What makes a skin scrub a scrub? You know the answer – those tiny perfect spheres in the substance that create the texture – the microbeads. In fact, the friction they initiate is what makes you feel scrubs work to remove impurities from your skin. I bet you thought they are all dissolvable and disappear once you wash them away. Disappointment. Some may do (the natural ones), but most face and body scrubs still contain the conventional plastic microbeads. And just because you don’t see them anymore, doesn’t mean they disappear in the drain. On the contrary – they are non-biodegradable and stay in the marine environment for a long long time. And now I’m about to share with you some curious (sad) facts about them.

 

What is a microbead?

You will find it in your face scrub, body wash, soap, toothpaste and even sunscreen.

Microbeads are small spheres usually <0,5 in size. They are most often made of polyethylene (PE) constituting 93% of the total use of microbeads in cosmetic products. They can also include polypropylene (PP), nylon, polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)  and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Though many natural alternatives exist, the cosmetic industry prefers microbeads for their durability and relatively low price. And it applies them in generous quantities. In June 2015 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report claiming that a typical exfoliating shower gel can contain as much plastic in its microbeads as is used to make the plastic packaging it comes in.

Why were microbeads introduced in cosmetics in the first place?

Microbeads were first made by Dr. John Ugelstad, who formed them by making polystyrene beads into spheres. Microbeads were patented in 1972, but it was in the early 2000s that they began to replace natural ingredients and invade products, such as toothpaste, face wash, and shower gel.

Let’s face it. Where there is a demand, there is a supply. That’s basically the nature of a market. I’m not saying we, consumers, are the reason microbeads exist. But there was a skin problem to solve and the cosmetic industry found a relatively cheap and effective solution.

Here comes the question – is it really necessary to exfoliate your skin? It’s not a must, of course. But who doesn’t want a smoother skin? Skin regeneration is a natural process occurring in the body. It takes about 28 days to complete and newly formed skin to shine on the surface. With the progress of age, however, the cycle becomes longer and it takes more time for the depleted surface skin layer to peel off and reveal new skin. Exfoliating your skin is a shortcut to getting to the craved radiant skin look – it speeds up the whole process.

Consequently, there was a niche to fill in and the beauty industry took advantage introducing the microbeads in cosmetic substituting some natural ingredients. It was the dreamed of exfoliant – gentle and smooth – creating a ball-bearing effect in creams and lotions, resulting in a silky texture. No scratching the skin, cost effective. They also started using it in oral care for the controlled timed release of active ingredients and to prolong shelf life. 

Are they really harmful?

Definitely yes. If they weren’t, why so many countries would be moving toward a ban of microbeads – the United States and Canada, the UK, Korea, Taiwan, Australia. Microbeads are a real threat to the environment. In short – an increasing toxic load is being passed up the food chain. And it ends up in our food plates. How does it happen?

  • Microbeads are available in high numbers in many of the products we are using every day. We’re talking millions here. A UK study issued in 2015 found that the facial scrubs tested contained concentrations between 137,000 to 2,800,000 microbeads per bottle! Between 4594 and 94,500 microbeads can reach our watersheds per use of just one facial scrub.
  • Conventional water filtration systems fail to filter those tiny particles and once flushed away the drains, they pour directly into our rivers, bays, seas. The numbers are frightening. Up to 466 000 microbeads per square kilometer were counted downstream from a major city during a study conducted in 2013 in the Laurentian Great Lakes, USA. Once in the environment, microbeads are impossible to be cost-effectively recovered or recycled. And marine environment additionally hinders the process of degradation. Thus, they can stay there for a long long time…attracting toxins.
  • Microplastics, including microbeads, absorb organic and chemical pollutants from the surrounding environment.
  • Then, toxic microbeads get eaten by marine life. They don’t make any difference between their usual food and microplastics. The worst of all is chemical pollutants accumulated on the surface of microbeads can transfer to the fish and other marine species that eat them. Then, they are passed up the food chain. Which means if you eat a fish, you might risk to take in all the toxins it comes with.

What can I do about it?

  • Read the labels and be informed.

    In the United States companies are required to list microbeads as ingredients. So if you find on the label polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate or polymethyl methacrylate you are about to become an accomplice in environmental pollution. So choose wisely.

  • Look for alternatives.

    Talking about skin scrubs and exfoliants, nature has given us so many options. Why would we use a harmful one? You can even find most of those holistic products in your own kitchen because they are not some fancy and exotic or hard to find ingredients. Coffee, sugar, whole oats or a tasty papaya and yogurt to name a few. The industry is considering substituting microbeads with bio-plastics, but who can say if they will have better environmental degradation properties. On the other hand, jojoba beads are completely natural and as gentle in exfoliating as microbeads. Many cosmetic companies are already using them in their products. Arcona Cranberry Gommage, for example, is a holistic skin care exfoliant with jojoba beads without any fillers, chemical stabilizers or petrochemicals It feels like a polish – a little sandy, but cleanses gently. You can find jojoba beads in skin washes by LaMav, Pai Skincare, Odacité and more.

  • Share what you know about microbeads with your friends.

    Though the world is moving to a phase-out, it might take a few years to completely eradicate this practice and products. And this means more billions of microplastics into our oceans.

 

A microbead might be a tiny particle but it has become a big deal…to the environment. And it has become so huge to drive a change towards more eco-friendly options. And this microbead story reminded us once again that we are not alone and in private in our daily routine if what we wash our skin with in our private bathroom goes back to our kitchen. In our fish meal.

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