Are Microbeads in Beauty Products Bad for the Environment?

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You probably know a bath and beauty product junkie with a particular weakness for anything and everything that exfoliates, especially those body and face washes and scrubs with tiny little granules that slough away dead skin. I bet his or her skin is radiant and clean, but it probably comes at a price — to the planet.

Those magic cleansers may contain microbeads, finely ground bits 'n' pieces of petroleum-based polyethylene. After sloughing away dead skin to give your face and body that radiant glow, they’re washed down the drain and enter water systems where they can be fatal to aquatic critters mistaking them for bite-sized nibbles. Ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Texas-sized blob of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean? Non-biodegradable polyethylene microbeads and other plastics make up a large part of it. Not to sound hyperbolic, but folks have been exfoliating this whole time with tiny shards of highly polluting plastic. Need further convincing? Check out this insightful article written by Alan Weisman. He may not be Mary Kay, but he knows his plastics.

Don’t panic quite yet, though. There are plenty of plastic-free face and body exfoliating products on the beauty market. Products with “real” exfoliants like small chunks of fruit, crushed seeds and nuts, sea salt, and sugar may carry a higher price tag than those with synthetic ingredients but their environmental costs are significantly lower. And please use microbead-free scrubs with caution: Some natural exfoliants can be overly abrasive or trigger allergic reactions. Although not an exfoliant, I’ve found that any facial product with grapefruit in it makes my mug look like I just washed it in red paint. So be careful what you scrub your face and body with.

I’m a sucker for various lotions and potions for the face and body and I have my favorite brands. I recommend Korres, a killer company from Greece, that makes several gentle scrubs for the face and body with ingredients like jojoba beads, finely ground bamboo, and walnut granules. A couple summers back, I was downright obsessed with Rough Seas Organic Sudz shower gel from Kiss My Face; it contains a mix of organic lemon extract, chamomile, aloe and jojoba spheres. And although I’ve never used ‘em, I hear great things about the adzuki bean-based Facial Scrub from Pangea Organics and the Burt’s Bees Citrus Facial Scrub with ground almonds, pecans and oats.

P.S. Check out My Plastic-free Life for more on reducing plastic.

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