You know those little blue “flavor crystals” in your toothpaste and those “sand-like scrubbers” in your facial scrub? Yeah, those are plastic microbeads. And they’re the f*cking worst.
Like many, I had no idea I was washing my face with plastic until I came across this New York Times article, which explained how those tiny beads were making their way off my face, down my drain, and into rivers, lakes, and oceans where they were getting eaten by little fishies and poisoning them.
As it turns out, there are a lot of reasons to hate microbeads.
Microbeads are terrible cleansers.
Inexpensive to produce and, therefore, cheaper to mix into just about any exfoliant than a natural alternative, microbeads are a common ingredient in facial scrubs, exfoliants, brighteners, invigorators, renewers, and even toothpastes. But as it turns out, they kind of suck at cleansing.
Think about it. Would you ever splash a big bowl of plastic beads on your face or rub plastic tidbits on your teeth to get them cleaner? Methinks not. Since microbeads are rounded at the edges (or lack of edges), they don’t do a whole lot when it comes to exfoliation. Those plastic chunky bits just fool you into thinking you’re scrubbing the dead skin from your face when really, you’re merely washing your face with soap and water while flushing hundreds of tiny plastic particles into the ocean in the process. Whoops.
Microbeads in toothpastes are even more egregious. Dental hygienists are finding more and more blue beads lodged in patients’ gums as a result of microbead proliferation, which is bad for the gums and not a particularly great look either. There’s no need for an abrasive toothpaste. That’s what the brush is for!
And then there are the environmental reasons to hate microbeads…
Microbeads are little balls of poison disguised as plankton.
Once microbeads get rinsed down the drain, they make their way into our waterways. Since plastic is particularly good at absorbing toxins, these tiny microbeads soak up all sorts of nasty things, like PCBs, pesticides, and motor oil, while bobbing around in the water. Despite being plastic (and very much inedible), microbeads look a helluva lot like plankton to unsuspecting and undiscerning fishies, who gobble up the chemical-laden microbeads in spades.
Which leads us to…
Microbeads are all up in our sushi.
The underwater ecosystem is a fish-eat-fish world. The fish we eat, like tuna and salmon and halibut, eat smaller fish, who eat still smaller fish, who eat still smaller fish, who eat plankton (and now, microbeads).
Since the smallest fish are devouring a diet of plankton and plastic, and since we eat fish… we’re eating microbeads… and the toxins those plastic bits attract. That’s bad news for piscivores everywhere.
So what should you do about it?
Check the ingredients on all your facial scrubs, toothpastes, and any other cosmetic product that has an exfoliant-like quality to it. If you see polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate or polymethyl methacrylate in the list of ingredients, toss it in the trash. You can also check here for a list of popular products containing microbeads.
Find microbead alternatives.
If you like scratchy facial scrubs, St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Scrub ($6) has been the exfoliation standard for decades. On the fancier side, I’m also a fan of Dermalogica’s Daily Microfoliant ($41).
If you like softer facial scrubs, opt for a lactic acid-based product. They’re more effective anyway. Dermalogica’s Skin Resurfacing Cleanser ($29) is gentle enough for everyday use, and Dermalogica’s Gentle Cream Exfoliant ($36) is a fantastic mask for weekly use. I use both and love them.
If you’re up for trying something totally new, Konjac sponges ($10) are very in right now. Made from a porous potato root that grows throughout Asia, Konjac sponges are a great natural tool for brightening skin. Simply soak in warm water, then gently scrub your face with or without cleanser.
Help build awareness.
Many people scrub with plastic because they don’t know better. Share this article, tell your friends the harrowing tale of microbeads in their sushi, and help more people understand why microbeads are the f*cking worst. Oh, and watch this video from Story of Stuff.