Microplastics Are Now in Our Bodies



Microplastics are all around us, including inside us.

Those tiny little beads that promise to exfoliate your skin while you sanitize your hands are not as well-intentioned as they seem. In fact, they can be downright dangerous. You could be coming into contact with thousands of tiny toxic particles like those every day and not even realize it — they’re innocently floating in through your windows and gently wafting through the air as you walk down the street, and they’ve even been intentionally used in beauty products. 

They’re called microplastics, which are a byproduct of larger plastics, and the problems they could lead to are anything but “micro.”

“I am not exaggerating when I say microplastics are absolutely everywhere — wherever scientists go in the environment and look, they’re finding microplastics, and that research has really been growing over the past decade,” says Matt Simon, who’s the author of A Poison Like No Other, which explores how plastics have invaded nearly every corner of our lives. 

Ubiquitous as they are, microplastics are not actually a new discovery. The term has been around for at least the past two decades, and the disastrous impact they have on our planet isn’t expected to lessen anytime soon. By 2030, the U.S. plastics industry is expected to surpass coal in becoming the single largest source of carbon emissions, according to a report from Bennington College’s Beyond Plastics project, a nationwide initiative that aims to end plastics pollution. 

So what’s with all hubbub around microplastics now? Well, while plastic has been known to tragically kill thousands of sea turtles and wildlife each year, scientists are just now uncovering the potentially harmful effects these plastic specks have on our bodies. After all, trace amounts of this debris have been found in our saliva, hair, poop, and different organs, including the lungs. One pioneering study published in the journal Environment International even found plastic in the bloodstream for the first time, with particles detected in about 77 percent of people tested.  

While the extent of this impact is still coming to light, here’s what we know so far about the consequences of this small yet disastrous pollutant.  

What are microplastics anyway?

Microplastics are made of hundreds — if not thousands — of various plastic polymers. As the name suggests, they’re teeny-tiny, but just how small? While they come in a range of sizes, they’re defined as fragments of any type of plastic less than 5 mm in length, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the European Chemicals Agency. To put that into perspective, that’s roughly the width of a pencil top eraser but some are even smaller and can be almost invisible to the naked eye. 

These minuscule fragments are also unique because they don’t conform to any one shape: They can be spherical, fibrous, irregularly shaped, or foamy. Traditionally, they’ve been known to come in the form of round balls, which the government has already taken action against. In 2015, then-President Obama banned these microbeads from common personal care products, ranging from face scrubs to toothpaste. 

But this ban only applies to wash-off products, meaning many of these beads are still used in the makeup and skincare products that we use today. Tens of thousands of microplastics continue to be added to eyeliners, mascaras, and lipsticks to help make them more spreadable.“The Microbead-Free Waters Act addressed those wash-off products, but it’s just a fraction of the microplastics that are getting into the environment,” Lisa Erdle, Ph.D., director of research at the non-profit 5 Gyres, tells Katie Couric Media. 

What are some of the main sources of microplastics?

Microplastics have infiltrated everything from the foods we eat to the water we drink, but Simon says this is still “relatively minor compared to what we’re inhaling.” 

As it turns out, our homes are a major source of these polluting particles. According to Simon, there has been fairly consistent research showing that there is six times the amount of microplastics in indoor air as there is in outdoor air. Other studies back this up: One family in the U.K. was found to inhale anywhere from 2,000 to 7,000 microplastic particles per day, per research by Good Morning Britain and the University of Portsmouth. Fay Couceiro, Ph.D, an environmental pollution expert who led the study, came up with this data by using highly sensitive equipment to count tiny microplastics that were less than the width of a piece of human hair. Unsurprisingly, the biggest culprits for these toxic flecks came from synthetic materials in clothes, toys, and household furnishings.

Other common sources of microplastics include textiles, tires, and city dust, which account for 80 percent of microplastics. But it also depends on the environment. For instance, paint particles account for 58 percent of microplastics in our oceans and waterways. 

Can microplastics cause cancer?

There’s still some uncertainty around whether there’s a specific link between microplastic exposure and cancer, according to Simon. But what we do know is that microplastics carry highly poisonous carcinogenic or mutagenic chemicals that have damaging effects on the body and DNA.

There have also already been several studies showing that high exposure to some of the chemicals found in plastics may cause cancer. For instance, textile workers, who work long hours with fibers that are made from plastic like polyester and nylon, have a higher risk of developing various cancers, including in the lungs and the breasts. But outside of this small demographic, there haven’t been many — if any — studies on what the effects of these toxic additives have on the public at large, and most of the testing has been focused on animals. But, according to Dr. Erdle, it’s looking concerning: Laboratory studies of fish have already found that plastics can cause cancerous growths. 

“Many of these chemicals are lipophilic, meaning that they’re fat-loving, so they can move quite easily to the fatty tissue of animals like fish,” says Dr. Erdle. “But we don’t know those long-term effects of what they’re doing to humans.”

Do microplastics have other harmful effects on our health?

Microplastics also contain other hazardous chemical additives, like BPA and phthalates, that may disrupt the body’s hormones, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. This in turn can cause a whole host of health problems, ranging from chronic inflammation to lower testosterone in men. 

But Dr. Erdle says experts still don’t know how much microplastics would be considered toxic for our bodies because that research hasn’t been done yet. What’s already a given, though, is it will be no easy task because of how much they’ve become ingrained in our environments and even our bodies. A 2020 study published in the journal Environment International has even documented microplastic particles in the placentas of unborn babies.

“The studies that will come out probably in the next five years will start to show more of these health effects,” says Simon. “We already know for sure that there is a whole slew of chemicals in plastics that are known to be toxic to human beings.”

What you can do

You can reduce microplastics in your everyday life, starting with your laundry. Our clothes release tons of microfibers every time they go through the washing machine. That’s why Simon recommends buying a filter to attach to your washer that filters them out before they have a chance to be released into the waterways. This is crucial, given that most water treatment facilities can’t remove these microfibers. Some countries, including France, have already made including these devices in all new washing machines mandatory, starting in January 2025. Then there are other things you can do like regularly dusting and vacuuming, avoiding single-use plastics, and buying plastic-free cosmetics. 

 “What we can’t do here is lose hope because that’s exactly what the plastics industry wants us to do, so we’ll just keep using their products,” says Simon.