• 01.04.16

Why Congress Just Banned A Common–But Dangerous–Bath Product Ingredient

The microbeads in exfoliating soaps are a scourge to waterways, and politicians actually decided to do something about it.

Why Congress Just Banned A Common–But Dangerous–Bath Product Ingredient
[Top Photo: Monica Rodriguez/Getty Images]

Those gently exfoliating soaps on your bathroom shelf will soon be harder to find in stores. Congress and President Obama recently came together in rare bipartisan legislation to ban the tiny artificial plastic beads that the companies claim will give your skin that healthy glow or help shine your teeth.


Scientists and environmental campaigners have been calling out the dangers of microbeads for the last few years. Once the spheres are washed down the drain they often end up in lakes, oceans, and waterways, floating around and collecting toxins on their surface that birds and seafood can ingest. They can also end up in fertilizers used on farm fields. Researchers recently estimated that roughly 800 trillion microbeads are discharged into waterways or collected in sewage sludge each day in the U.S. A single bottle of face wash may contain 1.4 million particles alone.

A number of states had already started to pass legislation banning microbeads, and Canada had already passed a ban last July. Now the U.S. federal ban requires that companies phase them out by 2017.

Today, microbeads can be found in hundreds of products, such as toothpaste, lotions, or shower gel. But even prior to the bans, major companies like Unilever and Johnson & Johnson had been working to phase them out, perhaps seeing mandatory requirements coming. Some may turn to natural alternatives, such as apricot shells, and biodegradable bioplastics may also be another option.

Want to make sure products you use don’t contain plastic microbeads? See that it doesn’t list polyethylene, polypropylene, or acrylates copolymer on the ingredients label. If you want to make extra sure, just make your own DIY scrubs.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.