Bite-size paper: Exploring perceptions of microplastics in personal care products

Researchers from Plymouth University have shown that almost 100,000 tiny ‘microbeads’ of plastic could be released in every single application of cosmetic products. This could result in up to an estimated 80 tonnes of unnecessary microplastic waste entering the sea every year from the UK alone. Microplastics can be mistaken for food by fish, leading to harmful effects on the growth, movement and breeding success of marine life. 

As consumers we have important role in influencing the demand for products such as toothpaste soap and facial scrubs. A study led by Professor Alison Anderson and funded by the Sustainable Earth Institute, explored the public perception and awareness of microbeads with help from marine biologists, psychologists and health experts. 

The study looked at three groups of people: environmental activists, trainee beauticians and university students in South West England. 

Results showed that whilst the environmentalists were originally aware of the issue, it lacked visibility and immediacy for the beauticians and students. Regardless of any perceived level of harm in the environment, all three groups agreed that the use of microbeads was unnatural and unnecessary, and were surprised and concerned at the quantities and potential impact on the environment of the microbeads. It was also found that social media played a key role in informing people (particularly younger consumers) about microplastics.

This research could inform future communications with the public and industry, as well as giving a positive indication that a ban on microbeads would be accepted.

Plastic microbeads

Everyday cosmetic and cleaning products contain huge quantities of plastic particles, which can be released into the environment.

The International Marine Litter Research Unit explains why the proposed UK ban on plastic microbeads by 2017 is important.