Imagine sipping your favorite drink from a take-away cup or exfoliating your skin with a fancy scrub. Seemingly harmless, right? What if you knew that these simple acts unknowingly immerse you into a world of tiny plastic particles hiding in our favorite products?
It might surprise you to learn that our daily activities often bring us face-to-face with microplastics without us even knowing it! These tiny plastic pieces sneak into our lives from many sources. For starters, it could be the air, water, soil, and even dust flying around us indoors. But there is good news – each one of us can do something about the microplastic pollution and our personal exposure to it.
By becoming savvy about the products we use, and choosing smarter, more sustainable options, we can fight back against the intoxication. Let’s embark on this detoxing journey together to learn tips on how to best avoid microplastics in daily life and why you should start doing it right away.
Why are microplastics harmful?
Despite being smaller than a sesame seed, microplastics have permeated our oceans and the entire aquatic ecosystem.
Studies and initiatives led by organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) unveil a concern that goes beyond mere pollution. These tiny plastic pieces come from breaking down larger plastic items, as well as from microbeads in some of our beauty and cleaning products, and even from functional synthetic clothing.
Disturbingly, these tiny particles are not just staying in the water. They can travel all around the world in just a few days, spreading like rain from the sky. In the ocean, microscopic plastic pieces are being ingested by marine life and are entering our food chain, turning up in seafood we consume and through numerous other pathways even in our tap water. The problem lies especially in how spread this pollution already is on the global scale.
When scientists try to count how many of these particles are in our oceans, the numbers are so big it is hard to even imagine. For instance, in 2021, scientists from Japan discovered there were over 24 trillion microplastics just on the surface of the world’s oceans. That’s about the same as 30 billion plastic water bottles.
Imagine eating a small piece of plastic each week, because that’s what is actually happening: a study from the University of Newcastle, Australia, in 2019 suggested we might be eating about a credit card’s weight in plastic every seven days! It is in our food, our drinks, and even in the air we breathe. And while we are still learning what ingesting plastic particles means for our bodies, researchers are worried it could be harmful to living organisms.
The problem is not just with humans. Tiny plastic pieces are also being eaten by animals, including birds and sea creatures, which can hurt them and disrupt the balance of entire ecosystems. A report by the World Wildlife Foundation in Germany revealed shocking numbers: 90% of seabirds are eating plastic and it’s estimated that 99% of them will be doing so by 2050 .
Addressing this issue is not straightforward, as the science behind microplastics and their impacts is still being explored. That said, some steps have been taken globally to mitigate their prevalence.
The United States took a notable step by banning the use of plastic microbeads in personal care items in 2015, addressing one source of the problem. Furthermore, discussions within platforms like the United Nations reflect a growing acknowledgment and concern about microplastics at a global scale.
What are the effects of microplastics on humans?
Microplastics have scientists worrying about their long-term effects on our health, unfortunately, we still do not have enough information to know all their impacts. What we know, though, is that these little bits are not just made of plastic but also contain a mix of chemical coatings, some of which might be harmful.
In fact, a study in 2021 pointed out that over 2,400 chemicals used in plastics might be cause for concern. Scientists already noted that many of these chemicals are not properly controlled in several countries, and some are not allowed to be used in food packaging in many countries. However, thanks to global trade, we still may get exposed to them.
What’s more, these additives from plastics can seep into our water. One study found up to 88% of chemical additives might leak into the water when we expose the plastic to direct sunlight or higher temperatures .
Microplastics also adsorb heavy metals like lead, cadmium, mercury, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These toxic pollutants can through the ingestion of microplastics by aquatic animals bioaccumulate in the food chain.
Already in 2012, the conference on Biological Diversity in Montreal shared some shocking numbers: every species of sea turtles, almost half of marine mammal species, and over a fifth of seabird species were hurt by either eating plastic or getting stuck in it . When it comes to humans, it is a bit tricky to study how microplastics might harm us. But so far, researchers are finding their presence in our digestive tract and even our blood.
