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Are Your Beauty Products Secretly Polluting Water?

Microbeads are making their way into our water — and transporting harmful chemicals into our food.

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Exfoliators promise smoother skin, but some of them may also have sinister consequences.

Some beauty products contain plastic microbeads that are trickling into our water systems in multitudes, spurring several states to push for bans. Beads — most commonly polyethylene — can be smaller than a millimeter in diameter, making them too petite to be strained at wastewater treatment plants.

Just how many are in the dollop you use to wash your face? An ounce can have more than 150,000 plastic particles, a research team led by chemist Sherri Mason found. The highest count the lab extrapolated from a full bottle was 1.4 million particles.

If you only have a bar of soap in your beauty arsenal, you still might not be exempt from their omnipresence: They can lurk in your toothpaste, too.

Mason led the first survey of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes in conjunction with the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit that studies plastic pollution in waterways. The results have since spurred a handful of projects examining the slithering reach of microplastics.

The microscopic plastics are toxin magnets.

Plastic doesn't want to be in water, said Kirk Havens, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) researcher — and neither do water-fearing chemicals, like pollutants.

These pollutants are an acronym party: They can include polyaromatic hydrocarbons (or PAHs), which come from power plants and cars, or POPs (persistent organic pollutants) like DDT, a pesticide and endocrine disruptor.

So they do what any marooned compound would do: Cling to their ilk to escape their environment. "Once in the water, they don't want to be there, and then they see this plastic bead that is also hydrophobic, and it's basically like coming home," said Mason.

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If an organism ingests the plastic, toxins can desorb into its body and become part of it. And if we eat that animal — say, a fish — we could consume those harmful chemicals. Microbeads have already been observed in mussels, crabs, and whales.

Some chemicals have adverse effects on us: They can be cancer-linked carcinogens or mutate our DNA, or they can mess with our hormones, leading to an earlier onset of puberty in girls or lower sperm count in males, said Mason.

Microbeads are only a segment of the microplastic problem blanketing waterways.

Plastic waste costs the U.S. $13 billion a year in damage to marine ecosystems, according to a U.N. Environment Programme report.

And while Illinois and New York have passed microbead bans, the proposed timelines feel sluggish considering the tens of thousands of particles coming out of wastewater treatment plants every hour. Illinois' deadline to halt manufacturing, for example, isn't until 2019, and even then sales of products containing beads are allowed until 2020. Other states continue to push for legislation, including California, Michigan, and Oregon.

But the promises feel small as microbead product production continues to be in full bloom.

"It's pretty crazy, and to postpone the deadline for that — that's just allowing millions and millions of more particles to end up in our waterways," said Mason. "What I'm more concerned about is not the plastic itself, but the ability of plastics to move chemicals from the environment into us."

Part of the struggle is defining "biodegradable" in a marine environment where conditions vary from those in a controlled, reproducible environment, said Rob Hale, a VIMS professor and expert on marine toxic chemicals.

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It's hard to pinpoint the microbead boom, exactly.

Mason pointed to a patent in the 1970s, but microbeads weren't a common ingredient until the '90s when "exfoliate" became more of a buzzword, said Bryan Barron, co-author of The Original Beauty Bible and research director for Paula's Choice Skincare.

Ground walnut shells and apricot pits were common in scrubbing products. But for some users, the natural ingredients created little scratches in the skin called microfissures. To soften the abrasion, plastic was introduced.

But it's not the colorful spheres that you see suspended in beauty products that usually do the work. "They're mostly in there just because they look cool," said Mason. The primary exfoliators are the fragmented white and clear beads that are less visible.

So far only a handful of personal-care companies have phased scrub beads out, like Unilever, or publicly pledged to do so, like Johnson & Johnson. A lip scrub is the only Paula's Choice product that uses polyethylene beads, and it's currently being reformulated, said Barron.

So what should you do if you suspect your cosmetics have microbeads?

First, look for polyethylene, polypropylene, or acrylates copolymer (which are bursting beads) on the label.

If plastic is listed, the best thing to do is throw it out, said Mason. But if the prospect of it lingering in a landfill bothers your conscience, you can also donate it to her research lab so it can be used for science. Currently the team is investigating how fish feed on the beads.

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The good news: There are alternatives.

During a project to eliminate lost crab traps in Virginia's Chesapeake Bay, Havens and other researchers experimented with panels made of a bacteria-produced biopolymer called PHA, or polyhydroxyalkanoate. When left in the water, it biodegrades as bacteria consume the material, making it a viable substitute for plastic microbeads with little risk of attracting derelict visitors.

Companies like Metabolix already make PHA plastics, and San Francisco startup Mango Materials uses waste to coax bacteria to produce PHA granules. "It's like closing the whole waste loop," said Havens. "They're using methane from landfills to produce a biodegradable biopolymer."

Products that contain natural ingredients, like ground walnuts or fruit pits, are still very much around. "But you have to think about that, too, because those things don't naturally occur in the marine environment," said Havens, citing the trace amounts of cyanide that can be found in apricot seeds.

Barron suggests AHA/BHA exfoliants: "Either one, when well formulated, can go far beyond what a scrub does," he said. AHA ingredients, like glycol or lactic acids, can help moisturize dry or sun-damaged skin. He recommends BHA, a salicylic acid, for oily or breakout-prone skin.

Volcanic ash is super gentle on the skin, according to New York–based celebrity facialist Joanna Vargas, founder of Joanna Vargas Salon and Skincare Collection. She also suggests rice powder as an alternative.

Despite the red tape barbs, Mason remains optimistic of the bans' momentum. If more states propel them, it would lead to nationwide action. "We're the problem, but that also means that we're the solution," she said.

"Something as simple as changing what face wash you use can have a huge impact on the world."

We went to Target to see what's currently on shelves. Here's a sampling of five products that DO still have microbeads:

In a statement posted online, Johnson & Johnson said it has stopped developing new products containing polyethylene microbeads and has pledged to phase them out of its personal care products by 2017. A representative confirmed that the statement is still accurate.

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A representative from Procter & Gamble provided BuzzFeed with this statement:

"P&G has made the decision to discontinue our limited use of plastic microbeads as scrub materials in personal care products and is actively working to replace them with alternatives. In the meantime we already have plenty of product options available without microbeads for those who would prefer them. Our goal is to complete removal of microbeads from all of our products by 2017."

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For a more comprehensive international list, you can visit the 5 Gyres Institute’s beatthemicrobead.org.