Banning the Bead

Plastic pollution is a growing problem in oceans and waterways worldwide. Obvious sources include fishing gear, as well as plastic bags, bottles, and caps. But recent studies reveal that the tiny microbeads often found in cleansers, scrubs, soaps, toothpastes, and many more skincare and personal care products are major culprits when washed down the drain. In fact, the same little beads that help deeply cleanse and exfoliate the skin are also polluting the ocean. “Microbeads are causing quite a stir in the environmental world,” says Dasha Saian, cofounder and vice president of Saian Natural Clinical Skincare. “The plastic waste caused by these microbeads, which are not filtered out during sewage treatment, is damaging water ecosystems and killing marine life.”

According to a study titled “Microplastic Pollution in the Surface Waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes,” published Dec. 15, 2013, in the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin by The 5 Gyres Institute with researchers from the State University of New York at Fredonia, high concentrations of microplastics of similar size, shape, texture, and composition to plastic microbeads found in many consumer products used as exfoliants were found in the Great Lakes. Some researchers suggest that the number of microbeads found in the Great Lakes is in the tens of millions, making it one of the most polluted. But that’s just one troubled waterway. These plastic microbeads are causing pollution problems in oceans and waterways worldwide. As a result, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, and New Jersey have enacted legislation to restrict the use of microbeads, and similar bills are pending in California, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.


Tiny Threats

Microbeads, also known as polyethylene beads, are chemically synthesized thermoplastic polymers shaped into tiny spheres. In addition to often being a cost-effective method, these round plastic spheres, which are less than five millimeters in size, have three common uses in cosmetics and skincare, says David W. Provance, Jr., Ph.D., chief scientist at Renewable Beauty. In cleansers, microbeads help exfoliate the skin; in lotions and creams, they contribute a silkiness to the application; and in any cosmetic formulation, microbeads can be used to provide a light-absorbing or light-reflecting color effect. “Light absorption can be used to provide a visual sensation to the product or to match the skintone of a customer,” says Provance. “As a light-reflecting material, the microbeads can occupy low regions of crevices and diminish the appearance of darkness that minimizes the look of fine lines optically.”

Despite the benefits they offer and the fact that they’re generally considered safe in skincare, microbeads can, in some cases, cause unnecessary harm to the skin. “Educating clients on the dangers of plastic beads and the harm they cause to the environment is vital,” says Brittney Gardner, director of sales and education at HydroPeptide. “Plastic microbeads can oftentimes break apart as they are massaged into the skin, causing small micro-lacerations to the skin if rubbed too aggressively, which is why an alternative such as jojoba esters is essential.”

As for the environment, there is no doubt that they cause serious harm. “The danger is that when plastic microbeads are washed down our drains, they’re too small to be captured by water treatment plants, thus ending up in our oceans, lakes, and rivers, posing a danger to wildlife,” says Natalie Pergar, lead skincare trainer at Éminence Organic Skin Care. Fish and other marine organisms often consume the beads, because they mistake them for food, which can then lead to the toxic beads entering the food chain where the effects on humans are not yet known. According to, a website created by The 5 Gyres Institute to raise awareness of the issue, a single product can contain thousands of microbeads, and they could constitute up to 10 percent by volume of a single product. Products that list polyethylene or polypropylene on the label contain microbeads. You can also download the Beat the Microbead app, which allows users to easily check if a product contains microbeads by scanning the product’s barcode.


Alternative Healing

Because of the environmental threat, many manufacturers have started using alternatives to plastic microbeads in their skincare products. “There is an array of fantastic natural and sustainable alternatives to plastic microbeads available today,” says Janae J. Muzzy, vice president of research and development at Epicuren Discovery. “Depending on the desired abrasiveness, such options include responsibly sourced jojoba spheres, coral, bamboo, stearic acid, and polyhydroxybutyrate, which is derived from the biofermentation of sugars. Finely honed seeds and nuts and pure sugar and salt are also wonderful natural alternatives.” Because natural scrubs can sometimes feature ingredients in shapes that are abrasive to the skin, Richard Lee, chemical engineer and product development manager at Dermaesthetics, recommends the company’s Natural Jojoba Cleansing Bead Scrub, which is made with hydrogenated jojoba oil. It takes the jojoba oil and solidifies it into perfectly round circular beads. When they’re massaged onto the skin, they dissolve as manipulated. “The benefit for this is that they’re all natural and not abrasive to the skin,” says Lee.

