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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.
Is It a Controversy?
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.
But are microbeads really a threat to your dental health? In a 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.”
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].”
Microbeads Don’t Help Polish the Teeth
Jablow routinely advises that patients avoid toothpastes containing dyes, including those with microbeads, which are added for colour 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.”
How To Identify the Products with Microbeads
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.
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.
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.
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.
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