Scientists develop environment-friendly microbeads

Microbeads could make a return to exfoliating shower gels and face creams as scientists had invented an environment-friendly alternative.

Plastic beads will be banned from later this year as they were too small to be removed by sewage filtration systems, meaning they ended up in rivers and oceans where they were ingested by birds, fish and other marine life.

The tiny plastic spheres, less than 0.5mm in size, find application in products like face wash, sunscreen and toothpaste to give them a smooth texture. Engineers from the University of Bath's Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies had now developed a biodegradable, renewable alternative type of bead.

The hope was that these could eventually be used in products after the ban on the older micro-beads took effect.

Microbeads are commonly found in face creams and toothpastes.

The new microbeads are robust enough to remain stable in a body wash, but get broken down by organisms at the sewage treatment works, or in the environment over a short period of time.

According to the researchers, the cellulose, which is used in the making of the beads could be sourced from a range of waste sources, such as from the paper-making industry, as a renewable source of raw material.

"Microbeads used in the cosmetics industry are often made of polyethylene or polypropylene, which are cheap and easy to make,'' Dr Janet Scott said in a statement. Scott is a reader in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Bath and an author on the study. ''However, these polymers are derived from oil and they take hundreds of years to break down in the environment.''

But that was not the case with her team's new cellulose-based microbeads, which might see persistent users junk the plastic variety.

Under normal conditions, cellulose, which was a sort of tough sugar fibre that gave trees and other plants their structure was not smooth enough to mimic the plastic in a microbead. However, the material was incredibly versatile and had even been used to make clothes as the basis for the fabric rayon.