You know those colorful, plastic, exfoliating microbeads suspended in hundreds of face and body washes, scrubs and toothpaste? They can pollute waterways and poison fish and birds. Environmentalists, politicians and others, including groups in Los Angeles, are taking action to ban plastic microbeads in personal care products, and the beauty industry is responding.
Husband and wife Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins were so concerned with the "plague" of plastic marine pollution and its ecological impact that they founded the L.A.-based environmental organization 5 Gyres Institute. 5 Gyres isn't just battling the dramatic, obvious concerns such as floating, island-sized, plastic-bottle- and bag-filled garbage patches clogging the world's oceans but also non-biodegradable, microscopic plastic litter.
"We surveyed the Great Lakes, and they were full of microplastics. I matched those microbeads to the same microbeads you can find in products on store shelves," Eriksen says, adding that microplastic particles are in Southern California waterways as well.
"Microplastic particles range from 50-500 microns, or half-millimeter in diameter. If you take a common microbead-filled facial scrub and put it through a coffee filter, you'll see microplastic fragment dust," says Eriksen, who estimates some products have as many as 360,000 microbeads in one tube.
A major point of the 5 Gyres "Beat the Microbead" campaign is that "design really matters," says Eriksen. "If you want people to recycle and put their trash in a bin, you've got to make things recyclable. Plastic microbeads are not designed for recovery. They don't work in our ecosystem."
Senior scientist David Andrews of the industry watchdog Environmental Working Group says plastic microbeads are extremely worrisome. "Researchers found they don't degrade, or degrade extremely slowly," Andrews says. "Highly toxic environmental pollutants such as industrial chemicals stick to these microbeads that look like food to, and are consumed by, birds and fish, which people may eat."
To incorporate plastic microbeads in products that "you throw away or flush down the drain or toilet is nonsense," Eriksen says. "It's unethical, I think, understanding the impact plastics have on ecosystems." He recommends not buying products with "microbeads" printed on the package or with the words "polyethylene" or "polypropylene" on the ingredients label.
Earlier this month Illinois became the first state in the nation to ban the sale and manufacture of soap and cosmetics containing microbeads, and California Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) has introduced legislation (AB 1699) that would ban the sale of personal care products containing microplastics as of Jan. 1, 2019. In April, the bill passed the Assembly Natural Resources Committee on a 6-3 vote, but there are several more hurdles to be faced before it can become law.
"I was pushing for an earlier date than 2019," Bloom says. "This is an environmental emergency we need to act on as soon as possible." Several other states have similar legislation in the works.
Why were microbeads used in the first place?
"Manufacturers put plastic microbeads into products because they're very smooth," says Dr. Derek Jones, a board-certified dermatologist and director of Skin Care and Laser Physicians of Beverly Hills. Other manual exfoliants, like seeds and nuts, have jagged edges that can microscopically tear the skin; chemical exfoliants can penetrate too deeply and create a scab.
But now many major beauty companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, Estée Lauder, L'Oreal, Lush, the Body Shop and others, are pledging to remove plastic microbeads from their beauty and personal care products. And some set deadline dates (Johnson & Johnson, for instance, has promised to eliminate all use of polyethylene microbeads in its personal care products by the end of 2017).
The good news is there are many exfoliating options other than plastic microbeads.
Jones says other methods include using manual abrasives, such as products made with nuts and seeds; chemical exfoliants, such as lactic, glycolic and salicylic acids; and facial brushes, including the oscillating Clarisonic.
"Basically any exfoliant, whether it's chemical, microdermabrasion, a buff puff, a Clarisonic or apricot seeds, is intended to remove that dead [top] layer. It makes the skin feel smoother and glow a bit more," Jones says. "Using a chemical exfoliant to sort of loosen up the skin cells in tandem with a gentle manual exfoliant to sweep them away would probably be the best way to go."
Exfoliating products without microbeads
There are commercial products on the market that don't use microbeads to exfoliate. Some to try:
Goldfaden MD Doctor's Scrub ($75, goldfadenmd.com)
Tarte Maracuja Lip Exfoliant ($16, sephora.com)
SkinCeuticals Clarifying Clay Masque ($51, skinceuticals.com)
Eve Lom Muslin Cloths ($22, sephora.com)
Nu Skin 180º Cell Renewal Fluid ($74, nuskin.com)
Olay Regenerist Night Resurfacing Elixir ($29, ulta.com)
Palmer's Cocoa Butter Formula Gentle Exfoliating Facial Scrub ($7.02, drugstore.com)
St. Ives Renew & Firm Apricot Scrub 3-pack ($13.15, soap.com)
Clarisonic Aria cleaning tool ($199) and Clarisonic Sensitive Brush Head ($27, both at www.clarisonic.com)