Getting the Plastic Out of Our Personal Care Products
Feb 24 2017
Some of our personal hygiene practices have some dirty side effects for the environment. Plastic microbeads became a common ingredient in facial washes, scrubs, toothpastes, and soaps several years ago. They were added as a cheap ingredient to exfoliate the skin or buff teeth. The scientific community became aware of them around 2012 when a study was released from SUNY Fredonia showing high concentrations of plastic microbeads in the Great Lakes. They further caught public scrutiny when dentists reported removing microbeads from patients gums, where they caused irritation.
One tube of facial scrub can contain more than 330,000 plastic microbeads
Microbeads Pollute Our Water
Plastic microbeads are so small (5mm or smaller) that most are not filtered out of the water after it goes down the drain. In our waterways, they can absorb toxins and are mistakenly eaten as food by marine life. From there, they migrate up the food chain and have been found in the seafood we eat. A 2015 study published in Environmental Science & Technology found that about 8 trillion microbeads enter waterways every day in the United States. Fortunately, that figure should start to go down.
Banning the Bead
SCARCE collaborated with the Illinois Environmental Council (IEC) to draft state legislation to ban plastic microbeads in Illinois. Thanks to the hard work of Jen Walling, executive director of the IEC, to get legislative and industry support, Illinois became the first state to ban microbeads. The Microbead-free Waters Act was signed into law by former Governor Pat Quinn in June 2014. The law takes effect starting December 31st, 2017 with a phase-out continuing through the end of 2019.
Thanks in part to Illinois taking the initiative, a handful of other states have passed bans including Minnesota, Maryland, Indiana, and California. This prompted a federal ban on microbeads in rinse-off personal care products to be passed in December 2015. It begins to phase out microbeads July 1st, 2017. Many companies have already begun to remove plastic microbeads from their products and reformulate them in anticipation of the microbead ban deadlines and due to customer concerns.
Progress is Still Needed
There is still work to do. Neither the Illinois law nor the federal law ban so called “biodegradable” plastic microbeads nor do they cover products such as detergents and cosmetics that are left on the skin (i.e. not rinsed off – immediately, that is). According to a Time interview, Walling said it “was a cooperative effort with the industry in order to address our and their concerns. In the end, we were trying to get something that would pass. Other states should try for more stringent standards.” California’s microbead law is the most stringent and is the only one to include biodegradable microbeads under the ban.
What can you do?
Avoid products containing plastic microbeads. Take a look at ingredients lists, both “active” and “inactive” sections. The keywords for “plastic microbeads” are polyethylene, polypropylene, polylactic acid (PLA), polyethylene terephthalate or polymethyl methacrylate. If you see those in the list, stop using the product and don’t buy it again!
Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you have to go without. Natural exfoliants have been around for centuries! Examples include pumice, oatmeal, coffee grounds, ground apricot pits and even walnut shells. There are a number of more natural brands out there that have never used plastic in their products, such as Burt’s Bees, and other mainstream brands will hopefully make the shift. You could even make your own scrub at home with things found in your pantry.
Plastic Pollution Goes Beyond the Bead
Microbeads are only one piece of the plastic pollution puzzle. There are many sources of plastic pollution – some of which is straight up littered and the rest that wiggles it’s way out of our waste stream. You can take steps to help address the plastic problem and prevent disposable plastics entering the Great Lakes and our rivers, streams, and oceans.
Take action with these easy tips from the Marine Debris Program of NOAA:
- Tap it! Drink tap water from a reusable container
- Reuse it! Take along your reusable coffee mug, food containers, silverware, and shopping bags
- Refuse it! Buy fewer plastic items, avoid products with plastic microbeads, and opt for products that minimize plastic packaging
- Recycle it! Recycle the plastics you do use
- Can it! Use a trash can with a lid so your plastics and other waste do not accidentally end up in our waterways
- Remove it! Join beach cleanups to help pick up trash in our waterways and on our coasts
- Alliance for the Great Lakes: Microbead Menace
- The 5 Gyres Institute: Microbeads
- Plastic Microbeads: Ban the Bead – The Story of Stuff
- Beat the Microbead
- Study: Scientific Evidence Supports a Ban on Microbeads – Environmental Science & Technology (2015)
- Trash Talk Regional Award-Winning Film Series – National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration – has activities for educators to use after showing the film
- Illinois Environmental Council: Clean Water
- #PickUp5 Litter Clean-Up Initiative – SCARCE
In the News
- Personal Grooming Products May Be Harming Great Lakes Marine Life – Scientific American (June 2013)
- How Plastic in the Ocean is Contaminating Your Seafood – NPR (Dec 2013)
- Why dentists are speaking out about the plastic beads in your toothpaste – The Washington Post (Sept 2014)
- Why Those Tiny Microbeads In Soap May Pose Problem For Great Lakes – NPR (May 2014)
- Governor signs bill making Illinois first state to ban microbeads – Chicago Tribune (June 2014)
- Know What’s In Your Face Wash: Why Illinois Banned Microbeads – Time (June 2014)
- 8 trillion microbeads pollute U.S. aquatic habitats daily – CNN (Oct 2015)
- The President Signs a National Microbead Ban – NOAA Marina Debris Program (Dec 2015)
- Obama’s Ban On Plastic Microbeads Failed In One Huge Way – Huffington Post (May 2016)