This fall, California passed a groundbreaking law banning the sale of personal care products that contain plastic microbeads, starting in 2020. This is just the latest in legislation that is sweeping the nation in hopes of helping to reduce plastic pollution in oceans and waterways. It’s an important trend that more and more spas will need to face as clients become savvier about this issue and insist on services and homecare products that comply with the law. It is a timely and important topic for the spa industry, as microbeads—which are found in cleansers, scrubs, soaps, toothpastes, and other skincare and personal care products—have been discovered to be a significant environmental issue. As a result, along with this most recent bill in California, the states of Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, and New Jersey have also enacted legislation to restrict the use of microbeads, and similar bills are pending in Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Microbeads, also known as polyethylene beads, are chemically synthesized thermoplastic polymers shaped into tiny spheres. In addition to often being a cost-effective ingredient, 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.
Still, the costs do seem to significantly outweigh the benefits, environmentally speaking. “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.
Because of this threat, many manufacturers have started using alternatives to plastic microbeads in their skincare products. “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,” says Janae J. Muzzy, vice president of research and development at Epicuren Discovery. Finely honed seeds and nuts and pure sugar and salt are also wonderful natural alternatives.” Dasha Saian, cofounder and vice president of Saian Natural Clinical Skincare, suggests other natural options, including scrubs with ground-up seeds and stone pits from apricots and peaches, crushed walnut husks, oats, coffee grounds, salt, and sugar. Pergar recommends using almond granules, chickpea flour, corn granules, poppy seeds, rice starch, fine walnut, and silica.
Though the news is spreading fast, many clients may still be unaware of the issue. As such, it is critical for spa professionals and skincare manufacturers to educate clients on the environmental dangers of microbeads and present them with safer alternatives. Plus, 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.”