If you’ve ever used an over the counter skin care product, you’ve probably taken notice of those tiny little microbeads without even knowing it.
Microbeads, which are also used extensively in health care research and industrial applications, are widely found in skin care products, providing a slightly gritty texture in the product, which helps to mildly exfoliate the hair, face and skin.
While they’re small and difficult to see, microbeads are attractive for skincare and acne treatment companies because they’re, quite simply, cost effective.
- What are Microbeads?
- Products Containing Microbeads
- Path From Your Skin to the Waterways
- Health Impact on Humans and Wildlife
- Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Microbeads
- Cosmetic Industry Reaction
- State and Federal Regulatory Efforts
- How You Can Join the Fight
The grim truth, however, is that products with microbeads present a threat to the environment and public health that many people are unaware of, far outweighing any personal skincare benefit you might be receiving.
We’ve put together a list of all the things you need to know about this controversial ingredient that’s endangering our oceans, lakes, waterways and other vital ecosystems:
What are Microbeads?
Prior to the 1990s, skin care products contained natural exfoliants like ground walnut shells. Unfortunately, this turned out to be counterproductive as many women found the ingredients too harsh for their skin.
Cosmetics companies thought they had found the solution to the problem with microbeads. Their round shape and minute size makes them perfect for clearing debris from pores and sloughing off dead skin cells, while the malleable plastic allows them to be gentle on even the most delicate complexions.
Products Containing Microbeads
Microbeads are found primarily in hand and facial cleansers, body washes, soaps, shaving foam, bubble bath, sunscreen and shampoo. They are also used in some moisturizers and lip balms to make these products creamier and more effective at filling in facial and lip lines. Some toothpaste brands also use microbeads to boost plaque-removing and teeth-whitening properties.
Path From Your Skin to the Waterways
You might be wondering how a seemingly harmless ingredient could have such a significant negative impact on health and our environment. Ironically, the feature that makes microbeads so useful in skin care products is the same one causing the problem.
As you rinse your face, microbeads flow down the drain to waste treatments plants, where their tiny size allows them to pass through the waste treatment filters. Eventually they make their way out into lakes, rivers and oceans where they remain indefinitely since they are non-biodegradable.
In 2012, a cross-institutional team led by chemist Sherri Mason of the State University of New York at Fredonia conducted a study to analyze the amount of plastic polluting the Great Lakes. They found an average of 107,500 microbeads per square mile, with amounts ranging from 1,500 to 1.7 million.
Health Impact on Humans and Wildlife
While pollution of the waterways is reason enough to be alarmed by microbeads, that result is only the beginning of a domino effect presenting a potentially serious risk to all living things, not the least of which are human beings. Plastic microbeads easily absorb toxins in the air and water such as pesticides and PCBs, which are chemicals formerly used in electrical equipment and industrial applications until they were banned in the late 1970’s because of their link to cancer.
Fish are attracted by the colorful spheres and readily consume them, mistaking them for food. The tiny bits can then become lodged in a fish’s digestive system, preventing it from receiving nutrition from real food. Some pollutants cause serious damage to their reproductive systems, which can have long-term ramifications for marine life population.
Once a smaller fish has ingested microbeads, the toxic effects are passed up the food chain to humans that consume fish that have been polluted by these toxic microbeads. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources regularly reports on finding plastic in yellow perch during ongoing studies.
Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Microbeads
Switching to biodegradable plastic seems like an obvious solution to the problem. However, according to experts there would be little change. Plastic is biodegradable only under high temperatures, rendering the process ineffective in the cool waters of lakes and oceans.
There are several natural options to replace microbeads, including rice, bamboo, apricot seeds, willow bark extract, jojoba beads, silica, walnut skins and powdered pecan shells. Everyday ingredients such as sugar, sea salts, ground almonds, baking soda and oatmeal make great DIY scrubs.
Cosmetic Industry Reaction
Not surprisingly, cost is the main reason why cosmetics manufacturers resist making environmentally friendly changes to skin care products. The use of microbeads was originally driven in large part by economics, and switching to natural alternatives is “cost prohibitive”.
After being approached by a number of environmental watchdog groups, major companies including L’Oreal, Johnson & Johnson, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson and The Body Shop voluntarily agreed to eventually phase out their use of microbeads. But some companies are resisting, claiming that waste treatment facilities actually do filter out microbeads, despite the evidence provided by researchers.
State and Federal Regulatory Efforts
In 2014, Illinois became the first state to pass a ban on sales of products containing microbeads. Since then, states with finalized or pending legislation include Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.
Despite these efforts, environmental groups are still dissatisfied because the bans do not include biodegradable microbeads. That changed in early October when California passed the strongest legislation yet, with language designed to “avoid any loopholes that would allow for use of potentially harmful substitutes,” including biodegradable materials, according to Assemblyman Richard Bloom of Santa Monica.
How You Can Join the Fight
Be diligent about reading the ingredient list on skin care products. Check ingredient labels for polyethelene or polypropelene, which indicates the inclusion of microbeads.
Here are some of the products currently containing microbeads:
- Aveeno Skin Brightening Daily Scrub
- Clean & Clear Morning Burst Facial Scrub
- Clinique Exfoliating Scrub
- Garnier Balancing Daily Exfoliator
- Olay Regenerist Detoxifying Pore Scrub
- Neutrogena Deep Clean Scrub and Oil-Free Acne Wash
- Nivea Men Energy Face Scrub
- Proactiv Skin Smoothing Exfoliator
- Victoria’s Secret 2-in-1 Wash and Scrub
Beat the Microbead maintains an extensive list of products containing microbeads on their website.
You can safely clean your face and treat acne without contributing to the microbead pollution problem. ClarityMD’s patented 2-step acne system is all-natural and microbead free, not requiring any scrubbing action or toxic microbeads or inorganic materials to work effectively.