The wipes are popular for removing make-up and cleaning homes
Plastic in wipes means, if flushed down the toilet, they threaten marine life
As with microbeads found in scrubs, it is feared these plastic remnants will enter the human food chain through seafood
Wet wipes could take 100 years to biodegrade, experts warn.
The wipes, popular for removing make-up and cleaning homes, were found to be up to three-quarters polyester.
The plastic makes wipes stronger but, if flushed down the toilet, remains as fibres in rivers and seas for decades, threatening marine life. As with microbeads found in scrubs, it is feared these plastic remnants will enter the human food chain through seafood.
Beauty giants L’Oreal, Olay, Johnson & Johnson and Nivea are among those which produce polyester wipes, but include labels saying they should not be flushed.
However, many households still flush them, and public pressure last month forced companies to agree to make warnings clearer.
Flushed wipes can cause blockages and flood homes by forming ‘fatbergs’ as they soak up fat in sewers, as well as polluting rivers and seas. Dr Phil Greaves, of textile analysing firm Microtex, tested a Nivea 3 in 1 Refreshing Cleansing Wipe and found it was 73.7 per cent polyester.
He said: ‘This could last 100 years because it is non-degradable like plastic bottles or polythene bags. It doesn’t break down.’
Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at Plymouth University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, said: ‘We have only been mass-producing synthetic polymers for around 70 years and it is widely believed the majority of the material produced in that time is still with us on the planet in a form too big to biodegrade.’
He added that synthetic fibres that reach the environment ‘are likely to persist and accumulate for many years.’
Environmental concerns do not seem to have held back the wet wipe market in Britain, which is worth around £500million. But Steve Williams, of Southern Water, warned the polyester makes wipes ‘virtually indestructible’.
And Richard Harrington, of the Marine Conservation Society, said: ‘The polyester fibres can clog up an animal’s stomach if eaten, effectively making them feel full, which presents a risk of starvation.
‘Fibres can be swallowed by barnacles, scallops, crabs and fish, which runs the risk that they can get into the human food chain.’
Nivea confirmed the polyester content in its Cleansing Wipes, but insisted it is ‘working towards developing products made from the most sustainable materials’.
Olay said its rayon and polyester blend minimises irritation so its wipes can be used on sensitive skin. A spokesman added: ‘It is clearly indicated on our packaging that our wipes are not flushable.’
L’Oreal also stressed its wipes should be put in the bin but said it is committed to ‘improving the biodegradability of our products’. Johnson & Johnson said all its wipes have ‘do not flush’ labels.