Face scrub micro-beads are choking the Great Lakes


When disposable contacts were first released I said it seemed like they would just contribute to pollution at an even greater rate than regular contacts. Several people said to me, “Come on, contacts are so tiny.” I pointed out that they individual contacts are tiny, but add up all the people buying contacts they’d wear once then throw away every single day and they become a big problem.

I never thought about the pollution potential of micro-beads. Then again it sounds like no one else did either.

I was only able to read the abstract because I didn’t want to pay to read the paper. It said that 20% of the particles were aluminum silicate from coal burning and the remainder were believed to be from cosmetic products. I would love to see further analysis to confirm or disprove this origin. In order to know if this is a problem or not one needs to know how long these particles last in the natural environment and what, if any, are the harmful effects from them.

In the abstract, was there mention of their sampling point in Lake Erie? Between Detroit, Port Huron, Sarnia, Windsor and DTE’s coal burning power plants in the NE corner of Ohio, I could easily imagine 20% coming from coal burning/oil refining.

I would also like to know if there is really any purpose to micro-beads in cosmetics, because it seems like wasteful (and potentially toxic) gimmickry.

Oh, it’s awfully heartwarming of some cosmetics companies to decide to “phase out” microbeads now that they’ve discovered they were harmful. That seems awfully fair, I’m sure other industries would love to follow the model. Discover e. coli contamination in beef? We’ll start phasing out the use of the contaminated beef. Poorly made Baby-walkers killing kids? No worries, we’ll be phasing out that model.


It’s for exfoliation. But the plastic beads certainly aren’t needed. I’ve seen body scrubs made with bits of nut shells or sugar. Which is why I don’t understand why people don’t just sprinkle a bit of sugar in regular body gel. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just a bit abrasive (coffee grinds work well too).

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I’m not sure why the ‘aquatic ecosystem’ is being so whiny about a gentle, but vigorous, exfoliation that will leave its skin looking and feeling its best, all day long… People pay for that sort of thing, you know.


Facial scrubs are household waste water, which is supposed to be processed through a treatment plant before being dumped anywhere. So the real story is not that facial scrubs contain micro-beads, but that some cities are failing to treat their waste water properly. Blame the cities, not the soap factories.

I’ve been reading Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, And it reads like a horror novel. It’s not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with using plastic, it’s the single use philosophy that plastic’s low cost empowers.

There are some instances of overt failure-to-treat; but most historical wastewater infrastructure (and some current) is biased heavily toward some flocculation and settling to get the solids, along with the appropriate conditions to encourage decomposition of biological material, and a shift in the microbial balance toward the non-pathogenic decomposers and away from parasites and pathogens.

Unless you are willing to get out the checkbook, in a serious way, “treatment plant” doesn’t imply some sort of broad-spectrum filtration, unless specially fitted for chemical plant wastewater or the like. It’s mostly about solving the old ‘drinking your own shit makes you sick’ problem. That’s a major part of the concern about ‘unconventional’ waste (certain plastics, pharmaceuticals and metabolites, heavy metals and persistent toxins, that sort of thing) that largely survive conventional processing unchanged.


Wow, I guess I never thought about it. I just assumed that these scrubs were made with something like ground pumice like in lava soap. I never really paid enough attention to realize they were plastic. I think a lot of people just plain haven’t noticed exactly what the grit is.

I find this headline very difficult to believe that quantities of facial scrubs (which are not used by every person) are ‘choking’ the great lakes.

They’re plastic, they last forever. Consider this; ever plastic straw, toy and toothbrush you’ve ever used is still out there being plastic.

Because you need to actually see a choking fish? Perhaps you don’t want to do anything because it’s not polluted enough for you to believe in? Here’s a concept, let’s err on the side of caution.

Well, strictly speaking, UV breakdown causes them to break into smaller bits, the kind that are easier for filter feeders at the bottom of the food chain to handle…


Because government, especially local government, should happily clean up whatever the soap factories want to put into their product.


It may be fair to say the lakes are not really choked here. The average particle count from the article is 0.043 per m2, up to 0.466 in some samples. How bad that is depends on how dangerous they are - what compounds they might leach, how they affect filter feeders and travel up food chains, and so on. But microplastics haven’t been common that long, and since they seem to persist a long time, this at least shows their current use can be expected to give choked lakes.


Good point. Be sure to check the ingredients label–it should indicate the solids being used for the scrubber.

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