The Rise and Fall of Plastic Microbeads

Sometimes trends are a good thing (organic food, clean cosmetics, hot yoga) and sometimes trends are just short term ideas cooked up by outdated companies. Plastic microbeads clearly fall into the later category—today I’m going to give you the skinny on why you should ditch that microbead body scrub for good.


The personal care industry created little balls of plastic, that were billed as “exfoliators” or “scrubbers” to help sell new products. Remember the St. Ive’s Apricot Scrub that used crushed up almonds to exfoliate (looovvveed this product)? Instead of continuing down this road, approximately 10 years ago the beauty industry took a turn towards a cheaper, pollution-laden solution and started to incorporate plastic microbeads into face washes, body washes and tooth paste.

Microbeads are just one example of an emerging source of pollution for our water ways, lakes, rivers and oceans: micro-plastics. These small bits of plastic can take form in the products we use (microbeads), the clothes we wear (fleece sweaters) and point to a bigger strain on our water systems from consumer products.

Why Plastic Microbeads Are Bad

  • Microbeads cannot be filtered by most waste water treatment facilities, flowing from the bathroom sink into lakes and rivers.
  • According to the advocacy organization Plastic Free Seas, the average person washes 17,000 bits of plastic down the drain, every time they use a face wash with plastic microbeads.
  • According to 5 Gyres, “In the United States, we release 8 billion plastic microbeads into the environment each day. That’s nearly 3 trillion each year.”
  • Most plastic is sourced from petroleum feedstock and some leach hormone-disrupting chemicals.
  • Approximate 663 different fish species are polluted with microbeads, impacting the food we eat!
  • Plastic pollution in the ocean absorbs toxic chemicals, in fact more than 1 million times the than the water that surrounds it.
  • Toothpaste formulated with microbeads came under attack by dentists who faced plastic pellets stuck between patients teeth and gums.

State, Federal and International Action

In response to a brilliant advocacy campaign by 5 Gyres and allied organizations, Senator Ben Allen (my California State Senator) led the charge to ban plastic microbeads from personal care products in the state of California. Congress took the momentum built by the California bill and Senator Gillibrand (NY) and Rep. Fred Upton (MI) passed a bi-partisan federal ban on plastic microbeads used in personal care products. The Microbead-Free Waters Act prohibits the sale of plastic microbeads in personal care products starting January 1, 2018 and amends the otherwise weak and outdated 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act.

Canada followed suit in the summer of 2016, and their ban will officially start in January of 2018. And the U.K., Australia and other E.U. countries are considering bans, showing the domino effect of environmental legislation.

Companies Taking a Stand

Many companies have taken a stand against using plastic microbeads, either changing their formulations, or chose to never use microplastic in their skin care formulations. Leading safer beauty brands use a host of naturally exfoliating materials like jojoba beads, sugar, and ground nuts.

You can find my favorite safer exfoliators HERE and read more about brands creating safer products HERE.

How to Properly Dispose of Products With Microbeads

As you start to switch to safer personal care products, do not dispose of the “goop” inside the bottle down the drain or in the toilet. Instead, simply place the bottle in the recycling with the formula inside. This will prevent excess plastic microbeads from entering our waterways.

I take heart knowing there are many companies, elected officials and people like YOU, willing to vote with your dollar. We’re entering an exciting and much needed time in our history where companies must take into consideration the environment and public health impacts when creating their products.

Anything that falls short of these important goals, won’t pass the savvy consumer’s sniff test.

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