Plastic in My Toothpaste?!

I didn’t use this title just to catch your attention; I used this title because it’s true. Some toothpaste products actually contain tiny pieces of plastic. Often the “stuff” that makes your toothpaste look pretty is really plastic bits. More specifically, all that “stuff” is microplastics.

Microplastics is defined as plastics that are smaller than 5mm in size or about 0.20 of an inch or less. These plastics come in two forms. First, there are the primary microplastics. These are small pellets and fragments of plastic that are deliberately manufactured for companies that will use them to make larger plastic items such as water bottles. Primary microplastics also include “microbeads” which many of us associate with facial scrubs and body washes. Some of those exfoliating materials are actually little beads of plastic! How do you know? Find the box or container your product came in and look for the word “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” in the ingredients list. I mentioned this in my “What’s REALLY In Your Water?” article, but you can start your search for products containing polyethylene and find out more about a variety of these chemicals and products which contain them here.

toothpaste plastics

Image of plastics (green) extracted from toothpaste. Image was taken through a microscope. Photo Credit: Maia McGuire.

Secondary microplastics are the result of larger pieces of plastic items breaking down from sunlight, chemical or microbial processes. Secondary microplastics can even be the result of that article of clothing you love to wear in the winter, your fleece! Really? My fleece?! Yes. The synthetic clothing we wear or lie upon (microfiber sheets for example) are synthetic, which by definition is “(of a substance) made by chemical synthesis, especially to imitate a natural product” (Google, 2015). Synthetic material is made from petroleum oil through a complex process. Polyethylene is just one example. Others include: nylon, polyester, Teflon™, and epoxy.

This issue is that petroleum-based plastics never biodegrade. Over time, they just break down into smaller and smaller pieces. While this alone may be alarming, more concerning is where all of these microplastics are ending up.  You see, when we wash our face, brush our teeth or scrub our bodies with products containing polyethylene, the water, along with the microplastic flows down the drain and eventually ends up at the wastewater treatment plant. The problem there is these treatment plants are not designed to filter out microscopic particles. Flushing millions of gallons of wastewater through filters small enough to do this is just not feasible. Therefore the plastics are being discharged along with the treated wastewater into our local water bodies, and eventually making their way to the ocean.

Students at Eckerd College have consistently found about 150 particles of microplastic in every gallon of water they sampled in Tampa Bay (Reference). Other studies have found plastic pieces in a variety of large marine life (sea birds, sea turtles, whales, etc.) and newer studies are beginning to look at species lower on the food chain, like small fish. These small fish are not able to differentiate microplastics from tiny zooplankton or phytoplankton, the small organisms they feed on. This begs the question of how these microplastics might accumulate up the food chain, and their potential impact to people that eat these fish?

florida microplastic

We can wait to find out, or we can be proactive and take action now. Florida Sea Grant in partnership with UF/IFAS Extension received the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Grant to fund the Florida Microplastics Awareness Project. Find out more and take a pledge to reduce your contributions to microplastics by visiting www.plasticaware.org

And as always, please help us spread the word by sharing this blog with your family, friends, colleagues, students, etc. Blogs.ifas.ufl.edu has made it easy to share by using the links at the top of the article. Thank you!