The tiny plastic particles found in many facial cleansers and soaps promise a gentle scrubbing and luxuriously smooth skin.
But those little beads of grit are also piling up in waterways, where they can suck up toxins and harm wildlife, environmentalists say. Because of those concerns, Illinois is one of several states considering legislation to force manufacturers to drop products that use the particles, called microbeads.
A measure advancing through the General Assembly in Springfield this spring would phase out the sale of microbeads by the end of 2018. Major soap manufacturers, some of which already have plans to stop using microbeads, support the legislation. An environmental group working to reduce plastic pollution says, however, that the state’s timetable is too lax.
“Illinois is putting the environment at a much greater a risk because it has a very non-aggressive timeline for phase-out,” said Stiv Wilson, associate director of the 5 Gyres Institute.
At least four other states are considering similar bills, and at least one, New York, has an earlier deadline — 2016 —for eliminating the microbeads.
The particles, some the size of a grain of sand, are deemed safe for human use and are present in a long list of products including Clinique Exfoliating Scrub; Kiehl’s Facial Fuel-Energizing Scrub-Skin buffer for Men; and Clean & Clear Blackhead Eraser Scrub-Oil Free, according to the 5 Gyres Institute.
A single tube of face wash can contain more than 350,000 of the beads, according to the organization.
The particles become a problem because they are non-biodegradable, and are so small they slip through sewage system filters and end up in rivers and lakes. Preliminary studies in Lake Michigan have found millions of the microbeads. The particles can absorb toxic chemicals already commonly found in such waterways, posing a hazard to fish and other wildlife who mistake them for food or otherwise absorb them.
Microbeads also have the potential to pollute soil if particles running through water treatment get into sewage sludge, which often is used as fertilizer, Wilson said.
The Illinois measure wouldn’t prohibit the manufacture of products with the plastic bits in Illinois until Dec. 31, 2017. The sale of such products would be prohibited as of Dec. 31, 2018.
The bill looks on its way to passage. Last week, the state Senate passed the bill, sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, without opposition. The measure is expected to go before the Illinois House this spring and gain approval, said Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, a sponsor of the measure in the House. Gov. Quinn, whose signature would make it law, supports the bill, his office said.
Cosmetic companies say the Illinois law would be fair and offers sufficient time to make changes to their cleansers and toothpastes.
“We believe that the 2017 deadline is one that we can meet with little marketplace disruptions for consumers,” said Lisa Powers, spokeswoman for the Personal Care Products Council, which represents more than 600 companies nationwide.
While waiting more than four years before the ban on sales takes effect irks some environmentalists, industry representatives counter that the process of switching to alternative materials is time-consuming and complicated. Such shifts involve substance testing, clinical studies, customer surveys and product redesign.
Industry giants Johnson & Johnson, Unilever and L’Oreal, already have information on their websites explaining their plans for gradually eliminating the scrub beads from their products and testing for natural alternative, like ground seeds or nuts.
Officials at Johnson & Johnson said in a statement that it’s mostly their face washes and acne treatment products that contain the microbeads and that they are working with suppliers to develop new personal care exfoliants.
Some of the companies are actually beating Illinois to the punch. Unilever says on its website that it plans to complete its phase out microbeads globally by 2015.
One of the reasons the microbeads are so prevalent is that they are considered gentle enough for daily use. Natural exfoliants are grainier and are usually recommended for less frequent scrubbing.
Wilson said that’s another factor leading industry to want to keep them around as long as possible – more washings means more sales.
“They’re (personal care product companies) seeing the writing on the wall that they can’t continue this business practice. What they’re fighting for is to be able to continue this business practice as long as possible,” Wilson said.
Powers could not give an estimate of the cost implications of phasing out the microbeads.
Until the products are off the shelves, consumers who don’t wish to use products with the plastic bits should watch for out for products that list polyethylene and polypropylene in their ingredient lists, according to the Alliance for the Great Lakes, an advocate for protection of the Great Lakes.