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Why Use Microbeads When The Alternatives Are Better?

02/20/2014 08:03 am ET | Updated Feb 20, 2014
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Until recently, most people didn't even know what microbeads were, let alone how ubiquitous they've become in many of our exfoliators. These tiny rounds of plastic, which are 5 millimeters or smaller in diameter, are put into mass-market skincare products to exfoliate skin. Yes, they're cheap and, yes, they work -- but new research shows that they're polluting our Great Lakes.

Last week, New York state officials announced the Microbead-Free Waters Act that, if passed, will ban microbeads. Naturally, after all of the buzz, we were left wondering what this means for our skin: Why exactly have we been using these exfoliating pellets in the first place? And what are the alternatives to microbeads? To answer these questions for us, we enlisted the expertise of New York-based dermatologists Dr. Bobby Buka and Dr. Debra Jaliman, author of "Skin Rules."

Why We've Been Using Microbeads

Microbeads give a gritty quality to cleansers and washes, so they enable you to get some traction on the top layer of skin, also known as the stratum corneum, to slough off dirt and grease. "I think everybody loves a little bit of abrasiveness to their facial cleansers," Dr. Buka says. "It helps take off makeup; it helps take off impurities from the toxins of a city day." But both Dr. Buka and Dr. Jaliman agree that many of us who exfoliate regularly have no idea that microbeads are in our products.

Generally, products containing microbeads are cheaper to produce, which is why skincare companies began using them in the first place. "Do I think there's any Illuminati conspiracy to use microbeads? No," says Dr. Buka. "I think mass-production companies that were trying to get a lot of products out there fast thought this would be a quick and easy way to get that exfoliant quality into their products."

The problem is that most people don't check ingredients, says Dr. Jaliman, and many simply aren't educated about the environmental effects of using microbeads. Plus, plastic is inert, meaning it's not chemically reactive -- so your skin's not going to be sensitive to these tiny plastic pellets, which aren't even big enough to penetrate skin. In fact, there's really no toxic reason you'd want to avoid microbeads, apart from the recently discovered detrimental effects on the environment. "But that’s certainly reason enough not to use them," Dr. Buka says.

Why The Alternatives Are Even Better

But fear not, exfoliant lovers -- you shouldn't feel the loss of microbeads one bit. There are plenty of great, biodegradable alternatives out there that will exfoliate your skin, including rice, apricot seeds, walnut shells, powdered pecan shells, bamboo, among others.

Are they just as effective? "100 percent," says Dr. Buka. "In fact, microbeads are typically rounded on their edges. So some of these holistic products, because they've got some texture to their edges, should serve as an even better exfoliant." They're also going to be much gentler on the skin, Dr. Jaliman adds.

Some products Dr. Jaliman recommends are St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Scrub and Dermalogica's Microfoliant, a rice-based exfoliant ("it's amazing"), and she also likes exfoliators with glycolic and salicylic acid. Dr. Buka was involved in the making of First Aid Beauty's holistic exfoliator, the Facial Radiance Polish, which uses shea nut shell powder and willow bark extract to polish skin.

The shift away from microbeads should be one that's easy to make when you have such great alternatives. "I can’t imagine anyone would say to a dermatologist, 'I'm addicted to my microbead products,'" says Dr. Jaliman. "These products with microbeads just aren't so great." The only people who will have a tough time adjusting are the companies producing products with microbeads, says Dr. Buka. "I think it's going to be hardest for the accountants trying to balance the books for Johnson & Johnson," he says. "Because now they're going to have to spend more money on holistic botanical agents to give that same exfoliant quality to their facial wash."

Luckily, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, The Body Shop, L'Oreal, Colgate-Palmolive and more companies have already started phasing out microbeads in an effort to eliminate their use by 2015. So now you'll have even more options.

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