Ask the Expert: What are Microbeads? – Universal Companies
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By Lisa Sykes, Director of Sustainability, Universal Companies

Ask The Expert: What Are Microbeads?

"I've been hearing a lot about microbeads. What are they and why should they be avoided?” –Sheila, Wilmington, NC

Defined as plastic particles that measure 5 mm or less, microbeads are found in personal care products such as toothpaste, exfoliants, and soaps. Note, however, that they don’t show up on ingredient declarations as “microbeads”; you’ll find them listed as polyethylene, polypropylene, polymethyl methacrylate, nylon, or polyethylene terephthalate.

Microbeads are too small for waste treatment facilities to filter out, so these tiny bits of plastic wind up polluting waterways, where wildlife ingest them. The 5 Gyres Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending plastic pollution, found an average of 43,000 plastic particles per square kilometer in Lake Erie. At the time of this writing, microbeads have been banned in Illinois (phase-out period 2017-2019) and New Jersey (effective January 2019), and New York, Colorado, California, and Ohio are working on similar bans.

Jojoba beads, rice or bamboo powder, oak kernel flour, cornmeal, and plant seeds are natural physical exfoliant alternatives to microbeads, but replacing the tiny plastic spheres is a complex process. However, the good news is that some spa brands have already removed microbeads. Control Corrective Skincare Systems, for example, replaced them with jojoba beads in both its Cucumber Bead Cleanser and Medicated Pumice Wash. Other spa brands have always used natural physical exfoliants in addition to natural chemical exfoliants‡.  Alchimie Forever uses cranberry seed powder and jojoba beads as physical exfoliants along with papaya extract in its Gentle Refining Scrub.

With growing awareness and the gradual removal of microbeads in personal care formulations, it is becoming easier to find products that use natural alternatives. Just remember to take a look at the ingredient panel.

‡The term “natural chemical exfoliants” is not an oxymoron. Chemical compounds can be natural or synthetic—google images of the chemical structures for the major constituents of lemongrass essential oil. Examples of natural chemical exfoliants include fruit extracts, acids, and enzymes.

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