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Your toothbrush bristles may not be the only plastic you put in your mouth this morning — what you probably assume are flavor crystals in your toothpaste may actually be plastic microbeads. And soon, they’ll most likely be disappearing from your tube, thanks to growing public concern about the beads’ effects on both marine and human health. Procter & Gamble, the maker of Crest, has just pledged to eliminate microbeads from its toothpastes by March 2016, according to a statement released to ABC15 in Phoenix. (Crest did not respond to Yahoo’s request for comment.)
“While the ingredient in question is completely safe, approved for use in foods by the FDA, and part of an enjoyable brushing experience for millions of consumers with no issues, we understand there is a growing preference for us to remove this ingredient. So we will,” the statement noted.
The toothpaste controversy started when Trish Walvaren, a dental hygienist in Phoenix, began blogging about the blue specks she was finding embedded in patients’ gums on a near-daily basis. She compared the plastic bits, made of polyethylene, to popcorn hulls stuck in the small channels where the gums meet the teeth, called sulci.
“The thing about a sulcus is that it’s vulnerable,” Walvaren wrote. “Your dental hygienist spends most of their time cleaning every sulcus in your mouth, because if the band of tissue around your tooth isn’t healthy, then you’re not healthy.” However, she added, “I am not saying that polyethylene is causing gum problems. I’d be jumping too soon to that conclusion without scientific proof.” Walveren’s claims quickly went viral, with hundreds of news outlets and blogs reposting her account.
Microbeads are found in several of Crest’s toothpastes, including the Pro Health and 3D White lines, according to Beat the Microbead, an international campaign against the polyethylene beads.
But are microbeads really a threat to your dental health? In a September 16th statement, the American Dental Association, which assigns a seal of approval to certain dental products, said, “At this time, clinically relevant dental health studies do not indicate that the Seal should be removed from toothpastes that contain polyethylene microbeads.” Crest Pro Health is one such ADA-approved toothpaste that contains the beads.
This statement caused Jennifer Jablow, a cosmetic dentist in New York City, to raise an eyebrow. “The ADA still feels that [microbeads] don’t pose a safety hazard,” she told Yahoo Health. “You have to raise a question mark with that. I think it may be because Crest, P&G, is such a wealthy company — that there might be a political aspect to [the ADA’s statement].”
Jablow routinely advises that patients avoid toothpastes containing dyes, including those with microbeads, which are added for color and decoration in toothpaste. “People think since the beads are in body scrub, they might help polish the teeth,” Jablow said. “They actually don’t.”
What they can contribute to, she said, is staining or worse, as they become lodged in the pockets of the gums, leading to redness, puffiness, and even bleeding. Eventually, this could cause the gums to recede. “If you’re using this toothpaste for years,” Jablow added, “you’re probably swallowing a little bit of it. You don’t know if those tiny microbeads get trapped in your organs.”
Crest isn’t the first company to make a pledge — albeit a publicly pressured one — to eliminate plastic from personal-care products. Earlier this year, Unilever, the maker of Dove, Lux, and Clear, among other personal-care brands, announced that it would phase out microbeads in its hygiene products by Jan. 1, 2015. L’Oreal recently committed to eliminating the plastic beads from all of its scrubs by 2017; The Body Shop, a L’Oreal-owned company, will phase them out by 2015. Johnson & Johnson, whose brands include Clean & Clear, Neutrogena, and Aveeno, has set the end of 2017 as its deadline for removing microbeads, which it says are used in exfoliating face and body washes, although it plans to eliminate them from about half of its products by the end of 2015.
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From a public-health perspective, the microbeads in body washes and scrubs have received significantly less negative attention than those in toothpaste. “I’ve never met anyone that’s hurt themselves with a microbead,” Dr. Francesca Fusco, a New York City dermatologist, told Yahoo Health. However, the little plastic bits could potentially lead to inflammation or even tiny tears in the skin, especially in delicate areas, such as the neck, the chest, or around the eyes. “If you have very, very sensitive skin, and you press too hard with [the microbead scrub] — especially if you’re using retinoids or acne medicines — you can irritate the skin a lot,” she said.
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This may be especially true for people who use rotating facial brushes, such as the Clarisonic, which may grind granular scrubs too firmly into the skin, Fusco warned. The result? “You look red and inflamed. And if you rub hard at the corners of your nose, you can break blood vessels,” she said.
