The U.S. Is One Step Closer to Banning Harmful Plastics From Your Face Wash

A bill passed by the House could see products containing microbeads off store shelves by 2018.
(Photo: YouTube)
Dec 9, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

UPDATED: The bill unanimously passed in the Senate on Dec. 18 and is now headed to the president’s desk.

The days of trying to decipher a lengthy list of ingredients for the telltale components of microbeads in your favorite soaps, toothpastes, and lip balm may soon be coming to an end.

On Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill known as the Microbead Free Waters Act, which would phase out the use of microbeads by 2018. Now the bipartisan legislation has been passed on to the Senate.

“These microbeads are tiny plastic, but make for big-time pollution,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., a cosponsor of the bill, in a statement.

While some dentists say the plastic beads can seriously damage the gums, microbeads are especially harmful once they’re rinsed from the mouth and washed down the drain. The beads are so small that they cannot be captured by most wastewater-management systems, so they find their way into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Along with the beads contributing to plastic pollution, marine life gobbles up the tiny spheres, which resemble fish eggs, and the plastic works its way up the food chain and onto dinner plates.

Figuring out which products contain microbeads can be difficult unless consumers know what they’re looking for on ingredient lists (typically polyethylene or polypropylene). The particles are key components in brands such as Aveeno, Crest, and Neutrogena and are used as exfoliants or just to give a product texture. One 5-ounce bottle of face scrub contains up to 2.8 million microbeads. Some 8 trillion microbeads enter U.S. aquatic habitats every day.

A handful of states have enacted their own legislation banning the plastic-containing personal items from store shelves. California approved one of the most stringent bills in September; it would phase out both synthetic and biodegradable microbeads by 2020. The federal law would see the beads phased out even sooner.

Companies would be required to cease manufacturing “rinse-off” personal care items with microbeads by July 2017, halting the sale of such items one year later. However, the federal legislation lists only synthetic plastic beads and does not specifically ban or allow biodegradable plastics. Environmentalists warn that allowing biodegradable plastics offers companies a loophole, as state laws do not list a mandatory timeline for the plastics to break down.

If the Microbead Free Waters Act is signed into law and follows the schedule listed in the bill, we’re looking at another 935 microbead-filled days to go, or 7.48 quadrillion microparticles released into American waterways over the next two and a half years.