Microbeads: A not-so-tiny problem


facialscrubsIn the well-lit aisles of your drugstore, millions of tiny and dangerous pollutants lurk in the cheerful packaging of your favorite exfoliating cleansers. But in Illinois, you’ll notice a distinct lack of certain facial washes. In a groundbreaking decision, Illinois recently became the first state to ban the use of the microbead, a popular ingredient in many face washes.

Manufacturers use microbeads in their facial washes to rub away dead skin cells, allowing users to scrub their faces to remove dirt and makeup. Microbeads are tiny plastic particles – designed to slip down your bathroom sink, each less than a millimeter in size.

While these plastic beads may seem tiny, it’s their small size that makes them such a nuisance. Just as these beads slip down the drain, they also slip through sewage systems and water treatment plants, making their way to the Great Lakes in mass quantities. In fact, microbeads accounted for about 90 percent of the plastic pollution in Lake Erie alone.

microbeadpollutionUnfortunately, their size and color makes them closely resemble fish eggs – effectively causing fish and wildlife to consume them and soak up the toxins like sponges. These tiny plastics food create a grave ecological threat, as they are being incorporated into the food web at an alarming rate. Scientists found over 6,000 microbeads on average per every 0.1 gram of facial cleanser, and these cleansers are used widely across the country.

Illinois is leading the country in eliminating this dangerous and often disregarded pollutant. The manufacture and sale of products containing the beads will be banned by 2018. However, many companies such as Unilever and Johnson & Johnson are one step ahead – already agreeing to phase out microbeads on a global scale, without legislative pressure. Alternatives to these plastic exfoliating beads include more environmentally sound options such as crushed apricot pits, cocoa beans or sea salt.

So, what can consumers like you and me do to eliminate plastics from our bathroom cabinets? “Polyethylene” and “polypropylene” on ingredient labels mean that the product contains plastic, indicative of the dangerous microbead. Some manufactures even advertise the ingredient, putting “microbeads” on the product label. However, with recent pressure from environmental groups and lawmakers, the inclusion of microbeads won’t be anything for companies to brag about for long.

In general, the plastics in microbeads won’t degrade within the consumer’s lifetime. It is simply not logical to design a disposable product that will last forever. Why create a product that will only be used for a few seconds but will continue to negatively affect the ecosystem for decades?

Change starts with the individual. While eliminating microbeads may seem like an insignificant lifestyle change, it will have a huge impact in the long run. After all, if we can eliminate microbeads, effectively we’ll be getting rid of the majority of the plastics in the Great Lakes, where 20 percent of the world’s freshwater is stored. This will prevent problems with fish and wildlife, as well as protecting ourselves and future generations from the many toxins leaching into drinking water.

As responsible consumers, changing out our facial washes for something without exfoliating microbeads is a concrete step we can take in solving the environmental crisis that faces our planet. Liking a Facebook post isn’t environmental activism – we need to be taking real action and dramatically changing our lifestyles.