Beads galore
Microplastic beads found recently in the Great Lakes. 5 Gyres / YouTube

Next time you wash your face, think of the sludge that you’ve just dumped in the rivers and ocean. Not from your skin. From microbeads.

Microbeads are tiny bits of plastic found in exfoliating body washes and facial scrubs. Since their introduction in 1972, they have made their way into more than 100 personal care products sold by companies such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and L’Oréal.

But there’s mounting evidence that these beads—while great at scraping dead dermis—are equally adept at killing marine life and bringing harmful chemicals into the food chain. Since 2012, when researchers searched the Great Lakes for small pieces of plastic and found high concentrations of microbeads, environmentalists have campaigned to ban them.

Last week, Congress finally agreed. It booted microbeads from the consumer supply line.

Aware that microbeads act as environmental pollutants, several leading companies in the personal care industry have pledged to stop putting plastic microbeads in their products. The federal ban will hold them to that promise.

What are microbeads?

Microbeads are pieces of plastic, usually spherical in shape, that range in width from a fraction of a millimeter to about a millimeter and a quarter. They’re used in soaps because exfoliating products need small, hard particles to rub debris from the skin. These particles can be natural materials, such as ground nut shells or crushed apricot seeds–or they can be manufactured products like microbeads.

While microbeads are no better at scrubbing the skin than particles of shells or seeds, they’re much cheaper to mass-produce. Which is why, since the 1990s, manufacturers have increasingly replaced natural materials with plastic shards. Microbeads have even made their way into certain toothpastes.

Why are they bad?

Microbeads have become so ubiquitous that an estimated 808 trillion pieces swirl down American drains every day. When this plastic-laden wastewater goes through treatment plants, about 99 percent of the beads settle into sludge, which is often used as fertilizer.

Thanks to rain and runoff, these beads can still enter the water supply. Meanwhile the one percent that escaped the sludge—roughly 8 trillion microbeads—are released directly into our waterways. That’s enough plastic to cover 300 tennis courts.

So it’s no surprise that high concentrations of microbeads have been discovered in the Great Lakes and other freshwater reservoirs.

Plastics used in microbeads readily absorb pollutants . And to a hungry aquatic organism, little pieces of plastic look pretty tasty. The smallest microbeads can even become snacks for plankton, and travel all the way up the food chain.

When a fish gobbles up contaminated microbeads, or some plankton that have been noshing on contaminated microbeads, this doesn’t just put the animal at risk—it also increases the odds that pollution-laden plastic will make its way to your dinner plate. Some of the pollutants that microbeads pick up have been linked to birth defects, cancer, and developmental problems in humans. Microbeads don’t just contain pollutants; the plastic can also release BPA and other chemical additives.

Do I need to throw out my exfoliants?

Aware of the potential impact of microbeads, several states have already taken steps to restrict them. Now, even the federal government is getting in on the action. The bill that passed last week will require manufacturers to phase out microbeads…starting in 2017.

In the meantime, you can avoid further water contamination by checking the ingredients in your favorite brand of exfoliating cleanser. If the list includes polyethylene or polypropylene, two types of plastic commonly used in microbeads, you might want to leave that scrub on the shelf.