Think Before You Exfoliate: Microbeads and the Environment

Exfoliating is good for us because it scrubs away a layer of dead skin cells and grime that accumulate naturally on the skin. These dead cells and dirt can clog pores to cause blemishes, so a good exfoliation routine is basically a must if one wants clear, soft skin. 

Good exfoliators aren’t hard to come by these days with the advent of microbead cleansers and soaps. These washes contain little abrasive beads that help to scrub away the day’s wear on skin. But there’s a downside—those little beads are made of plastic; and those tiny, tiny plastic balls go down the drain and end up in the ocean.

In the summer of 2012, a team of researchers set out to measure the levels of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. They knew they would find plenty of plastic rings, bottles, bags, and microplastics, but they were astounded to find just how much microplastic had polluted the lakes. They found as much as 450,000 bits per square kilometer in some samples from Lakes Huron, Superior, and Erie. And, of course these plastics were multicolored, perfectly round, and a fraction of a millimeter in diameter: microbeads, like the ones in everyone’s favorite face washes.

Just because these plastics are so much smaller than a plastic bag doesn’t make them any less “environmentally problematic.” Foremost, they tend to look like fish eggs, thusly they look like tasty treats for sea dwelling animals. Additionally, they are absorbent and concentrate in organic pollutants that then accumulate in the fatty tissues of anything that eats them. Further, when lugworms, mussels, plankton, or fish eat this “toxic junk food,” they lose their taste for healthier eats. Hence, aquatic animals will be eating less and growing less.

Plastic bags and bottles can be broken down over long periods of time, but microbeads are actually designed to end up in the world’s lakes, rivers, and oceans. Microbeads are specifically engineered to go down drains; and once they do, they are small enough to bypass filtration systems and end up in open waters.

Per every 4.2 ounce tube of a leading facial cleanser, there are up to 356,000 microbeads, and these beads have been detected in over 200 different consumer products. These beads aren’t found just in cleansers, but also sunscreens, soaps, and toothpastes. Manufacturers like them because they’re smoother than natural exfoliants like salt or apricot pits, and American consumers like them so much that they buy over 573,000 pounds of them a year. But it’s not just a catastrophic phenomenon in the United States—36.5% of fish in the English Channel were found to have plastic in their gastrointestinal tracts.

So, what are some good alternatives? There are products like Biore Acne Clearing Scrub that uses microcrystalline wax beads that decompose, unlike harmful plastic. Other scrubs like Elemis Gentle Rose Exfoliator that uses a gel formula with suspended jojoba beads. Most of these cleansers can be purchased for about the same price as the average microbead exfoliator, and the environmental impact can be immense.