Microbeads should be banned by Britain without waiting for EU approval, campaigners said last night.

They urged Theresa May to take unilateral action against the plastics used in shower gels, toothpastes and anti-ageing creams.

Microbeads are flushed into rivers and seas by the trillion where they attract toxins, threaten marine life and can reach the human food chain. In an unprecedented joint statement, the campaigners accused beauty firms of 'dragging their feet'.

The European Commission is considering a ban but MPs from all parties and environmental groups want one now. And today the Daily Mail also calls for the beads to be banished. Louise Edge of Greenpeace, which signed the campaigners' statement, said: 'It's common sense to most people that pouring plastic into the sea is a terrible idea.

'And even now that companies are under the spotlight and seem to acknowledge that microbeads are a bad idea, they are still not making commitments that cover all their products or all kinds of plastic.'

But Mary Creagh, who chairs the Commons environmental audit committee, said: 'A voluntary approach to phasing out plastic microbeads simply won't wash. We need a full legal ban.

Microbeads are flushed into rivers and seas by the trillion where they attract toxins, threaten marine life and can reach the human food chain

'There is nothing to stop us banning these products in this country. We would like to see our Government showing leadership.'

Most microbeads are made from polyethylene, which is the same material used to make plastic bags, bulletproof vests and even knee replacements.

Once in the environment and seas they effectively become a magnet for toxins, such as pesticides. Eaten by fish and shellfish they can find their way into the food chain.

They are tiny particles contained in countless bathroom products including shower gels, exfoliating scrubs and anti-ageing creams.

But it is increasingly clear that microbeads, which, like plastic bags, are made of polyethylene, are a dangerous and unnecessary pollutant.

Shockingly, every time someone takes a shower about 100,000 plastic particles wash into the sea, becoming a magnet for pesticides and other toxins.

They are then swallowed by fish and other marine wildlife and end up on our dinner tables. The average plate of shellfish could contain 50 pieces of plastic.

As this newspaper's successful campaign for a 5p charge for plastic bags showed, decisive government action can make a huge difference to the environment. Bag use is down 85 per cent since it was introduced.

Some cosmetics companies are committed to phasing out microbeads by 2020. But why should we wait four years, especially when other countries are moving more quickly?

The US has already introduced a ban to come into force next year, and Canada is also considering legislation. The EU appears to be dragging its heels and, in any case, will become an irrelevance post-Brexit.

Given the growing weight of evidence, it is clearly time for ministers to ban this plastic poison – now.

A study published in Australia last week showed for the first time that pollutants in microbeads are absorbed into the bodies of fish.

As many as 100,000 are washed into the sea following a single shower. The UK daily total is put at 86 tons.

Tamara Galloway, a professor at Exeter University, said: 'We find pieces of plastic in every sample of seawater we study from round the world.

'Many marine animals ingest microbeads, mistaking them for food. They can then be lodged in the animals' gut – preventing them from eating nutritious food.

'An average plate of oysters could contain up to 50 plastic particles. Most people would probably prefer not to be eating microbeads with their food.'

The demand for a ban was made by a coalition including the Marine Conservation Society, Greenpeace, the Environmental Investigation Agency and Fauna & Flora International.

In the joint statement, they said: 'There is huge public support for a ban on microbeads. With companies dragging their feet on this issue, it's now time for Theresa May's Government to take comprehensive action on this crucial issue by banning any microplastics in household products which could end up going down the drain and into our seas.'

Environment minister George Eustice has signalled a willingness to impose a UK ban if the EU fails to step up.

Its director general, Dr Christopher Flower, said: 'A recommendation was issued by Cosmetics Europe in 2015 that such ingredients ought to be discontinued from use in products such as exfoliants and scrubs where the microbeads may ultimately end up in waterways. This course of action was chosen because it would have an impact far more quickly than waiting for any legislative ban.

The European Commission is considering a ban but MPs from all parties and environmental groups want one now

'Although the date for final removal was stated at 2020, the majority of use would be discontinued long before then.'

Some firms are either removing the beads or have never used them, including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, L'Oreal, Boots, Clearasil, Superdrug and Marks & Spencer.

Waitrose has announced its own ban on the sale of beauty products containing the beads. Others, such as Johnson & Johnson, Estee Lauder and Elizabeth Arden, are in the process of removing them.

A poll by campaign groups found more than 90 per cent of Britons support an outright ban. And 84 per cent said they would be turned off from buying a product if it was found to be polluting the oceans.