Worse, if the tiny beads create equally tiny cuts on your face, you may be more prone to infection. “The worst-case scenario would be you take these beads, you scrub like crazy, you make micro-cuts and abrasions on your face, and then you go to the gym and put your face against something, like a mat, that’s infected with bacteria,” she said. However, noted Fusco, natural exfoliants, such as apricot seeds, probably pose a greater threat to your complexion, since they have jagged edges, unlike the perfectly round shape of most microbeads.
But it’s not the risk of an uneven complexion — or even the dental-health concern — that’s primarily prompted companies to take a stand against plastic beads. In 2012, research commissioned by the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit that aims to reduce plastic pollution, revealed an alarmingly large amount of plastic floating on the surface of the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie.
“We traced it back to plastic microbeads from personal-care products,” Anna Cummins, executive director of 5 Gyres, told Yahoo Health. “When people think of plastic pollution, they think of plastic packaging, bags, utensils, and other disposables that are so common but that are not designed to wind up in the environment. They’re designed to go into the recycling or into the trash. Microbeads, on the other hand, are designed to go directly from the consumer’s face or mouth down the drain and into our water system.”
Since microbeads are less than one-fifth of an inch in diameter, they often pass through the filtration systems at wastewater treatment plants. That’s how they end up floating in oceans, lakes, and other bodies of water, where they’re consumed by marine organisms, as well as fish and seabirds that feed at the surface, according to a 2009 journal article in Marine Pollution Bulletin. Larger animals may then consume these organisms, allowing the microbeads to accumulate up the food chain.
These little bits of plastic are alarmingly indestructible, which means they linger almost indefinitely in oceans and lakes. “Plastics, in general, are designed to be extremely durable,” said Cummins. “These beads, with their perfectly round shape, are especially durable in the marine environment.” Even scarier, they can absorb chemicals contaminating the water, which marine life then consumes along with the beads.
It was this Great Lakes discovery that prompted the 5 Gyres Institute to ask large manufacturers, such as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and L’Oreal, to stop using microbeads in their products. “They agreed to a voluntary phase-out, which was tremendous,” Cummins told Yahoo Health. “But there wasn’t clarity on the timeline.” In response, 5 Gyres drafted model legislation to eliminate the polyethylene beads, which was subsequently introduced in New York and California. Although New York passed the bill, it was defeated by one vote in the California Senate in August.
In recent months, Illinois made headlines for being the first state to formally ban the beads in personal-care products, with a deadline of Dec. 31, 2017. But 5 Gyres doesn’t consider this a victory for the environmental cause. “We are actually not in favor of that bill at all,” said Cummins. A loophole in the law permits companies to replace polyethylene with bioplastics, which are said to be biodegradable. “Many of these bioplastics are only biodegradable in a high-heat municipal composting facility. So not in the ocean,” she said. “Our fear is that other states will look to this legislation as a model and that the environment will lose.”
Ohio has also introduced legislation to eliminate microbeads from personal-care products, including soaps, lotions, body washes, toothpastes, and facial cleansers. New Jersey is reviewing a similar proposal, brought to the state legislature in May.
Cummins hopes that consumers will take a personal stand against microbeads, especially in states where legislation has been shot down. “The simple thing to do is just avoid these products altogether,” she said. “Even if the bill [in California] does pass in 2015, it will be several years before the plastic beads are phased out.” For example, a single tube of Clean & Clear contains up to 350,000 plastic microbeads, said Cummins, which means that eliminating even one polyethylene-containing product from your medicine cabinet could have a positive environmental impact.
Although companies like L’Oreal and Unilever are currently exploring alternative exfoliants, Fusco has a DIY solution: Add a pinch of table salt or white sugar to a teaspoon of your scrub or body wash. “It dissolves as you go along, and there is nothing wrong with salt or sugar going down the drain,” she told Yahoo Health.
To identify plastic-containing products, simply scan the ingredients list for polyethylene (or look for words like “microbeads” or “micro-exfoliates” on the front), the Marine Pollution Bulletin article advised. You can also refer to Beat the Microbead’s lists of personal-care items in the United States that used microbeads as of August 2014.
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