In 2018, a study found microplastics in the excrement of eight people. Even more worrying, another study found microplastics in the placentas of unborn babies .
Digging a bit deeper, researchers are trying to figure out how microplastics move around inside our bodies. Vethaak and his team found plastics in the blood of 17 out of 22 healthy people who donated blood, and another study found microplastics in 11 out of 13 lung samples. Synthetic fibers from microplastics in lungs could potentially lead to various health issues like respiratory irritation, asthma, and even inflammation. In some darker scenarios, prolonged exposure could be linked to carcinomas .
Most of the plastic particles found were super tiny, smaller than one micrometer, and could have been breathed in from the air or possibly eaten. The big question here is whether these particles can move from the blood to other parts of the body, like the brain. So far we know that our cells, when exposed to these plastics, have shown signs of oxidative stress and inflammatory responses.
For now, we are left wondering: how much microplastics are we exposed to in our daily lives? And how much are we breathing in while we work, play, or simply go about our day? There is still so much to learn as scientists continue exploring this new threat.
How to best avoid microplastics in daily life?
Trying our best to minimize exposure to microplastics in daily life does not have to be as arduous as it seems. It starts with small, intentional steps towards mindful choices, particularly in our kitchen and eating habits. So, the good news is that it is in your power to decrease your exposure to this pollutant.
Before we get into the detailed overview of microplastic sources in our households, there is one main piece of advice on this journey.
NATURAL. If you stick to natural materials and options, you are drifting away from the ever-present plastic contamination. So, whenever given a choice go for the natural – the familiar to our bodies over the course of evolution.
Before you start reading the detailed description, here is a little checklist with items that can help to eliminate the microplastics at our homes:
|Area||Common Items with Microplastics||Alternatives/Solutions|
|Kitchen||Plastic storage containers||Opt for glass, ceramic, or metal storage containers|
|Plastic utensils||Choose wooden or metal utensils|
|Plastic packaging on produce and groceries||Buy fresh, unpackaged produce from local markets|
|Bathroom||Exfoliating scrubs with microbeads||Use scrubs made with natural exfoliants like oatmeal or sugar|
|Toothpaste with polishing agents||Choose a toothpaste without microbeads (check the label)|
|Certain makeup items||Opt for cosmetics from brands that pledge against microplastics|
|Our Wardrobes||Clothes made from polyester, nylon, or acrylic release microfibers during washing||Choose garments made from cotton, linen, or wool|
|Consider using a washing bag to reduce fiber shedding during washes|
|Children’s Items||Plastic toys||Choose toys made from wood or other natural materials|
|Sippy cups and plastic bottles||Use stainless steel or glass bottles|
|Glittery accessories and decorations||Opt for decorations made with paper or natural materials|
|Out and About||Single-use plastic utensils, straws, and containers in take-outs||Bring your own reusable utensils, straws, and containers when dining out or ordering takeout|
|Plastic shopping bags||Always carry a reusable shopping bag|
|Plastic items in outdoor gear (e.g., plastic-based tents, jackets)||Choose outdoor gear made from natural or recycled materials|
Keep this checklist handy and refer back to it during your daily activities. Even one or two swaps or mindful choices can significantly reduce your exposure to microplastics pollution.
How to avoid microplastics in food?
Avoiding microplastics in our food starts with making smart choices when we shop and eat. Buying fresh food from local markets is the best step you can take. It helps us say no to plastic overuse that is often seen in supermarkets when you have one piece of fruit separately wrapped in plastic, but it also supports further clean growing of your food in hands of local farmers.
Another good piece of advice is to pick fresh fruits and veggies rather than frozen ones. Think of this especially when buying seafood, it is better to choose fresh produce over those that are frozen or in a box to lower risk of ingesting microplastics pieces. Seafood in general can be quite unsustainable, coming from polluted areas, it is better in general to reduce your consumption of this source of protein. Consider other options like beans or bio farm-raised chicken – as these mean eating fewer microplastics.
