California Moves to Ban Microbeads in Cosmetics


Soaps and creams with exfoliants have been around for a very long time, but many today are likely to disappear off the shelves in the Golden State and others. Exfoliants are products that have miniscule plastic beads in them to smooth the skin. California is the latest state making moves to ban the use of microbeads in cosmetics, toothpaste and facial cleansers for environmental reasons.

Some natural exfoliants use oatmeal, apricots or other crops to gently scrub the skin and slough off dead skin, but many facial cleaners and other cosmetic products contain polyethylene or polypropylene components to do the job. On labels, poly components indicate the presence of added microbeads to smooth the users’ face. While they are not hazardous when used on the face, the beads get washed off with the cleanser and wind up in oceans and rivers, and eventually as toxins in seafood. According to the Environmental Working Group’s database, there are currently more than 3,000 products which contain the synthetic beads.

Some environmental groups have indicated that one tube of facial cleanser contains over 300,000 microbeads. Water treatment plants cannot process and eliminate the tons of miniscule plastic beads flowing into drains. One non-profit, Californians Against Waste, estimated that over 471 million plastic microbeads are being released into San Francisco Bay daily. Another environmental group, 5 Gyres, sampled water in Lake Erie and indicated they found 600,000 microbeads per square kilometer (0.39 square mile) in the lake water.

Recognizing the environmental and health issues the microbeads present, the California State Assembly passed stringent legislation to ban plastic microbeads in cosmetics and other products on Friday. The legislation now goes to the State Senate for approval. If passed into law, which seems likely since it has bipartisan support, California – the nation’s most populous state – will join Colorado, Illinois, Maine and New Jersey in the fight against the hazardous plastic beads. More than 20 other states are considering taking action against microbeads.

State bans may become unnecessary, given signs in Washington D.C. In March, Representatives Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) introduced federal legislation to ban the plastic microbeads from personal care products The bill is now working its way through Congress.

There are differences between the legislative measures – particularly regarding timing and phase-outs. New Jersey’s ban phases them out between 2018 and 2020. The California version sets a January 1, 2020, deadline for microbead elimination. Any federal measure would eliminate confusion.

Cosmetic product manufacturers, however, have seen the writing on the wall and are already taking action to change the contents of their products. However, reformulating products can be time-consuming and expensive. The Body Shop, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever have indicated they would no longer use the plastic products in products by the end of this year (Unilever reportedly already took the components out of their Dove line). Procter & Gamble is also working on a phase-out, which is believed to be planned for 2017. However, moving back to natural ingredients like oatmeal, apricot and walnut increases costs, according to the manufacturers.

With Congress and California, as well as other states, making moves to ban microbeads, the cosmetics companies face pressure to get moving. The cost of making the switch to natural exfoliants will surely be less than the costs incurred if the plastics are ingested by marine life and wind up in the food chain.

By Dyanne Weiss

New York Times: Fighting Pollution From Microbeads Used in Soaps and Creams
Sacramento Bee: California ban on microbeads in cosmetics advances
Plastics News: California may ban microbeads by 2020

Image Courtesy of Courtney Rhodes’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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