The issue of plastics particles in the ocean is an important issue and we have reviewed the use of micro beads in our portfolio (both current products and those in the pipeline),” explained Unilever in a statement. The group took its decision in the wake of a web campaign and a call to ban all cosmetics containing plastic micro beads launched by a group of NGOs headed by the Dutch Plastic Soup Foundation and Stichting De Noordzee (the North Sea Foundation).

Major cause of marine pollution

According to the Plastic Soup Foundation, many cosmetic products - such as body scrubs, toothpastes, face or hair cleaners - contain plastic micro beads that are washed down the drain after use thus contributing to the “plastic soup”, the increased concentration of suspended plastic particulates in oceanic waters. “This debris are about the same size range as plankton organisms and marine species are not able to distinguish food from this micro plastic. On top of that micro beads also concentrate persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and are thus a transport medium for toxic chemicals in the marine environment. The fish you eat may be poisoned because of this,” details the organisation.

Plastic litter © The Plastic Soup Foundation

Actually, plastic particles are an increasing cause of water pollution. They originate from microbeads contained in cosmetic products as well as from the breakdown products of plastic litter. However, it is difficult to determine precisely the origin of these micro particles but it is unlikely that cosmetics be the main source of pollution, in particular compared to plastic packaging litter.

In any case, marine life is severely threatened by these small pieces of plastic that have frequently been found in the digestive tracts of various marine creatures, where they can cause direct physiological damage or leach chemical pollutants such as dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE) or polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB).

Widely used in cosmetics

Plastic microspheres have numerous uses in cosmetics, skin care and personal care industries. According to Cospheric, one of the main producer of coloured microspheres, they can be used as exfoliating agents but also as carriers of beneficial ingredients and they effectively scatter light minimizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. “They also create a ball-bearing effect in creams and lotions resulting in luxury feel and smooth silky texture.

The Plastic Soup Foundation and Stichting De Noordzee found micro beads in at least 23 Unilever products and published the list on Facebook and the internet.

It is unclear whether microbeads contained in cosmetics can be filtered out by state of the art water purification processes. Few water treatment plants are well equipped and this is usually not the case in emerging countries such as China, Indonesia and Brazil where cosmetics companies are making a growing part of their revenue. "Products containing micro beads would then almost certainly join the plastic soup," said Maria Westerbos of the Plastic Soup Foundation.

The Unilever group said it will eliminate all micro beads in its personal care products sold in the Netherlands by mid 2013 and will do the same for the rest of the world by 2015.

"We congratulate Unilever for taking this important decision. The group, which is proud of its record on sustainability, has indeed matched its actions to its words. We understand very well that Unilever cannot stop using micro beads in its products from one day to the next,” said Maria Westerbos.