Limiting how much processed food we eat is another good strategy. When cooking at home we control what goes in our food and we avoid extra packaging. Staying away from small snacks that are individually wrapped in plastic helps too. When it comes to storing leftovers, it is best to use glass, ceramic or stainless steel and to avoid heating food in plastic containers. Heating food in plastic can cause harmful stuff like BPA and phthalates to get into your food. This is true for takeout boxes, lids, and even those pre-made frozen meals you heat up in the microwave.
A great change you can make in the kitchen is to choose to use tools made of wood or metal. When you eat out or get food delivered, you can easily use our own reusable forks, knives, and straws. When given no choice, you could also skip single-use plastic where possible (drink without a straw, for example). And do not wash plastic boxes for storing food in the dishwasher. The hot water can break down the plastic over time.
Finally, growing our own food, even just on your window sill, ensures you know exactly where it comes from. Joining a community garden is another great way to access fresh produce without worrying about plastic.
How to avoid microplastics in water?
Water is an element that builds your body cells. It creates human bodies. Clean water is crucial for your long-term health, even animals know this instinctively. Therefore, you must try to minimize microplastics particles from the water.
Focusing on drinking water sources and investing in a good quality water filter can reduce microplastics in water we drink daily. Water stored in plastic bottles can leach plastic particles due to improper storage. Imagine how is water transported to your local store on a hot summer day. You never know whether it hasn’t been exposed to direct sunshine for a period of time.
When you want to take some water with you, swapping out single-use plastic bottles for reusable glass or stainless-steel ones makes a big difference over time, both for our health and the environment. You may not know this, but besides microplastics contamination, the risks associated with repeated uses of plastic bottles are also bacterial. As bacteria grows inside the favorable conditions and may endanger health of immunocompromised individuals.
Do not forget about those single use paper cups that have plastic lining when you are enjoying your coffee or tea on the go. Yes, it is pretty much all those take-away cups you get, even in places that claim to be eco-friendly and offer you a compostable version. Most of the take-away cups have polymer lining to hold your beverage, and it does leach into your drink. They also have plastic lids (polystyrene), which also seeps into your drink. Reusable coffee cups from non-plastic material are a safer but rarer option.
For tea and coffee lovers is a go to choice loose leaves and fresh coffee beans instead of options in plastic pods or bags. A 2019 study from the McGill University in Montreal found shocking evidence. One teabag releases 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics into a single cup of tea you brew with water close to the boiling point. The most common plastic particles are the same as the teabag composition – it is nylon and polyethylene terephthalate.
Additionally, we can do other things in our homes to keep drinking water clean. One commonly overlooked appliance is electric kettle, made sure yours is from metal or glass for drinks, because hot water can make more tiny plastics go into the water, especially during repeated use. You really do not have any guarantee that the plastic will resist repeated exposure to hot liquid. Do not risk it. You can also skip an electric kettle and just boil your water over the stove in a cooking pot.
Other steps you can do on a larger scale is to recycle plastic waste and try to cut back on single-use plastics. Less plastic waste means fewer chances for microplastics to enter the public water systems. Advocate for advanced wastewater treatment facilities in your community. These facilities can capture a significant proportion of microplastics before the water is discharged back into the environment.
Participate in or organize community clean-ups. Picking up trash, especially plastic waste, from beaches or riverbanks helps prevent it from breaking down into microplastics and entering the water system.
Reducing microplastics in cosmetics and beauty products
When we talk about steering clear of microplastics in beauty and personal care products, it demands that we become conscientious consumers. What does it mean?
Step one revolves around reading the ingredients list as your first clue. Keeping an eye out for names like polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, and polymethyl methacrylate is essential, as these are the usual suspects when it comes to microplastics in cosmetics.
Handy tools like certain apps or websites might be your best ally here, guiding you to identify products with microplastics simply by scanning barcodes or navigating through databases.
However, if this seems too difficult, you could also take the easiest path. Reduce the number of products you use and stick to as natural as possible. Did you know that a simple lotion made of a bees wax and marigold plant oil does wonderful moisturizing and healing service to your skin?
