plastic microbeads
© 5Gyres, courtesy of Oregon State University
plastic microbeads
For more than 20 years, microbeads have been in facial scrubs, face washes, toothpastes and shower gels and sold with the promise of making us feel cleaner and more beautiful.

But when these minuscule plastic balls are washed down the plughole into the oceans, they don't just harm sea life.

The tragic irony is that these abrasive particles may also be damaging our looks. Here, we reveal just how bad they can be for you...

Scratched Eyes

Microbeads can injure the cornea, the eye's clear outer covering.

Consultant eye surgeon Ali Mearza, of London's Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, said: 'Occasionally when people wash their faces, microbeads get stuck in the eye. Usually these get blinked away, but sometimes granules can be lodged under the eyelid.

'When the eyelid closes, this can scratch the cornea. This can make the eye very red and sore, so that it can't open. This can require a visit to casualty, where we invert the eyelid and flick the particle out with a cotton bud.' While the cosmetics industry says that the instructions tell consumers to avoid the eye area, more people on internet forums are reporting corneal scratches. Some in the U.S. have sought legal advice.

Although the cornea heals fast (if scratches don't get infected, most heal in three or four days) the injuries can be very painful.

'The cornea is the most sensitive part of the body,' says Dr Mearza. 'It has 50,000 nerve endings, so even if you get a small scratch, it can feel as if you have a big, rough object in your eye.'

Damaged Teeth

Laura Percival bought whitening toothpaste, thinking it would guarantee her a bright smile.

After two months, however, the 27-year-old sales manager noticed that she had lost about 2 mm from the gums surrounding her two lower front teeth.

Laura, a mother-of-one from West London, says: 'When I looked into possible causes, I found there were microbeads in the toothpaste but no warning labels.

'This meant I wasn't aware that when I was using my electric toothbrush, I was drilling little bits of plastic into my teeth and gums. Now my teeth are sensitive and hurt whenever I drink anything acidic, like fruit juice.'

Microbeads are put in toothpastes to add texture and colour. Concerns were raised two years ago by U.S. dentists finding tiny blue specks from toothpastes stuck to patients' gums.

Some warned beads could trap bacteria, potentially leading to gingivitis and periodontal disease if the infection moved to the bone. Most toothpastes in Britain no longer contain microbeads.

Dr Zaki Kanaan, former president of the British Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, says that toothpaste containing microbeads is as bad as a toothbrush that is too hard and it can wear away the tooth's outer enamel.

Dr Kanaan, of K2 Dental in Fulham, South-West London, says: 'If you used it day in day out over years, it could wear away the tooth.

'The enamel wears away anyway as we get older, so these toothpastes, bought to make teeth whiter, may speed that up.'

Ripped Skin

When exfoliating scrubs became big news in the Eighties, the granules they contained were made of ground nutshell or pumice.

The edges of these natural particles were sharp and abrasive, so people were advised to use them no more than once or twice a week.

In the Nineties, manufacturers began using microbeads made out of oil, which could be produced more cheaply in bulk and in uniform shapes and sizes.

Soon the particles, which had a smoother, rounder shape, were in a range of face washes designated for daily use.

But as exfoliation has been increasingly touted as a way to brighter, fresher skin, experts are seeing a growing number of patients suffering skin damage from using them too much.

Bianca Estelle, director of the Bea Skin Clinic in London, says overuse of microbeads can cause tiny rips in the skin that let in bacteria and pollutants, which can contribute to ageing and spots: 'With so many microbead products recommended for daily use, people think the more they exfoliate the better. People are using face washes containing microbeads day and night. The skin just can't keep up.

'You can tell when skin is being overexfoliated with microbeads: it is inflamed and if someone already has vascular problems, like rosacea, it is even more irritated.

'If you're using them this much, your skin barrier is weakened, especially now there is a trend for battery-operated cleansing brushes. Exfoliators which have beads should be used no more than once or twice a week.'

Plastic surgeon Dr Yannis Alexandrides, based near Harley Street in London, also sees patients with hypersensitive skin caused by overexfoliation with microbeads.

'Exfoliation should only be to remove dead skin cells that clog pores. However, beads can scratch your skin and remove underlying healthy skin cells. These tiny abrasions damage your skin, accelerating the aging process.'

Dr Martin Wade, dermatologist at the London Real Skin clinic, also advises against microbeads: 'You are essentially rubbing your face with the same plastic used to make milk bottles. Natural alternatives, such as oatmeal and salt, are better.'

Ingested Microplastic

Microbeads are also in foods and are added to some over-the-counter medicines to make them easier to swallow.

Chinese researchers have also found microbeads in supermarket sea salt. Other studies have found them in fish and shellfish.

Pat Thomas, author of Skin Deep: The Essential Guide To What's In The Toiletries And Cosmetics You Use, says: 'Researchers estimate that Europeans consuming the most shellfish, including mussels, scallops, oysters and clams, consume around 11,000 of these particles every year. Microplastics are eaten by fish and other marine life. From there they work their way back up into the human food chain.'

Government experts and environmental groups have warned that toxins in microbeads could permeate human tissue.

Dr Ogi Markovic, of Surfing Medicine International, a global group of about 1,000 doctors and scientists, says more research is needed to understand how much plastic builds up in our blood and tissues from eating fish and shellfish.

He cites a 2010 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives which found that polyethylene, one of the plastics used to make microbeads, contains hormone-disrupting chemicals.

Dr Markovic says: 'The risks associated with plastic are accumulating. They point to a strong connection to diabetes, cancer, hormone disruption, obesity and immune system dysfunction.'

The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association says the studies are not relevant to the chemicals used in microbeads in the EU and that 'rigorous safety assessments' are carried out before any cosmetic product goes on sale.

Pointless Scrubs

Experts say plastic microbeads are popular with manufacturers as they are cheap, add bulk to products and can be dyed any colour, but are often of little use.

Pat Thomas says: 'If your skin is dull the likely problem is internal; you may not be getting enough water, or lack certain nutrients. Anything you do externally, such as scrubs, can only do so much.

'If you feel the need to "scrub" your face, use a face cloth. Better yet, microfibre cloths are reusable, non-polluting, and gently remove dirt, oil, make-up and dead skin cells.'