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Cleansing microbeads are everwhere -- including lakes and rivers

By: Brigid Sweeney
CRAIN'S CHICAGO BUSINESS

February 24, 2014

Plastic microbeads have been popular exfoliant ingredients in cosmetic products for the last decade.

A tiny product is causing big environmental concerns in the Great Lakes.

Plastic exfoliating microbeads—pinhead-sized spheres suspended in hundreds of facial scrubs, toothpastes and shaving creams—are silting fresh-water lakes, biologists say. And there's some evidence that they're flowing into the Chicago River.

Though they're deemed safe for health and beauty products, microbeads can be an environmental danger because they're roughly the size and shape of fish eggs, which other fish eat. Bigger fish then eat the small fry, the plastic gets incorporated into their flesh and then can end up in our fish dinners. Also, the beads are not biodegradable, and the petroleum in the plastic serves as a magnet for toxins such as motor oil and insecticides.

"The premise is that the bigger fish are then caught by Fred and Wilma over at Montrose Harbor, and when they eat them the plastic beads work their way into people's bodies," says Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. "It's analogous to mercury contamination."

Now two big states — New York and California — are considering banning microbeads. No such effort is underway in Illinois. But a nonprofit group that is making microbeads an issue, 5 Gyres, says it has talked with the policy director for Ald. William Burns about a city ordinance regulating them. Mr. Burns, whose 4th Ward stretches along the South Side lakefront, declines to comment.

Santa Monica, Calif.-based 5 Gyres, which usually focuses on ocean pollution, turned its research attention to lakes Erie, Huron and Superior in 2012. Of 21 sample sites, 20 contained plastic microparticles. Stiv Wilson, 5 Gyres' policy director, says the nonprofit conducted similar research in Lake Michigan last summer, and "preliminary findings from Lake Michigan are similar to results from the other lakes." The Lake Michigan research will be published in a peer-reviewed journal within the year, he says.

Separately, Timothy Hoellein, an assistant professor of biology at Loyola University Chicago, took water samples last fall near the O'Brien Water Reclamation Plant in Skokie, which discharges treated water into the North Shore Channel of the Chicago River. He discovered a considerable number of plastic fragments, including microbeads.

"Waste treatment centers are . . . tremendous feats of engineering, but they're just not designed to capture this type of pollutant," he says.

A single tube of a cleanser such as Clean & Clear Morning Burst face scrub can contain more than 300,000 particles—and products containing the plastic aren't limited to drugstore aisles. High-end brands including Bliss, Clarins, Dior, Laura Mercier and many others sell products with microbeads, according to 5 Gyres. The plastic exfoliant became popular in the cosmetics market over the past decade as manufacturers championed their gentleness.

Now some of these companies are backing away. Unilever plc, which makes Dove products, has said it will phase out microbeads globally by 2015. Johnson & Johnson, which produces Neutrogena, Clean & Clear, and Aveeno products, has "stopped developing new products containing polyethylene microbeads," according to its website.

For its part, Walgreen Co. says it's talking with its private-brand suppliers about removing microplastics. The Deerfield-based drugstore chain says it's also trying to redo labels so consumers can tell if products contain the beads.

5 Gyres created a free app, Beat the Microbead, which can scan a product's bar code and tell if it contains the beads. Mr. Wilson says a product that contains polyethylene or polypropylene probably has them.