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Microbeads, Macro Problems

Isabelle Faivre
May 22, 2018




Plastic beads made of polyethylene – also known as microbeads – are used in different cosmetic products such as toothpaste and exfoliants, but also in some heavy duty hand cleansers.


There used to be a number of reasons for manufacturers to use plastic microbeads as scrubbing agents for professional hand soaps. There are a lot of alternatives but not all of them are appropriate. For example, pumice (porous volcanic rock) is known to be harsh on the skin and a source of sewer blockages. Natural scrubbing agents, such as walnut shell powder or cornmeal, are the best alternatives. They can be more expensive than and not as easy to formulate as microbeads. They also come with a natural yellowish or brownish color, while products containing microbeads can be pure white. However, natural scrubbers remain the safest and most sustainable skin care choice for all professionals.


The price advantage for the manufacturer comes with a price to our environment. A liter of heavy duty hand soap may contain 1 – 2 oz of hundreds of thousands small plastic particles. One might think that these will end up in the sewage sludge. But these particles are so small, that they are not caught by most waste water treatment facilities. So they end up in water streams, lakes and the ocean. One of the characteristics of plastic is the fact that it is durable. Unfortunately, this is not a positive characteristic when it comes to the environment. Plastic particles build up in the environment and plastic is already the number one debris in our oceans.


Microbeads are mistaken for food and ingested by fish and other marine animals. Although eating plastic beads will not kill marine animals immediately, it can be suspected that these will inhibit their digestion as well as add to the persistence of organic pollutants. And what you wash your hands with today may end up on your plate in the near future.


The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 bans personal-care products from containing microbeads in order to help remove plastic pollution from water supplies. The law prohibits soaps, body washes, toothpaste and other personal-care products from containing plastic or bioplastic beads as of July 1, 2017. The law also prohibits the sale of products containing microbeads as of July 1, 2019.

The United States and Canada decided to ban plastic particles from cosmetic products, but there will be long grace periods and certain product categories, such as drugs, that are not even included yet.


You can help. Avoid products that list “polyethylene” or “polyurethane” as the scrubbing agent. There are better alternatives available such as cornmeal, olive stone or walnut shell scrubbers. These scrubbers are natural and have the right balance between helping to get dirt off the skin while being gentle. Natural scrubbers like cornmeal, olive stone or walnut shell grits are easily rinsed away, not prone to swelling and will therefore not cause drain blockage. They are also safe for the environment.


To learn more about how the Deb Group is leading the way in 100 percent microbead-free products in North America visit  


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