Plastic is damaging the Great Lakes and other bodies of water throughout the world, but it’s not just litter that’s to blame; it’s your facial cleanser. Most people don’t realize that many popular exfoliating cleansers actually contain plastic microbeads that are designed to wash down the drain, despite the fact that they are not biodegradable (So, yes, you’ve been washing your face with plastic). These microbeads are tiny pieces of polyethylene (a type of plastic), and they can be found in not only facial cleansers, but many other types of cosmetics such as body wash, sunscreens and toothpaste.
So what’s the danger?
After washing down the drain, these plastic particles absorb toxins from contaminated runoff. Marine wildlife and birds easily mistake these microbeads as food, leading to potentially fatal blocks in their digestive systems. A study in England found that 36.5 percent of fish in the English Channel have plastic within their gastrointestinal tracts. People commonly eat the fish that have eaten these contaminated microbeads, causing concerns over long-term health risks to humans.
How widespread is the problem?
Research by the 5 Gyres Institute found microbeads everywhere from oceans to the Great Lakes to the Los Angeles River. Environmental researchers at the State University of New York at Fredonia found about 43,000 microbead particles per square kilometer throughout the Great Lakes. Because of impact to the Great Lakes, Illinois became the first state to ban the sale of products containing microbeads, assuring that all microbead containing products will be taken off the shelves by 2019.
So what can you do?
Having learned of the environmental consequences of microbeads, many companies are phasing out microbead use. Until then, you have a few alternatives. Look for products with natural exfoliating materials like pumice, oatmeal, apricot or walnut husks. You can also find many homemade face wash recipes using honey, sugar, salt and other natural extracts that you probably already have in your pantry.