Plastic micro-particles in facial scrub taken with the ioLight field microscope

Micro-plastic particles in cosmetics cause pollution

Micro-plastic particles are often in the news. These particles, much less that 1mm in size, are now proving to be just as much of a problem for marine wild life than ‘traditional’ pollution caused by large plastic items (bags, bottles etc). Unfortunately this new pollution is invisible and you need a field microscope, such as the ioLight to see it. The tiny particles get eaten by fish and other marine life but are so small that they get lodged in the digestive system, or even absorbed into the blood stream. The particles then build up in the fish causing a variety of health problems not only to the fish, but potentially to the animals that eat the fish – including humans!

This pollution is a relatively new phenomenon and is caused by the increasing use of huge quantities of plastic micro-particles in cosmetics, including facial scrubs. The micro-particles are used as a low-cost abrasive to gently exfoliate skin. The facial scrubs are washed off the skin and go down the drain with the waste water. Because these plastic particles are so small – typically between 5-500 microns – they are not removed from the waste water by conventional sewage treatment plants, and so remain in the treated water and are discharged into the sea. Worst of all, the particles then remain floating in the sea for many years because they are made from low-cost conventional plastics that don’t biodegrade.

Using the ioLight high resolution portable microscope to perform field microscopy we can easily see these nasty particles:

Plastic micro-particles in facial scrub taken with the ioLight field microscope

Plastic micro-particles in facial scrub taken with the ioLight field microscope to perform field microscopy.

The picture shows that this facial scrub (made by a very well known cosmetics company) contains several different sizes of rough plastic micro-particles. The large particles are roughly 0.5mm in size and visible to the naked eye, whereas the smallest particles are 5-10 µm and are invisible without a pocket microscope. It is these tiny fragments that are causing so many problems since they are easily eaten by fish and other marine life, but they are too small for the digestive system to excrete and so they build up in the animal causing harm.

There are a number of scientists working to quantify the effects of this new type of pollution including Prof Tamara Galoway at Exeter University, who has bought an ioLight microscope for her work. Several scientific studies have been published including this one from North Carolina State University.

After we looked at my daughter’s facial scrub with the ioLight pocket microscope, we put all of it in the dustbin to go to land fill – the lesser of two evils, when it comes to the polluting effects of these plastic micro-particles.

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