WASHINGTON — Gently exfoliating PE microbeads will soon be disappearing from cosmetics — and the watershed.
California-based environmental group 5 Gyres has been pressuring large cosmetics and personal-care companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Unilever to remove or revamp products because the pieces of plastic, sometimes only a matter of microns each in size, are slipping through U.S. water filtration systems and ending up in oceans and lakes.
After approaching several companies, including Unilever at the end of 2012 and Body Shop earlier this year, 5 Gyres claimed victory again this month when Johnson & Johnson publicly announced plans are in the works to remove microbeads from its products.
"Our commitment is to give consumers peace of mind that our products are gentle on people and gentle on the environment," said Johnson & Johson spokesperson Samatha Lucas, via email. "We have been researching alternatives to plastic microbeads for some time, and planning to phase out."
The firm, which owns personal-care brands such as Neutrogena, Roc, Lubriderm and others, has already stopped developing new products containing plastic microbeads, Lucas said, and is conducting an environmental safety assessment of "a promising alternative."
Microbeads have only become popular in the cosmetics market in the last decade, as a gentle exfoliating alternative to items such as ground walnut shells, which can have sharp edges that tear sensitive skin or pose an allergy risk to some consumers.
The push to get microbeads off the market began last summer, after 5 Gyres conducted a Great Lakes study, expected to be published this August or September, that found 600,000 microbeads per square kilometer (0.39 square mile) in two different Lake Erie samples, according to the group's spokesman, Stiv Wilson.
"We didn't even know we had them, at first," said Wilson, who personally took the samples. "You can't really see them and it's not like they float on the surface. But you run the water through a coffee filter and you can see them with the naked eye … up to 10 milliliters of a 100-milliliter sample was plastic. Trillions and trillions and trillions of these beads are going into the water."
The environmental group has had some success in convincing large companies to look into removing microbeads from their products but have had less traction with Cincinnati-based personal-care giant Procter & Gamble. 5 Gyers plans to target the company in an upcoming campaign to get microbeads off the market.
"I think the companies know that once it gets out to consumers that they're washing their face with plastic, they're going to have a problem," he said.
Procter & Gamble did not return phone calls regarding this story.