The problem with microbeads.


Forget your garage or basement. Did you know that some of the most environmentally damaging products in your house are probably stored right in your own bathroom? Check your shower, vanity drawers and medicine cabinets for these environmentally unfriendly consumer products:

  • Exfoliating face masks
  • Toothpaste
  • Facial cleansers
  • Acne washes
  • Hand soaps

What do all of these common hygiene products have in common?

They may be filled with harmful microbeads.

The Problem with Microbeads in Consumer Products

Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic that are added to all kinds of common toiletries. The beads can be perfectly round or rough and irregular.  Some are clearly visible within products because they are large and brightly colored, while others are so small that you may not even realize your product contains them at all. Microbeads are typically added to skin care products for their abrasive, exfoliating properties: all those little bits of plastic rub against your skin to remove dead cells and dirt (or plaque, in the case of toothpastes with microbeads).

Though they are now a common additive to many health and beauty aids, plastic microbeads are incredibly harmful to the environment. Because plastic isn’t biodegradable, all those tiny microbeads that get washed down the drain end up in sewage treatment plants, where they gum up the works and make it difficult to clean water before dumping it into rivers and streams.

The problems don’t stop there. Once microbeads make it through a treatment plant and into rivers, lakes and the ocean, fish easily ingest them — but can’t digest them. Worse still, the plastic pellets absorb toxins and pollutant in the water, delivering a big dose of poison to the fish as they sit in its stomach.  The beads also take up precious space in the animal’s digestive track, leave less room for actual food.

A study found that fish in the Great Lakes were also affected.  Researcher Marcus Eriksen noted:

Through comparisons under a microscope in the laboratory, researchers were able to match up the microbeads they found in the lakes with the ones in facial scrubs and toothpaste. It turns out, a single tube of Clean & Clear scrub from Johnson & Johnson contains 330,000 beads. So three tubes contain nearly a million beads.

The toxins work their way up the food chain to humans in short order, causing health problems for animals and people alike.

Microbeads are excellent at exfoliating... fish.

The Microbead Ban 

To protect the waters and fish (and eventually us humans, too), President Obama recently signed off on the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which effectively phases out the sale of any product with harmful microbeads over the next year. Manufacturers can adjust their formulas to replace the microbeads with a safe alternative or they can discontinue the product.

Worried about your own favorite products?

Check the labels. Manufacturers often list these bits of plastic in the ingredients as polyethylene or polypropylene. If you see these ingredients, you won’t be able to buy that product for much longer — for safe disposal, consider donating it to a science project to teach about the dangers of microbeads.

What will you do with your products that have microbeads? Will you stop using them immediately? Find an eco-friendly substitute? Or will you hang on to them for as long as you can?


This guest post was written by Megan Ray Nichols, who blogs regularly over  at Schooled By Science.