Exfoliation is the process of manually removing dead skin cells on the surface of your skin. Washing your face with a mildly abrasive substance brings fresh new skin cells to the surface and stimulates the production of collagen, which keeps your complexion smooth and supple.
The practice dates back to ancient Egypt, and is recommended by many specialists as a regular part of a good skin care routine. Many over-the-counter exfoliants contain microbeads, which are tiny plastic particles less than 5mm in size. They can take any shape, but the ones used in cosmetics are spherical.
Microbeads were patented in the 1970s and became a common ingredient in skin care products, toothpaste, and other health and beauty aids that require an abrasive quality.
Environmental Hazards of Microbeads
For many years, microbeads were considered the perfect exfoliating solution for skincare products — safe, effective and inexpensive to produce. In recent years, as eco-awareness has grown and taken more precedence in the minds of consumers, major media outlets such as the New York Times began raising the issue of environmental damage caused by microbeads.
When microbeads go down the drain, they’re too small to be filtered out at water treatment plants. Many of them enter the water supply via rain and runoff, while the rest get released directly into lakes, rivers and other bodies of water. Since the plastic is non-biodegradable, the microbeads continue to build up overtime in major waterways (such as the Great Lakes), which are already at risk from high levels of toxins and pollutants.
As if that wasn’t enough, microbeads readily absorb pollutants. Marine organisms mistake them for food, and the contamination progresses all the way up the food chain, where they wind up on your dinner table and in your digestive system.
In 2014, Illinois became the first state to ban microbeads. They were quickly followed by Colorado, Maine and New Jersey, while California passed the most stringent ban which included biodegradable and non-biodegradable microbeads.
The federal government took action last December, when President Barack Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. Beginning in 2017, it will be illegal to make or sell “rinse-off cosmetics” with “intentionally-added microbeads.”
Joining the FIght
Cosmetics companies are beginning to phase out use of microbeads to comply with the ban, but until it officially takes effect, the products will still be in the marketplace. Skin care products with microbeads will have polyethelene or polypropelene in the list of ingredients. Advocacy group Beat the Microbead maintains lists of products for several countries around the world.
The good news is that there are a number of alternative ingredients that can be used in place of microbeads.
- Jojoba beads are made from the oil of the jojoba plant. They’re spherical in shape like microbeads, but they’re biodegradable and come from a renewable source.
- Glycolic acid, which comes from plants and vegetables with high sugar content, is an ingredient in several brands of exfoliants. Salicylic acid also has exfoliating properties and a soothing effect on inflammation.
- Ground almond and walnut shells have a fairly smooth texture, but they are solid enough to effectively remove dirt and dead skin cells. Apricot and peach seeds are other good options.
- Coffee grounds have mild exfoliating properties.
- Sugar (white, brown or raw) has a coarse texture for stronger exfoliating needs.
- Salts come in a wide range of textures, from extra-fine to super-coarse, to suit any skin care routine.
- Ground oatmeal gently exfoliates while absorbing excess oil.
- Natural fruit enzymes from avocado, berries, pineapple, papaya and pumpkins safely dissolve and remove dead skin cells.
- Konjac sponges, which originated in Japan, are made from the fibers of a root vegetable. The sponge starts out hard, but warm water transforms it into a soft dome that’s gentle enough to use with or without cleanser. Since the sponges are 100 percent natural, they are non-toxic, sustainable and biodegradable.
An average container of skin care product can hold as many as 300,000 microbeads, which adds up to 300 tons of them entering U.S. waterways each year. Using microbead alternatives enables you to maintain an effective skin care routine while stemming the tide of this tiny but powerful threat to our eco-system.