Microbeads: The Beginning of the End for Plastics in Our Products

by Lisa Kasanicky

On July 1, 2017, the FDA’s ban on the manufacturing of rinse-off cosmetic products with microbeads finally takes effect. And for all of us here at LATHER, this day could not have come soon enough. Microbeads are not only damaging to our waterways and marine life, but the chemicals found in the tiny plastic particles could potentially be harmful to humans as they make their way into the food chain. Microbeads are simply a cheap, synthetic replacement for natural exfoliants, and we have already taken the stance that they do not belong in the ingredients list of products designed to cleanse and nourish our skin and bodies.

This long-awaited step by the FDA should be applauded. Why? Here’s the background.

A Short History of Microbeads

Patented in the 1970s, microbeads are plastic particles of 5 millimeters or less used primarily (but not exclusively) in personal care products such as facial cleansers, body scrubs, soaps and toothpaste as an exfoliating agent. Microbeads are made from various types of plastic including polyethylene, polymethyl methacrylate, nylon, polyethylene terephthalate and polypropylene. Health and beauty brands found that by adding these tiny spheres of plastic to cleansers and scrubs, they could amplify the “feel good-ability” of their products—they made consumer’s skin feel a little smoother, their teeth feel a little cleaner. Riding on the popularity of that deep clean feeling, hundreds of personal care and cosmetic product manufacturers worldwide jumped on the microbead bandwagon, using them as their main exfoliation ingredient.

But there was a catch.

Microbeads were found to be a huge issue for our marine life. In 2004, a series of studies began unraveling the dangerous trail of microbeads from the consumer’s bathroom to our waterways. In a nutshell, the particles are just small enough to escape the wastewater treatment facilities and slip into the waterways. Little pieces of plastic were showing up in the bellies of marine life. Even tiny plankton were found to have ingested and retained these plastic particles.

This video from the Story of Stuff Project takes a quick look at these offending plastic beads.

 

And what’s worse was the quantity of microbeads found in a single product. The 5 Gyres Institute—a nonprofit research group studying plastics in the world’s oceans—estimated that one name brand facial scrub contained 330,000 microplastic ingredients. This infographic illustrates just how devastating this is for our waterways. 

Where We Are Now with Microbeads

And now for the good news. First and foremost, many health and beauty companies recognized that microbeads were not an ideal exfoliant—LATHER being one of them. We use exfoliants made from organic matter such as jojoba beads, sugar cane crystals and finely ground fruit and nut seeds. Needless to say, these types of ingredients are inherently more nourishing to the skin than plastic.

But those companies that did choose to use plastics in their products are now being forced to clean up their act. In December 2015, Congress passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which prohibits the manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of rinse-off cosmetics containing plastic microbeads.The establishes a deadline of July 1, 2017, to stop the manufacturing of rinse-off cosmetics with microbeads, and a deadline of July 1, 2018, to stop the sale of these products. That time has finally come!

What Now?

While the bill is only one step toward educating the consumer and protecting our environment, it’s a step in the right direction. You can be part of that direction by choosing products void of plastics and consciously disposing of products containing microbeads. Rather than using up that facial scrub with questionable ingredients, The Sierra Club recommends disposing of it by leaving the product in its container, tightening the lid and throwing it away with your regular garbage. And moving forward, you can use apps like Beat the Microbead to make more environmentally conscious choices.

For more about our exfoliating face and body products, visit lather.com. Like all of our products, LATHER’s exfoliating products are free of parabens, sulfates, mineral oil and synthetic fragrance and colors.