Eco-Beauty Dictionary: Microbead

Toothpaste, facial exfoliant, body scrub—did you know that the use of many of these products is a form of ocean pollution?

Sadly, it’s true. Many—thousands, by the estimate of environmentalists working on the issue—of these products contain tiny plastic beads called microbeads. The beads create that scrubbing effect that is so desirable.

The problem? “These microbeads, hardly visible to the naked eye, flow straight from the bathroom drain into the sewer system,” according to The International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics’ website. “Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to filter out microbeads and that is the main reason why, ultimately, they contribute to the Plastic Soup swirling around the world’s oceans. … Microbeads are not biodegradable and once they enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove.”

Just how many of these micro-plastics have we dumped into our waterways? Researchers from SUNY Fredonia and the 5 Gyres Institute found that these little beads made up half of the plastic on Lake Erie’s surface.

Increased awareness of this issue has led some lawmakers to rally for the prohibition of microbeads in personal care products. A bill introduced last week in New York may make the state the first to outlaw their use by companies.

Biodegradable versions are in the works. Until then, it’s best to avoid products that use microbeads altogether. According to the New York Times, the upset over the ingredient has led a few manufacturers, like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, to say they will phase out use of the beads. Other companies already use more eco-friendly alternatives. Use this “Beat the Microbead” app when shopping to learn what’s really in the products you are considering buying.