A Government spokesman said on Tuesday that a report from Miss Creagh's committee calling for a ban on the beads was timely and would be examined in detail 

Tiny beads choking the planet: They're in everything from shower gel to toothpaste - poisoning marine life and risking our health. As the Mail launches a campaign to ban them, here's all you need to know about the microbeads menace 

For two decades, microbeads have been used to bulk out cheap shower gel, make shampoo silky and give facial scrubs a refreshing zing.

And in those 20 years, trillions upon trillions of the minuscule plastic balls have been allowed to wash down our plug holes into the oceans — wreaking havoc on marine life such as dolphins, turtles and fish and, more worryingly, making their way into the very food we eat.

No consumer asked for plastic balls to be added to their daily skincare regime. No one demanded they be sprinkled liberally into Tesco own-brand toothpaste so that children unwittingly swallow plastic every time they brush their teeth.

For two decades, microbeads have been used to bulk out cheap shower gel, make shampoo silky and give facial scrubs a refreshing zing

In those 20 years, trillions upon trillions of the minuscule plastic balls have been allowed to wash down our plug holes into the oceans

Yet introduced they were — by a cosmetics industry desperate to make their products more appealing to consumers — and their impact has been extraordinary.

According to the latest estimates, up to 51 trillion tiny particles of plastic — including many from cosmetics products — have been dumped in the oceans in the past few decades.

The particles are so pervasive and long-lasting that every stretch of water from the North Sea to the Pacific contains traces of plastic.

Microbeads and other such plastic junk have turned regions of our once open seas into cesspools of plastic.

The largest is the 'great Pacific garbage patch', a swirling current of plastic rubbish which stretches thousands of miles.

Dubbed the world's biggest rubbish dump, it is made up of floating bags, bottle tops, discarded fishing nets and polystyrene chunks. And around it all, like a thick plastic soup, float microscopic particles of plastic.

Finally, however, the tide seems to be turning, as an influential cross-party group of MPs calls for them to be banned.

Microbeads are tiny balls of plastic which are added to a host of household and personal-care products. They vary in size, but most are between 0.001mm and 1mm.

Smaller beads are used to make cosmetics and cleansers smooth and silky; larger ones help to make them more exfoliating.

They are usually made from polyethylene — the stuff used to make plastic bags, toys, bottles and even bullet-proof vests. Others are made from oil-derived plastics such as polystyrene and polypropylene.

They are most commonly used in exfoliating scrubs and facial cleansers. The balls help to remove dead cells and dirt without feeling too rough on our skin.

For instance, Johnson and Johnson's Clean and Clear Exfoliating Daily Wash contains them — as does Clinique Exfoliating Scrub. A single facial scrub wash can use up to 94,500 microbeads, while a 150ml tub of the stuff contains nearly three million.

They are added to hand soap to give it a smooth texture, and to shower gels and sunblocks to help them spread easily.

Tesco adds them to its Steps Toothpaste — sold as a 'gentle mint toothpaste' for children aged two and under. Ironically, the tube features a happy-looking turtle swimming in the sea — turtles are one of the main victims of plastic pollution.

Last year the United Nations Environment Programme claimed: 'A typical exfoliating shower gel can contain roughly as much microplastic in the cosmetic formulation as is used to make the plastic packaging it comes in.'

The first patents for microbeads were filed in the Sixties. But it wasn't until the Nineties that they took off.

The balls replaced traditionally-used ingredients such as ground shell, silica and pumice. Manufacturers liked them because they were cheaper to make and could be mass-produced in a uniform shape.

Concerns about microbeads have been growing for the past few years. In 2011, Dutch environmentalists with the North Sea Foundation began writing to manufacturers, asking them to stop using them. Since then, a growing number of marine scientists and green campaigners have called for a ban.

It starts when products containing microbeads are flushed down the plug hole. The spheres are so small most are not filtered out by sewage plants and instead flow into rivers and the seas.

A single shower using shower gel and shampoo can result in 100,000 plastic particles being washed into the oceans, where they can float around for centuries.

Dr Sue Kinsey, of the Marine Conservation Society, says: 'Once they are in the ocean, they enter the food chain.'

Some of the plastic particles are devoured by animals at the bottom of the food chain — such as plankton. These tiny creatures are eaten by fish which, in turn, are hunted by birds, larger fish and seals — the plastic getting passed up the food chain with each meal.

Other particles are ingested by whales. Grey whales feed on the bottom of oceans, scooping up everything from crabs to plankton. They need to eat 3,000 lb of food each day. Thanks to microbeads, they are also regularly consuming huge quantities of plastic.

Microbeads are part of the greater problem of plastic polluting our oceans. Every year, around eight million tonnes of plastic — in the form of microbeads, plastic bags, fishing gear and other debris — is washed into the seas.

