Anna Cummins on Why You Need to Stop Using Your Microbead Scrub Now

Anna Cummins

Anna Cummins

Here at FTD, we’re celebrating Earth Day 2014 throughout the week, highlighting the people and brands in fashion and beauty who are working to better the environment through unique products, practices, materials and more.

Microbeads

Microbeads

We make it a point here to keep our finger on the pulse of fashion and beauty, and usually that comes in the form of reporting on the things that delight us. But sometimes that also means reporting on the things that shock us and mobilize us to make an immediate change. Case in point: microbeads.

So now for the beauty spoiler alert: the microbeads in your go-to scrub from some of your favorite beauty brands — you know the ones that make you feel like you really cleaned a few layers of grime off of your face? — they’re killing the environment. Why? Those tiny granules are actually non-biodegradable plastic particles, and they are immediately washed down the drain and sent right into our waterways where they are not only polluting them, but being ingested by fish and animals.

In fact, it’s becoming so problematic that several states, including California, Illinois and New York have are moving to phase out and ban products with microbeads in them. Several of the beauty manufacturing behemoths, such as Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal and Unilever have already announced plans to phase out products containing them and replace them with organic, biodegradable materials instead.

Some say not soon enough.

But for environmental activist Anna Cummins from The 5 Gyres Institute, one of the biggest forces behind the push to remove these toxic materials, every bit of legislation is a victory.  (According to the institute, one package of facial scrub can contain over 350,000 beads.) We had the good fortune of a chance meeting with Cummins, so we took some time to sit down with her and educate ourselves and our readers, whom we know care deeply about the environment.

Anna Cummins

Anna Cummins

Fashion Trends Daily: Firstly, your organization is called The 5 Gyres – what’s a gyre?

Anna Cummins: A gyre is a natural system of prevailing winds and currents that create these massive vortexes in our oceans, out of sight of everyday people. In these gyres, all the plastics that float and wind up in our oceans through accidental litter and storm drains, rivers, cruise ships and ocean liners become these massive oceanic garbage patches – there’s one in the Pacific the size of Texas. The plastic never disappears, it breaks down into tiny pieces which are eaten by marine animals. They choke on it, get entangled in it or ingest it and it gets into the food chain and is ultimately eaten by humans.

FTD: That’s so horrific. How did you end up involved in fighting this?

AC: When I heard about the Pacific garbage patch I was so stunned and haunted that I volunteered as crew on a research ship. We found that every single one of the birds we studied had plastic in their stomachs. My husband Marcus Eriksen and I co-founded this organization the 5 Gyres institute in 2009 to bring awareness to the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans.

FTD: So why are our beauty products such a huge problem?

AC: In 2012 we started to do research in the Great Lakes. To our surprise we found high levels of these tiny plastic beads that we traced to microbeads used in exfoliating products. Many of us – women and men – use facial scrubs and body exfoliants with these little plastic microbeads in them.

Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen

Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen

FTD: Why are microbeads such a big deal compared to other plastics out there?

AC: Unlike plastic packaging, they’re not designed to go into our recycling or our trash, they’re designed to go directly from our faces and bodies down the drain and out into our waste water systems. They’re so tiny they’re difficult to filter out and from there they get into our fresh water and the ocean. You then can’t really remove them from the ocean or lakes because they’re too small to collect. They’re also easily mistaken for food by many marine animals. Even worse, they attract chemicals, like PCPs, oil and pesticides. Those chemicals will stick to plastic so the animal ingests those pieces of plastic which are now little plastic poison pills. This is an invisible poison out there that eventually comes back to us.

FTD: No more plastic poison pills. What should we use instead?

AC: Look for natural alternatives and choose products that use sugar, apricot kernels, walnuts, sugar and so on. If you look on a product package and it says “exfoliant” or “microbeads” and the ingredients contain polyethylene or polypropylene, don’t buy it – that’s plastic.

FTD: What about other stuff to avoid in our beauty regimen?

AC: When you’re reading labels, if you can’t read it, avoid it altogether. The best thing to do is go to a website called Skin Deep (ewg.org/skindeep). It’s a massive database compiled by the Environmental Working Group that rates products’ environmental impact. They look at not just plastic but also chemicals that might be dangerous for you.

To help the 5 Gyres Institute campaign against the use of microbeads and other plastics, go to www.5gyres.org.

Shop our favorite, microbead-free scrubs:

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