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Microbeads Don’t Belong in Beauty Products. Here’s Why.
Essential Takeaways
Microbeads are tiny plastic particles that are no smaller than 0.1 micrometers and no bigger than 5 millimeters in size. They are typically made from polyethylene (PE) or polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), two types of petroleum-based plastics. Even though you can barely see some microbeads, that doesn’t mean that they’re not out there causing problems.

Microbeads Don’t Belong in Beauty Products. Here’s Why.

When plastics became affordable and readily available to manufacturers in the 1970s, it was hailed for its versatility and durability. Plastics could be spun into fabric for clothing and accessories, or used to make cars.

In the beauty world, most merchandise is housed in plastic bottles. Here in the US, rinse-off exfoliating products are used to contain orb-shaped specks known as microbeads.

We’ll go over what microbeads are, how they harm the planet, and how to avoid them in your beauty products.

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What are plastic microbeads?

Microbeads are tiny plastic particles that are no smaller than 0.1 micrometers and no bigger than 5 millimeters in size. They are typically made from polyethylene (PE) or polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), two types of petroleum-based plastics.

Closeup image of colorful microbeads on fingertips

Even though you can barely see some microbeads, that doesn’t mean that they’re not out there causing problems.

Technically, microbeads are a type of microplastic, and this, unfortunately, means that these exfoliators are also known to pollute the environment. They may even harm human health.

What are microbeads used for?

The earliest patents for microbeads were filed in the 1960s, but the beauty industry didn’t fully tout their exfoliating powers until the 1990s. Manufacturers added these scrubby beads to hundreds of products, including face washes, scrubs, toothpaste, and more.

Although they’re known for helping you buff away dead skin, microbeads also function as tooth polishers or bulking agents.

Why are microbeads a problem?

Although microbeads have some cosmetic benefits, we may have been better off if companies never learned that they could help make skin feel silky-smooth.

Microbeads don’t dissolve once they’ve been washed down the drain. Plastic can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, and just like with microplastics, they invade the planet’s waterways, beaches, and oceans. From there, they become smaller and smaller until they’re no longer visible to the naked eye.

Scientists believe that as many as 8 million tons of macro and microplastics pollute the ocean annually, and presently, there is no data that tells us how much of that weight comes from microbeads.

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This pollution comes with environmental consequences. Microplastics have been found in crabs and fish—in the latter’s case, microplastics are known to cause neurotoxicity and behavioral abnormalities.

Because microplastics are long-lasting, experts are concerned about the long-term consequences of their presence in various ecosystems and organisms. However, more research is needed in order to better understand their potential toxicity to humans.

Microplastics are moving inland, too, popping up everywhere from Colorado’s high country and the Arctic Circle. They’ve been found in the soil, and terrestrial microplastic pollution is estimated to be four to 24 times higher than in marine ecosystems, depending on the environment.

So even if you don’t eat fish, microplastics get into your food. Researchers are also warning of the potential long-term adverse effects that this could have, but further study is needed.

Are microbeads banned?

In December 2015, former president Barack Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act into law. The federal law bans the use of synthetic microbeads in rinse-off cosmetic products out of concern for the mounting evidence that they damage the planet.

Woman exfoliating face with a micobead-free mask

Several countries have implemented similar bans, including Canada, France, India, South Korea, and the UK. The European Chemicals Agency, which regulates the safe use of chemicals, has proposed a microbead ban for practically all consumer products, but it still hangs in the air.

Products that have microbeads

For the most part, you won’t encounter plastic microbeads in any personal care products you buy in the US.

But, in the future, we might encounter scrubs made with biodegradable exfoliators that don’t leach toxic chemicals into the soil or the water.

Scientists developed eco-friendly microbeads from cellulose, an organic compound that forms the fibers that give structure to plants. Other scientists are developing biodegradable microbeads made from algae and chitin, a material found in the hard outer shell of crabs, lobsters, and other crustaceans. However, because the latter material is animal-derived, it cannot be considered vegan.

How to avoid microbeads

Thanks to the Microbead-Free Waters Act, avoiding microbeads is easy.

Exfoliating products now use jojoba beads, oats, salt, walnut shell powder, sugar, or even ground-up minerals. Some skin-smoothing ingredients are chemical, not physical. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) are a family of acids derived from high-sugar foods. These acids break down the proteins that adhere dead cells to your skin’s outer layer, speeding up the skin cell turnover process. Types of AHA include glycolic acid, lactic acid, citric acid, tartaric acid, and malic acid.

Traditionally, lactic acid is the by-product you get when bacteria digest the lactose (sugars) in milk, but most of it is vegan. Other chemical exfoliants include beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), like salicylic acid, which comes from white willow bark.

Earth Harbor Luna Rain Night Serum

This water-based serum gently exfoliates your skin overnight with a 15 percent blend of AHA and BHA. Specifically, it contains glycolic acid from sugar cane, citric acid from orange and lemon, and salicylic acid. It also contains seaweed collagen, a moisturizer known to help soften the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Franklin & Whitman Midtown Body Scrub

Save this vanilla coffee-scented scrub for your morning shower. Turbinado sugar gently buffs away old skin cells while fair-trade coffee helps with brightening. Plus, a blend of grapeseed and coconut oil leaves your skin feeling soft, maybe even soft enough to skip your post-bathing moisturizing step.

Herbivore Botanicals Amethyst Exfoliating Body Scrub

A combination of crushed amethyst stones and sea salt help lift dead cells, revealing the smooth skin beneath. This scrub is also packed with virgin coconut oil, which has exfoliating and occlusive properties and locks in moisture.

Versed Day Maker Microcrystal Exfoliating Cleanser

This face scrub is made with tiny granules called superfine microcrystalline, which comes from plant cellulose and won’t scratch your skin. Meanwhile, blackcurrant and raspberry leaf extract help soothe inflammation. According to the brand, it’s ideal for sensitive and breakout-prone skin.

Pai Virtuous Circle Kuku & Jojoba Bead Eco-Bead Exfoliator

Pai’s gel-based scrub contains jojoba wax beads—biodegradable spheres that help you gently banish dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. While the exfoliators do their job, antioxidant-rich kukui oil aids in moisturizing, repairing, and protecting.

Final thoughts

Personal care products made with microbeads, from face scrubs to toothpaste, rose to prominence in the 1990s but were banned by the 2015 Microbead-Free Waters Act in response to solid evidence about their negative effect on the environment. Exfoliating your skin is still easy, though, thanks to biodegradable alternatives such as jojoba beads, superfine microcrystalline, coffee, sugar, AHA, and BHA.

Kat Smith is a New York City-based writer and editor who loves digging deep into sustainable fashion, beauty, food, and other lifestyle-related topics.

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