Re­think­ing plas­tic par­ti­cles in skin­care

Your fa­vorite cleanser may have detri­men­tal ef­fects to the oceans


Last De­cem­ber, United States Pres­i­dent Barack Obama signed the Mi­crobead-Free Wa­ters Act of 2015. The new law re­quires com­pa­nies to elim­i­nate traces of th­ese minis­cule par­ti­cles from per­sonal care, cleans­ing, and ex­fo­li­at­ing prod­ucts by July 1, 2017.

When a leader moves to ban th­ese seem­ingly triv­ial specks, the mat­ter clearly goes be­yond cos­met­ics; it’s about sav­ing our en­vi­ron­ment.

The scrubs that cleaned your pores have ended up clog­ging oceans and rivers, though it’s not the prod­uct per se but its mi­crobeads. The col­ored dots that ex­fo­li­ate your skin are also the par­ti­cles that are poi­son­ing fish and block­ing wa­ter­ways when they flow down our drains to sew­ers.

“Plas­tic can ab­sorb and con­cen­trate pol­lu­tants, and eas­ily trans­fer them to aquatic or­gan­isms,” says Dr. Lorena Rios Men­doza, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of chem­istry at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin, to The At­lantic. “Some of th­ese pol­lu­tants are en­docrine dis­rup­tors,” she adds, per­tain­ing to the fact that mi­crobeads could af­fect an­i­mals’ re­pro­duc­tive cy­cles.

Con­sumers are not ex­actly to blame. We were con­vinced that th­ese sub­stances were slough­ing off the grime; in fact, they were ef­fi­cient for a while. They were also cheap to pro­duce, thus com­pa­nies churned out prod­ucts quickly with­out giv­ing peo­ple a chance to stop and think where th­ese small pol­ish­ers go af­ter fin­ish­ing their job. But if Tina Fey’s Mean Girls taught us any­thing at all, it’s that any­thing la­beled plas­tic also means it is toxic.

But we live amid al­ter­na­tives. While we have to bid adieu to th­ese syn­thetic bits, com­pa­nies have em­ployed other biodegrad­able ma­te­ri­als to dig deep into our pores. Rice, apri­cot seeds, wal­nut shells, and bam­boo work as nat­u­ral ex­fo­liants—all of which work equally well, if not bet­ter, than the banned beads. Now scrub away—and save the earth while you’re at it.

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