Similarly, Bioelements’s new Measured Micrograins+ is also formulated with environmentally friendly spherical jojoba beads to physically exfoliate the skin. “These natural beads can deliver controlled, direct exfoliation of the epidermis without harming lakes, rivers, or oceans,” says Teresa Stenzel, director of education at Bioelements. HydroPeptide also uses small spherical jojoba beads as an alternative to plastic microbeads in its Energizing Renewal Exfoliating Cleanser product. “Because they are perfectly round beads, they won’t cause micro-tears to the skin,” says Gardner. “Jojoba also provides healing and natural moisturizing benefits, resulting in a smoother and more radiant complexion.”

In addition to jojoba oil, other natural ingredients can also provide a healthy alternative to many of the skincare benefits that microbeads offer. “Instead of using plastic beads, consider other natural options like scrubs with ground-up seeds and stone pits from apricots and peaches, crushed walnut husks, oats, coffee grounds, salt, and sugar,” says Saian. “I especially recommend sugar for clients dealing with eczema, as it’s non-irritating on broken skin, and sea salt for psoriasis sufferers, but not more than once a week. All other scrubs can be used three times a week, but not more—our skin needs adequate time to amass dry dead cells, and you definitely don’t want to overexfoliate.” Pergar recommends using natural alternatives, such as almond granules, chickpea flour, corn granules, poppy seeds, rice starch, fine walnut, and silica, which are found in several Éminence Organic Skin Care products.

Knowledge is Power

Despite the serious harm microbeads present to the environment and the potential they have to harm the skin, many clients are still unaware of the issue. Because of this, it is critical for spa professionals and skincare manufacturers to educate clients on the environmental dangers of microbeads and present them with safer alternatives. Skincare companies can make clients aware of the issue by using social media to help them understand the negative effects that microbeads have on marine life and also market their products by promoting the alternative organic and biodegradable ingredients found in them. In addition, spa professionals can do their part to protect the future of the oceans and waterways by only purchasing and using products that contain natural exfoliants and biodegradable ingredients, educating clients on the importance of using non-microbead products during services, and encouraging them to browse and purchase natural alternatives in the retail area. Says Provance, “Educating clients is a vital endeavor for any skincare company that chooses to provide products that respect not only the immediate goals for more beautiful skin, but also the world we live in.”

Learn more about the natural and biodegradable alternatives to plastic microbeads found in these products.—Heather Mikesell


1. Amber Products Bamboo Scrub: This herbal-based exfoliating treatment combines finely ground bamboo with jojoba beads and micro-fine French talc. Calendula, cucumber, and rosemary provide a refreshing scent and help to tone skin.

2. Body Drench Raspberry Gelée Body Scrub: This all-over body scrub, featuring the sweet smell of raspberries, smoothes and polishes rough, dry skin with natural walnut-shell powder.

3. GiGi Slow Grow Body Scrub: Preparing skin for hair removal, papaya enzymes, gentle sugar granules, and salicylic acid help to exfoliate the skin.

4. HydroPeptide Exfoliating Cleanser: This formula cleanses with foaming peptides and a burst of citrus that energizes the skin, replenishes hydration, and enhances a healthy glow. Jojoba beads and buffered glycolic acid effectively exfoliate for a radiant complexion.

5. Ilike Organic Skin Care Ultra Sensitive System Exfoliating Mask: This herbal mask relies on cornmeal to remove excess dirt and oil. It also incorporates a blend of collagen-strengthening plants and antioxidant-rich grapeseed and yarrow for healthy-looking skin.

6. Jindilli Lime Blossom Body Scrub: Gently exfoliating the skin, this formula, scented with lime blossoms, features pure sugar stirred into a macadamia cream.

7. Mio Double Buff Dual Enzyme Exfoliator: Transforming dull skin, this double-action treatment uses perfectly rounded spheres of bamboo, lava, and pumice blended with papaya and pineapple enzymes to dissolve away any roughness.

8. Pevonia Gentle Exfoliating Cleanser: This refreshing formula polishes the skin with jojoba beads, removing dead skin cells and impurities. It leaves the skin’s texture cleansed, refined, and vibrant.

9. Rhonda Allison Brightening Scrub: Exfoliating  with jojoba beads, this scrub also relies on witch  hazel extract for its astringent properties and kojic  and l-ascorbic acids to brighten the skin.

10. Satin Smooth Exfoliating Foaming Facial Cleanser: Giving skin a long-lasting glow, this rich exfoliator is formulated with vitamin C and powerful cellulose microbeads, which are biodegradable.

11. Skinprint Exquisite Exfoliant: This natural papain exfoliator works to reveal brighter skin, leaving it feeling fresh and clean without irritation.

12. Suki Skincare Exfoliate Foaming Cleanser: This pure lemongrass-scented scrub exfoliates with round sugar crystals, which are gentle and non-irritating.