Pressing Issue: Exfoliating Beads

Unwittingly, sometimes the tiniest things can have massive negative impacts, like how endocrine disruptors are more potent in small doses, and how minuscule exfoliating beads are not only making their way into rivers and oceans, but also into the food that we eat. We asked our Head of Health & Safety, Mia Davis, to investigate this pressing issue.

exfoliating beads infographWhy are teeny, tiny plastic microbeads are a big problem for our environment and for our health?

Have you ever used an exfoliating face or body wash and wondered exactly what those little exfoliating beads were made of? There is a good chance that they were plastic, and that there were hundreds of thousands of beads per bottle. When you rinsed off, the little beads swirled down the drain, and from there they were probably out of sight out of mind. But they didn’t disappear… they just relocated.

For years scientists and water quality experts have known that many plastic exfoliating beads are tiny enough to pass through our wastewater treatment facilities. This means that they are not incinerated, which is what happens to the junk filtered out of water before it is treated. Instead, they are released back into the environment via waterways or as sludge that is applied to farm crops (and in turn may get washed into waterways).

When plastic exfoliating beads wind up in rivers, lakes, and oceans, they inevitably end up in fish, frogs, and turtles (whether they mistake them for food or accidentally ingest them). This presents a huge problem not only for the health of the animal directly eating the tiny plastic pellets, but for the animals above them on the food chain, like birds, seals, dolphins, and yes—us. The plastic beads themselves can be harmful to our bodies (it goes without saying we’re not meant to eat plastic!), but there is another layer to this too: While they are bobbing along in the water, the beads can attract other “persistent organic pollutants” like PCBs, DDT, and flame retardants, and absorb them.  So the fish are getting a mouthful of plastic and nasty toxic chemicals…and so then, we are too.

In 2012 scientists from 5 Gyres, an organization that conducts research and communicates about the global impact of plastic pollution in waterways, examined water samples taken from The Great Lakes. They found microbeads, all right—in some cases more than 600,000 per square kilometer. 5 Gyres has launched a campaign against microbeads in cosmetics that is getting a lot of attention.

In response to the “Beat the Microbead” campaign, members of Congress in New York and California have introduced bills that would ban microbeads in most cosmetics. Some global personal care products companies have already agreed to begin phasing out of microbeads by 2017 or earlier. That’s great news… but we should all hope that they’ll move faster than that. If there are 300,000 microbeads in one bottle of exfoliating face wash, we can’t afford to wait years.

At Beautycounter, we use only natural, biodegradable exfoliators like jojoba wax and sugar. Other companies dedicated to consumer and environmental health use these ingredients too, or crushed cocoa beans, seeds, or beads made from rice or bamboo. There are plenty of natural, safer options for exfoliation—it’s time that everyone in our industry used them instead of plastic microbeads.