There’s Plastic on Your Face… and it’s Washing Down the Drain

Many body care products use plastic microbeads as exfoliators. These microbeads are so small that they can easily slip through water treatment systems and end up in our waterways. Here’s what you can do to help.

The 5 Gyres Institute opens in a new tab conducts research and communicates about the global impact of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Lia Colabello, who heads development and community engagement of 5 Gyres, shares more about their mission in this blog post.


Every morning, millions of people unwittingly flush billions of tiny, plastic beads down the drain and into our water systems. How? Simply by washing their face!

Many facial cleansers, scrubs, peels and body washes use plastic microbeads to exfoliate the old skin and bring on the new, more youthful “you.” Looking good is a good thing, so what’s the problem?

Microbeads Label

Well, it’s not such a good thing for the fish and other aquatic life in our lakes, rivers and oceans. It turns out that these microbeads are so small that they can easily slip through water treatment systems and end up in our waterways.Once in the environment, plastics act similar to sponges, soaking up toxins like petroleum hydrocarbons, PCBs and pesticides, which can pass into the tissues of fish and other marine animals that ingest plastic particles. Then all of this has the potential to enter the human food chain if we end up eating those fish.

The good news is that the exfoliating benefit of plastic microbeads can easily be replaced by natural ingredients such as lemon peel granules, cocoa bean, sea kelp or jojoba beads.

Whole Foods Market doesn’t carry microbead-containing products and, in fact, has listed microbeads as unacceptable for their internal Quality Standards opens in a new tab — once again confirming their position as a leader when it comes to body care standards.

If you want to assess your current body care products for microbeads, check the ingredients panel for polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate or nylon.

The 5 Gyres Institute discovered high numbers of microbeads in the Great Lakes and leveraged these scientific findings to engage communities in a grassroots campaign to demand that producers eliminate their use. 5 Gyres appreciates the support of several Whole Foods Market vendors, including:

  • ACURE Organics — donating 1% of all sales of their Brightening Facial Scrub to 5 Gyres.

  • Klean Kanteen — set up a 1:1 matching donation fund at Indiegogo opens in a new tab through July 28. Double your donation when supporting 5 Gyres.

See how important it is to Beat the Microbead opens in a new tab.

At 5 Gyres, we’re working toward a planet free of plastic pollution. Find out what you can do to help opens in a new tab.

Note: A Gyre is a naturally occurring vortex of wind and currents that create a whirlpool effect. The vortex moves more slowly at the center and that is where marine plastic debris collects. There are 5 major Gyres in our oceans, all of which are believed to contain plastic and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). 

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