For years, beauty companies have advertised the use of microbeads – tiny, plastic particles less than five millimeters in diameter- as the ultimate exfoliant in products ranging from face washes to toothpastes. Now, that’ll all change as a bill enacted by President Barack Obama will make them illegal to use.
The bill is known as the Microbead Free Waters Act of 2015 and was signed in December 2015. The goal is to ban the manufacturing and distribution of microbeads by July 2017. This includes all shaving creams, body washes and a number of other beauty and personal care products.
It is a bipartisan effort to curb ocean pollution caused by plastics. Illinois had bans on microbeads in place as early as 2014. As of October 2015, all states except California allow for the use of biodegradable microbeads.
Organizations around the world have been trying to get microbeads banned for years.
In 2012, the Dutch non-governmental organization North Sea Foundation helped develop an app that allowed Dutch citizens to check which of their products contained microbeads, effectively raising awareness.
There were also pushes for big companies to promise not to use microbeads in their products. Companies like L’Oreal and Johnson & Johnson have made such promises, as have other big companies around the world. U.S. based companies are phasing out microbeads, with plans to be done by the 2017 deadline.
According to instruction, these microbeads are meant to be used once and then flushed down into the drain, but given that they are plastic, they do not break down once in the sewer system. In one bottle of product alone, there could be thousands of microbeads.
Because of their small size, most sewage facilities do not have the equipment to filter them out before the water hits the ocean. As a result, microbeads have become a major micropollutant – a substance whose toxic and persistent composition negatively affects the environment and cannot be broken down.
Microbeads are also classified as microplastics. According to a study by Environmental Science and Technology, eight trillion microbeads go into the oceans daily. The dumping of these types of micropellets has helped contribute to the Great Pacific garbage patch, a giant patch of plastic floating in the ocean surface.
Scientists have said that the rising amount of microbeads has affected many animals’ diets; many sea creatures eat the microbeads, believing that they are food. Toxins from the bead affect the sea creature that ate it and the humans who eventually eat that sea creature.
Many people think of microbeads up until they use them to exfoliate or brush their teeth, but as they drain down the sink, they not only harm the ocean but human health as well.
By Nathalie Mairena