MiniMyth: Face Scrub Isn’t Made of Plastic

When you wash your face, the goal is to get yourself nice and clean—not slather your body in plastic. But, bizarre as it may sound, many exfoliating scrubs and other personal care products like soap and toothpaste are made with tiny plastic particles called microbeads.

And though they’re so small you might never even notice they’re there, their very smallness has become a big problem in our waterways, according to the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Olga Lyandres.

Microbeads All Float On…Right Past Wastewater Treatment Filters

Unlike larger debris you might accidentally wash down the drain, wastewater treatment facilities weren’t designed to filter out these uber-tiny synthetic beads. And unlike chemical contaminants, most treatment systems don’t have a means to break down or otherwise clean up these teensy yet polluting plastics. So all those innocent seeming plastic beads wash right out into our rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Should we even care where they go, considering they’re practically invisible? Alas, the answer is a resounding yes. Like microplastics, which we explore in a deep dive myth, microbeads are a big problem, in large part because they actually absorb other toxic pollutants, and can negatively impact the health of the aquatic wildlife that mistake it for food.

Turning the Tide on This Truly Pointless Pollution

Good news is, the word is spreading fast and change is a’coming, from new legislation to corporate support.

These small but way-too-mighty microbeads are now being phased out of toiletries for sale in Illinois. (O. Lyandres)
These small but way-too-mighty microbeads are now being phased out of toiletries for sale in Illinois. (O. Lyandres)

In June of 2017, Illinois made quite a splash on the topic, becoming the first state in the U.S. to pass statewide legislation phasing out the manufacture and sale of microbeads in personal care products by 2019. Other states with similar bills on the docket include New York and California, and similar bills have also been introduced in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Some of the big brands are taking responsibility, too. Beauty product manufacturers like Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, The Body Shop, and L’Oreal have formally committed and are taking steps to phase out the use of microbeads—most by 2016, according to the Alliance.

MiniMyth Outcome: Myth Busted!

Face wash may not seem like a big smuggler of tiny plastic—but it often is. Fortunately, you can help.

One Green Thing You Can Do to Stop Microbead Pollution

Wanna change your microbeady ways? The easiest way is to read the label. If something has polyethylene or polypropylene, don’t buy it. If you already have it in your medicine cabinet, Lyandres recommends trashing it.

In search of other fun ways to achieve radiant skin, sans plastic? Try:

  • DIY oatmeal-almond face scrub (mmmm!)
  • Reusable scrubbers like washcloths and pumice
  • Exfoliating products made with organic, natural ingreds, like these:

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For more intel on this topic, read the Alliance for the Great Lakes fact sheet. For more on microplastics, read the myth.