Embracing alternatives paves the way to a mindful skincare routine. One simple yet impactful change is also swapping microbeads, often employed as exfoliating agents, with natural scrubs. Natural scrubs could be easily made at home fresh from food ingredients like oatmeal, sugar, or salt. It is easy, it is fresh and since these are edible ingredients, they are safe for your health.
We know it may take some time but try to select brands that commit to a microplastic-free world. This involves preferring brands that vocally renounce microplastics and adhere to certifications from organizations like “Look for the Zero” or “Beat the Microbead.” These certifications act as a beacon, signaling safe choices in a sea of products.
Another great option that is gaining popularity are solid versions of shampoos, conditioners, and traditional soap bars. Their use curtails the need for plastic packaging and prevents potential microplastics present in liquid products. Moreover, choosing items packaged in glass or metal and reusing containers wherever possible also offer a path toward sustainable beauty.
Eliminating microplastics in clothes and fabrics around the house
Small particles from clothes made with synthetic fibers like nylon, polyester, acrylic, polyolefin, pose incredible pollution risks. A study by Napper and Thompson from 2016 indicated that a single load of laundry could release up to 700 thousand fibers from synthetic clothes into waterways. What is worse is the fact that these fibers often get straight to the ocean, as they are not easily captured by wastewater treatment technologies .
If you want to prevent this, choose natural fibers like cotton, linen, and wool, which are biodegradable. Do not forget to check labels to ensure that you select the right materials. What also matters is the laundry process. You should try to wash clothes less often with lower temperatures when possible.
We know it is not always applicable this way but in general, most people tend to wash clothes too often. An additional tip is to use a washing bag to help capture microfibers during washing cycles. And do not forget about your kids’ clothes. Many pajamas and jackets are made of synthetic fleece which sheds microplastics as well.
Furthermore, installing filters on an outlet hose of your washing machine can effectively trap microplastics. Research from the University of Toronto demonstrated that washing machine filters can significantly reduce microfiber pollution .
Another source of synthetic fibers in households are carpets, rugs and furniture. Try to always buy rather natural materials, even if it means buying second hand. Choosing organic and natural fibers for bedding and towels, such as cotton or bamboo, is recommended.
Lastly and perhaps quite practically, if you simply reduce clothing and fabrics around your home, it may be the best. Adopt minimalist practices, such as maintaining a capsule wardrobe, which minimizes demand for textiles and makes even cleaning easier for you.
Being mindful of a healthy indoor environment is a part of the routine. Regular damp dusting and using a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner reduces microplastics particles in household dust that got there from outside or from your garments.
How to eliminate microplastics from the body?
Due to the lack of research, there is no scientifically proven method to remove microplastics from the human body once they have been ingested. While microplastics have been found in human tissues and organs, the scientific community is still researching the potential health impacts and their prevention.
First step on your way of detoxing your body would be to try to limit your exposure to microplastics where you can. The tips shared above should give you a good idea how to avoid microplastics in daily life. Second step would be to follow some general health tips to keep your body strong and able to eliminate environmental pollutants it encounters.
Here are a few suggestions to do that:
- Eating a fiber-rich diet might be beneficial. Fiber helps to promote healthy digestion and move materials through the digestive tract. Foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are high in fiber.
- Drinking plenty of fluids, especially water, is vital for overall kidney function and might assist in eliminating waste from the body.
- Consuming a diet rich in antioxidants could potentially help manage oxidative stress caused by pollutants. Some good antioxidants are berries, nuts, leafy greens.
- Focusing on foods and practices that support gut health. You should incorporate probiotics and fermented foods into your regular diet.
- Engaging in physical activity supports overall health and may enhance the body’s natural mechanisms for managing and excreting unwanted substances.
Remember that guidance from healthcare professionals, coupled with insights from up-to-date scientific research, is crucial in making informed decisions about managing microplastics exposure and any potential related health impacts. Future research will hopefully provide clearer insights into managing the impacts of microplastics ingestion.