The Problem With Microbeads—And How You Can Avoid Them

Last Update: October 5, 2020

Facial cleansers. Body scrubs. Toothpaste. What do these three common personal care products have in common?

All three of these products contain microbeads—and they’re destroying the environment, billions of beads at a time.

Microbeads are those little tiny plastic balls that boost the scrubbing and exfoliating power of your soap and face wash. They may help get your skin extra clean, but these little beads actually also leave tiny cuts on your skin as they exfoliate. Though you can’t see the cuts with the naked eye, over time, using microbeads can make your skin more and more irritated.

And that’s saying nothing of microbeads’ effect on the environment. Microbeads are so small that they can slip through water filtration systems, making their way into our lakes, rivers, and oceans. Along the way, these plastic beads also actually absorb pollutants, pesticides, and other harmful chemicals.

Though that’s not great, what’s even more worrisome is that once these toxic plastic balls wind up in our waterways, fish can’t resist them. After all, shiny, colorful little balls must look pretty appealing to fish and other aquatic creatures.

Thankfully, governments and political leaders are beginning to realize the magnitude of this problem. Illinois already passed a law banning the pollutants, and California legislators are following suit.

In the meantime, there are plenty of easy ways to avoid microbeads, and take care of your skin and the environment at the same time.

For starters, check the back labels of your personal care products to see if they contain any polyethylene, the most common plastic used to make microbeads.

Also consider venturing into a skincare routine where you know the ingredients will be environmentally friendly. Most natural skincare companies use biodegradable salt and sugar as active exfoliating ingredients in their scrubs and body washes, instead of plastic.

If you want to be absolutely, 100-percent sure you’re scrubbing your face with natural ingredients only, try making your own scrubs at home. You probably already have most of the ingredients in your kitchen. If you’re truly strapped for cash, you can always try a super simple two-ingredient scrub made from baking soda and water.

And who could forget about icing? I’m not talking birthday cake toppings, but frozen water—the best (and probably cheapest) natural exfoliation for your face. Ice doesn’t come with any negative environmental consequences, and also doesn’t cut up your skin the way microbeads do. Icing gets the job done, but is much gentler than conventional face washes and scrubs.

Illustration by Karley Koenig

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Lauren Whitehouse

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