Yes, that innocent-looking cleanser may be hiding an environmental hazard—usually touted on the label as “microbeads” or “microspheres” or “microcrystals.” Whatever fancy name they’re given, they’re nothing more than tiny globules of plastic (polyethylene) that give an abrasive texture to soap. And once they’re done polishing our skin, they go right down the drain and into our waterways.
What’s so bad about that? Plenty, according to this article on Slate.com:
1. They’re so tiny, they slip through most sewage treatment systems.
2. They don’t break down. Most plastics don’t biodegrade—so when we use this stuff, we clutter our oceans with plastic that isn’t going away.
3. They attract other chemicals to their surface, thereby concentrating and transporting a variety of toxins.
4. They’re easily ingested by marine animals, harming sealife and potentially working their way up the food chain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t relish the thought of eating a fish that’s been feasting on microbeads.
I first read about this issue a few years ago, and thought for sure these products would soon be banned. To the contrary (and to my great dismay), I’ve seen more on the market than ever. The problem is that the plastic bits are so small, it’s hard for scientists to measure their effects—and therefore hard to persuade legislators to take action. I expected at least to see some public outrage; but given that they’re nearly invisible, I guess they don’t have the shock value of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Nevertheless, what we can’t see can certainly hurt us (as well as a plethora of other organisms). And environmental issues aside, rubbing plastic on my skin is just not altogether appealing. Therefore, microbeads are One Less Thing in my bathroom cabinet. There are plenty of alternative exfoliators on the market, using ground walnuts, seeds, salt, and other natural materials. Back in the day, I used to love The Body Shop’s Japanese Washing Grains (now discontinued); as soon as I’m settled, and own a coffee grinder, I intend to make my own from ground adzuki beans.
Being a minsumer means not only keeping clutter out of your home, but keeping junk out of the environment. So if you’re using any cleansers to slough away dead skin, peruse the ingredients list for polyethylene—maybe you too will decide it’s something you can do without. The best way to send a message to the manufacturers of these products: don’t buy them.