Natural Grains Biodegradable Microbeads

As a passionate beauty consumer and an equally passionate animal rights activist, I like to think I know a little something about nearly everything but I’m also aware that the beauty industry is ever changing and thus I’m always learning something new. Usually, I love what I learn but on this occasion I do not love what I’ve learnt. I don’t like it at all. In fact, I’m horrified.

I read on Slashed Beauty (one of my favourite beauty blogs) about the Beat The Microbead campaign, an international campaign against the use of microbeads in cosmetics. I know exactly what you are thinking because I thought it too, “not another ‘bad guy’ the hippies want to ban”. I put my quick judgement aside and read what the deal is, and the result was my jaw on the floor. Shocked is an understatement.

Microbeads are bad, I’m going to tell you all about this secret killer we are all using everyday, why some cities are moving to ban them and what you can do/buy to avoid the ‘bad guy’. I’ve recruited Michelle Wong, Science PhD and Blogger at Lab Muffin, to break down the science speak for us. 

What are Microbeads?

The more official term is Microplastics. In personal care products they are mainly made of polyethylene (PE), but can be also be made of polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon. Take a look at the back of your favourite exfoliant and see if they are listed.

Wong says the term “microbeads”, as currently used in discussions about the recent ban, specifically refers to small particles of plastic (usually under 1 mm in diameter) that are present in many consumer products.

An assortment of microbeads

An assortment of microbeads

The Ban

As Miranda stated in her post on Slashed Beauty, “New York’s attorney general Eric Schneiderman proposed the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which could become the country’s first ever ban on microbeads. A few days later, California Assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced the same bill.” So why do these cities even want to ban some harmless pieces of plastic? Wong xplains:

Microbeads are part of a bigger problem with microplastic pollution, also known as “plastic soup” – pieces of plastic waste smaller than 5 mm persisting in the environment. Some of the waste was purposefully manufactured to be small (such as microbeads) and some has been generated from degradation of larger plastic item.s. The types of products containing microbeads are generally cleansing products – particularly skin scrubs and toothpaste.

When microbeads are washed down the drain after use, they’re too small to be caught by the filters in standard sewage management systems and flow straight into waterways. Wildlife can then accidentally eat the small pieces of plastic. Some of the wildlife can pass the plastic, but some can’t, causing obvious physical health issues for the animals. A more subtle effect is bioaccumulation – microplastics are known to collect toxic chemical pollutants known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) on their surfaces, which can then be released once the plastic is in the body of an animal. These pollutants can accumulate along the food chain – there might be small amounts of plastic-related pollutants in a lower order animal like plankton, but since a higher order animal such as a small fish will eat thousands of plankton in their lifetime, they will be exposed to a lot more of the pollutant; even higher order animals like birds will eat thousands of fish and be exposed to even more pollutants. This can affect their health and disturb the ecosystem. Humans are also high up on the food chain, so the presence of microplastics in the food we harvest can lead to long term consequences on human health.

A recently published study (October 2013) by the 5 Gyres Institute examined the extent of microbead pollution in the Great Lakes in the Northern USA. They found a lot – an average of 43,000 pieces per square kilometre – and a lot of these pieces were round, suggesting that they were manufactured microbeads from sources such as personal care products.

You can read the New York bill and discover how detailed this legislation would be but what it boils down to is we think these little beads do no harm but they actually come back to bite us. If the act does get approved New York and California will ban the production, manufacturing, distribution and sale of any personal care items containing plastic particles less than 5 millimetres in size. The most common products you could see this effect would be scrubs, toothpaste and nail beads. As Slashed Beauty reported, this could mean the end for Caviar/Fish Egg manicures.

Ciate Caviar Manicure - It could be banned.

Ciate Caviar Manicure – It could be banned.

The Alternatives

Don’t worry, exfoliation isn’t going to disappear if microbeads do. There are many natural alternatives that are biodegradable – sand, walnut shell, ground almonds, salt, sugar, hemp seeds, jojoba beads, bamboo and oats – to name a few. So why haven’t all beauty brands been using natural alternatives? Wong gives some insight:

Plastic microbeads are cheap and have a smooth, even surface, meaning they’re less damaging to the skin than other equally priced ingredients like walnut shell (which can be harsh on the skin).

Green-coloured Jojoba Beads from KandleKaz

Green-coloured Jojoba Beads from KandleKaz

Positive Results

The great news is that many of the big multinationals have taken this criticism in their stride and are taking action. By the end of 2013 Unilever, L’Oreal Group, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, The Body Shop and Beiersdorf have all promised to phase out their use of microbeads.

Microbeads found in scrubs

Microbeads found in scrubs

How You Can Beat The Microbead

Now that you know all this it’s easy to avoid using microbeads.

  • Download the free Beat The Microbead app available from the App Store, Google Play and Windows Phone Store. You can use it to scan barcodes of personal care products and it will give you a reading – Red: This product contains microbeads; Orange: This product still contains microbeads, but the manufacturer has indicated it will replace in a given timeframe or adapt the product accordingly; Green: This product is free from plastic microbeads. It’s currently setup for use in the Netherlands, United States, United Kingdom, Germany and France. New countries are being rolled out frequently.
  • Buy scrubs that don’t contain plastic microbeads (may be listed in the ingredients as polyethylene/polyethene (PE), polypropylene/polypropene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)). See our suggestions below for scrubs that use biodegradable alternatives.
  • Use exfoliating tools such as a brush, loofah, sponge and face cloth. Discover the best ones in our post, 6 ways to clean your face.
  • Make your own scrub by adding non-plastic grains to your regular cleanser – salt, sugar, sand, etc.
  • If you are currently using products containing microbeads and you don’t wish to dispose of them, consider collating the waste water in a bucket when you rinse the product off, straining it through very fine muslin cloth, and then throw the plastic residue in your general waste. The plastic is still bad for the environment but stopping it going down the drain is a good start.
Make your own scrub by adding grains from your pantry to your regular cleanser.

Make your own scrub by adding grains from your pantry to your regular cleanser.

The Good Guys

These products all contain non-plastic particles for their exfoliating benefits.


What is your opinion of microbeads? Will this report change your buying habits? Let me know by commenting below!
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