The Scary Reason Illinois Just Banned Your Face Wash

Sure, microbeads in soap and other personal care products make your skin smoother, but they’re pure environmental evil.

Face and skin cleanser is offered for sale at a Walgreens store on Sept. 19, 2013, in Wheeling, Ill. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Jun 10, 2014
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Would you voluntarily rinse microscopic synthetic plastic balls down the drain? If you use cosmetics that contain microbeads, that’s what’s happening every time you lather up. A single container of face wash can contain hundreds of thousands of the spheres—which, like every other object made from plastic, aren’t biodegradable.

Imagine a gazillion tiny plastic balls floating through the world’s streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans, adding to the already insane amount of plastic in the water. Scared? You should be. In the future it might be impossible to find water without them. No wonder folks in the Land of Lincoln have had enough of the balls. Illinois, which is adjacent to one of the largest freshwater bodies of water in the world, Lake Michigan, has become the first state in the nation to issue a ban on the manufacture and sale of personal care products containing microbeads.

S.B. 2727, which was sponsored by state Sen. Heather Steans and state Rep. Jaime Andrade Jr., mandates the removal of synthetic microbeads from all face and body wash, toothpaste, and other personal care products.

Over the past decade, face washes and other skin care products have become laden with the beads. Manufacturers tout the balls’ ability to slough away dead skin and, in a direct appeal to our vanity, reveal a youthful-looking appearance. (An exfoliating paste made of baking soda doesn’t make cosmetics companies much money, you see.) The balls are too small to be filtered by waste treatment plants, so they’re poisoning our water and being ingested by marine life. That means they have to go.

“Banning microbeads will help ensure clean waters across Illinois and set an example for our nation to follow,” Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said in a statement. “Lake Michigan and the many rivers and lakes across our state are among our most important natural resources. We must do everything necessary to safeguard them.”

Pressure is mounting on personal care manufacturers to reduce the negative impact of their products on the lakes and the surrounding environment. In May Minnesota banned the antibacterial chemical triclosan, which has been shown to create a hormonal imbalance in animals that ingest it through drinking water.

New York may soon follow Illinois’ lead in banning microbeads. But the Empire State may see the removal of the balls first. That’s because the Midwestern state is giving companies plenty of time to get rid of the plastic spheres. Manufacturers have until the end of 2018 to stop making products with microbeads and until the end of 2019 to stop selling them in the Illinois. That’s a long time—and potentially millions more of the beads poisoning the Great Lakes.

Cosmetics giants Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson have all agreed to start phasing out microbeads. For the sake of the environment, let’s hope they speed up their time line.

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