Sure, you may like the way they feel on your skin, but since they're so small, they're easily washed down drains into water systems and oceans where they're eaten by fish and other marine creatures. The food chain being what it is, it's only a matter of time until they're back in (and not just on) our own bodies.
In New York State alone, an estimated 19 tons of plastic microbeads get washed into waterways each year. Even corals in Australia’s remote Great Barrier Reef are affected by microplastics, starving to death after ingesting tiny bits because their digestive systems are blocked.
What's worse, small pieces of plastic traveling through rivers and oceans act like sponges, attracting toxic chemicals from seawater and concentrating them. These chemicals — called persistent organic pollutants or POPs — are long-term toxins that can build up in the bodies of marine animals that inadvertently swallow microbeads and other plastics.
According to environmental group 5 Gyres, a single plastic microbead in the ocean can be a million times more toxic than the waters around it. POPs can then be passed along the marine food chain and eventually into our own food sources. That krill oil you’ve been taking to up your omega-3s? It probably contains POPs.
States are taking notice
Pretty dire, huh? An increasing number of states across the U.S. agree. California lawmakers are the latest to approve a measure banning the sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads by 2020. In fact, Californian legislation is the strictest yet with a ban on not just petrochemical-based beads but also so-called biodegradable microbeads, such as those made of corn-based plastics. Six other states including Illinois, Colorado, Maine, and New Jersey have also banned microbeads.
We're all well aware of just how bad microbeads are for the environment and wildlife, so why are they still such a prominent ingredient in cosmetics like cleansers, body wash, and even toothpaste? The short answer is they're easy to manufacture, often less expensive than a natural alternative, and their supply chain is reliable.
It seems obvious a switch needs to be made toward natural, equally effective alternatives, which brings up the question of whether these surrogate microbeads are really better for the environment and for us.
History of microbeads
Developed in the late 1990s, plastic microbeads haven't been around for that long and yet they've still managed to do an incredible amount of environmental damage. Conversely, natural physical exfoliants like salt, sugar, clay, rice, ground nut shells, coffee, and more have been around as beauty tools for centuries. Additionally, ingredients like pineapple, banana, pumpkin, and yogurt contain natural enzymes that work as chemical exfoliators.
Although these natural exfoliants get washed down the drain just like their petrochemical counterparts, the difference is in the way they break down and decompose. Natural ingredients like salt and sugar dissolve quickly in water and become a harmless solution that's treated alongside other wastewater. Exfoliants like nut shells and bean-based scrubs may contain particles large enough to be filtered by wastewater treatment screens and so don't enter water systems. If they do, they readily degrade within months into nontoxic organic matter that's naturally recycled.
Think of it like composting: You can add coffee grounds and nut shells to your compost heap to increase nutrients in garden soil, showing that plant-based ingredients fit well into nature’s ecosystem.
Plastic microbeads, on the other hand, are typically made of polyethylene (PE) and are flushed directly into the sea, where they stay around indefinitely. According to research scientist Dr. Anthony Andrady, who has studied plastic degradation in-depth, “The best chance for plastic microbeads to degrade is while they are floating in surface water. There, under the influence of solar UV radiation, they do break down.”
Andrady observes, though, that microbeads can get trapped with other debris and sink: “Underwater, only painstakingly slow biodegradation is available for the beads to breakdown. No one knows exactly how long — some speculate several hundred to thousands of years.”
Still can't picture how you, a single person, can really have that much of a negative impact if you continue using your bead-laden products? Recent research shows that 100,000 microbeads are released in a single application of a facial scrub containing the beads. That means you've released one million microbeads into the environment after washing your face just 10 times!
What you can do
The good news here is that it's incredibly easy to avoid microbeads in your cosmetics. Opt for a product — or a homemade version! — that contains one of the natural exfoliants mentioned earlier. Not only will this help you do your part to protect the Earth, natural ingredients also contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that aren't found in a petroleum-based bead.
And if all else fails, there is one more option for sloughing away dead skin: a good, old-fashioned washcloth.
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