Most of the larger pieces of junk — the ones not eaten by whales, turtles and sea birds — are broken down by sunlight and the movement of waves into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic until they are the same size as microbeads.

According to the best estimates, between 15 and 51 trillion particles of plastic are floating in the seas. That's equivalent to 2,000 particles for every one of the 7.5 billion people living on Earth.

Around 1-4 per cent of all those particles are microbeads from cosmetics. No one can say for sure how many of them came from the UK. But Professor Richard Thompson, a marine scientist at Plymouth University, says around 680 tonnes of microbeads are used in cosmetic products in the UK each year.

Not all of those microbeads will be washed into the seas. Some will be captured at sewage treatment plants and then spread with all the other sewage on farmlands.

But most of them will end up in the seas. And that is just a tiny proportion compared with the rest of the world's contribution.

The horrifying truth is that no one knows how much of this plastic gunk is despoiling the oceans — and no one knows the toll it is taking on wildlife and people.

A single shower using shower gel and shampoo can result in 100,000 plastic particles being washed into the oceans, where they can float around for centuries

Hundreds of marine animals, including fish, mussels, oysters, lobsters and plankton, have been shown to consume microbeads and other small particles of plastic.

A study by Prof Thompson found that a third of the 500 fish he captured in the English Channel had swallowed plastic particles.

He has also shown that almost every sample of water collected from the sea, or sand collected from a beach anywhere in the world, will have traces of plastic.

These particles can harm animals by clogging up their digestive systems and stomachs, making them feel full when, in fact, they are actually starving. Beads of plastic are also like sponges, attracting toxins — tiny particles of poisons and pollutants such as PCB, the hormone-mimicking chemicals churned out by industry and power stations which can hang around in the air and seas for decades. PCBs have been shown to interfere with the fertility of fish, birds, turtles and shellfish.

And it's not just marine life that suffers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says PCBs can cause cancer in animals and are probably carcinogenic for humans.

Women exposed to high levels of PCBs before or during pregnancy can give birth to children with lowered cognitive ability, immunocompromised and motor control problems.

Plastic pollution is so common we are likely to be consuming plastic indirectly each time we tuck into a bowl of mussels, a plate of oysters or a fish-and-chip supper.

The levels of plastic in such meals will be low — but no one can say whether microbeads and other microplastics accumulate in our bodies or are flushed out.

We are exposed to plastic in the shower when using facial scrub when a dribble gets into our mouths. And if your toothpaste contains microbeads, families are swallowing plastic every time they brush their teeth.

'We don't know whether it will create a human health problem, but it's better to be cautious now, rather than wait for 50 years to discover it's too late,' says Dr Kinsey.

To find out whether a shower gel or exfoliating scrub contains microbeads you need to read the label — usually with a magnifying glass — to see if it contains plastic. The tell-tale words to look out for are polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene tereph-thalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), as well as nylon.

The balls replaced traditionally-used ingredients such as ground shell, silica and pumice. Manufacturers liked them because they were cheaper to make and could be mass-produced in a uniform shape

The industry claims it is taking action. The Cosmetics, Toiletry and Perfumery Association director-general Dr Chris Flower says: 'Any remaining use of plastic microbeads in wash-off products will have been phased out by 2018, two years ahead of the recommended date of 2020.' However, some companies are proceeding earlier with the voluntary ban.

Procter and Gamble — owner of Pantene, Oral-B and Olay — and Estee Lauder, which owns Clinique and Origins, say they will phase out microbeads by the end of 2017.

The Marine Conservation Society's Dr Kinsey says 'We would have liked them to have acted far more promptly. I know they have to find alternative formulations, but some companies seem to have found them faster than others. We'd like a blanket ban that creates a level playing field for everyone.'

The cross-party Environmental Audit Committee wants them to be banned immediately — as do marine conservation charities.

And other countries have acted far more quickly. The U.S. has already introduced a ban which comes into effect from 2017. Canada and some EU countries are also seriously considering legislation. Fauna and Flora International says the UK ban should have no loopholes.

'It must include all solid microplastics used for any purpose — not just for exfoliation,' said a spokesperson. 'And it should cover all products commonly washed down the drain. This includes a wide range of cosmetic and personal care products, as well as many household cleaners.'

If you don't have time to comb the back of packets for the tell-tale ingredients mentioned earlier, it's worth noting that some products don't contain microbeads.

For example, Aquafresh Complete Care Extra Fresh toothpaste, Eau Thermal Avène Gentle shower gel and Boots Tea Tree & Witch Hazel Charcoal face scrub are all microbead-free.

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If you raid your kitchen cupboards, salt and sugar, coffee grounds and apricot kernels can all be used as microbead-free alternative scrubs.

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