shopping bags, milk crates, even trash bins.

“We’re using it, when there are natural, biodegradable alternatives,” says Goucher.

Microbeads are generally added to body products as exfoliants, meant to slough away dead skin cells.  They have also been used in toothpaste, although according to, Dr. Euan Swan,  a spokesperson with the Canadian Dental Association, the beads serve no functional purpose in toothpaste.

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Health Canada has deemed the beads safe for use as an additive in cosmetics and food.

Leading the scientific charge against the use of microbeads is Dr. Sherri Mason, a professor with the State University of New York, Fredonia.

In 2013, Mason found a concentration of 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometre in Lake Ontario.

“It blew us out of the water,” she said.  “And that was right outside of Toronto.”

Because microbeads are used in consumer products, researchers like Mason are finding concentrations of the minute plastics to be higher in areas with greater population. This is particularly alarming to scientists like Mason because she says microbeads are good at absorbing toxins.

In samples from Lakes Erie, Ontario, Superior and Huron, Mason has found evidence suggesting the plastics are entering the food chain.

“We started studying various fish and aquatic bird species and looking to see if the plastics are making their way into and migrating up the food chain; they are,” Mason said.

Health Canada says its jurisdiction is only if human health concerns arise.

“The concerns being raised on the use of microbeads is related to the impact on the environment, not human health,” according to an emailed statement from Health Canada media relations officer Gary Scott Holub.

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In June, 2014, the state of Illinois became the first American state to ban cosmetics containing microbeads, starting January, 2019.  There are no governments in Canada considering the same type of ban, although several manufacturers including Johnson & Johnson (in 2017), L’Oreal (in 2017) and Unilever (in 2015) have agreed to remove microbeads from their production line.

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