Who would have guessed washing your face would cause an environmental problem?
Yet, according to a report on National Public Radio by Cheryl Corley, there are quite a few facial scrubs on the market that contain microbeads, which are made of plastic. To be more technical, they are made of polyethylene or polypropylene.
It turns out these tiny bits of plastic used in skin exfoliants and soaps can slip through most water treatment systems as wastewater is cleansed. The water carries the microbeads to the next body of water whether it is a river, lake, or ocean.
Scientists, such as Jennifer Caddick of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said microbeads are “a bigger problem than we initially had thought.”
Scientists are finding the microbeads are part of the plastic pollution found in the ocean, and increasingly in the Great Lakes, which contain more than 20 percent of the world’s freshwater.
Sherri Mason, an associate professor of chemistry at the State University of New York, Fredonia, sailed with a research team the past couple of years to collect data on the prevalence of plastics in the Great Lakes.
The team dragged a fine mesh net in the waters to snag “anything that’s bigger than a third of a millimeter,” Mason said.
One of the main problems with microbeads is that for the most part they are round, and about the size of fish eggs.
Obviously most aquatic life that eats fish eggs is not going to be able to discern between the real beast and the beauty bead. The other problem is the plastic beads, like all plastics, soak up toxins like a sponge, so the animals are ingesting higher levels of toxins and could be passing them on to people and other wildlife.
Both Illinois and New York state lawmakers are taking steps to ban microbeads from personal care products.
“Obviously protecting the lake is hugely fundamental, not just to my district, but to the whole system here in Chicago,” said Illinois State Senator Heather Steans, who represents a district along Chicago’s lakefront and supports the measure. “We’ve got an agreed-to bill now that will, in fact, ban the manufacture of these by 2017, and (ban) the distribution of them in the state by 2018.”
In New York, if pending legislation is signed into law, manufacturers will have until December 2015 to phase out products with microbeads.
There are bills in Minnesota, Ohio and California that are targeting microbeads as well.
Steans said consumers should look at labels.
"If they have polyethylene or polypropylene on the labels, that indicates there's plastic in them," she said. "Sometimes, right on the front of the labels, it will say, 'Microbeads.'"
L'Oreal, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble have already announced they are phasing out microbeads and are testing alternatives like sand and apricot seeds.
Mason suggested that if you like facial scrubs with microbeads, try one with a different abrasive, like cocoa beans.
“I’d much rather wash my face with chocolate than with plastic,” she said.