Who would have ever guessed that washing your face would cause an environmental problem? Yet, according to a report on National Public Radio by Cheryl Corley, there are quite a few facial scrubs on the market that contain microbeads, which are made of plastic. To be more technical, they are made of polyethylene, or polypropylene.

It turns out that these tiny bits of plastic used in skin exfoliants and soaps can slip through most water treatment systems as waste water is cleansed. The water carries the microbeads to the next body of water, whether it is a river, lake, or ocean.

Scientists, such as Jennifer Caddick of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said that the microbeads are, “a bigger problem than we initially had thought.” They are finding that the microbeads are part of the plastic pollution found in the ocean, and increasingly, in the Great Lakes, which contain more than 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.

Sherri Mason, an associate professor of chemistry at the State University of New York, Fredonia, sailed with a research team over the past couple of years to collect data on the prevalence of plastics in the Great Lakes. They dragged a fine mesh net in the waters to snag, “anything that’s bigger than a third of a millimeter,” Mason stated.

One of the main problems with these microbeads is that for the most part they are round, and about the size of fish eggs. Obviously, most aquatic life that eats fish eggs is not going to be able to discern between the real beast and the beauty bead. The other problem is that the plastic beads (like all plastics) soak up toxins like a sponge, so the animals are ingesting higher levels of toxins and could be passing them on to people and other wildlife.

Now, both Illinois and New York state lawmakers are taking steps to ban microbeads from personal care products. “Obviously, protecting the lake is hugely fundamental, not just to my district, but to the whole system here in Chicago,” said Illinois state Senator Heather Steans, who represents a district along Chicago’s lakefront and supports the measure. “We’ve got an agreed-to bill now that will, in fact, ban the manufacture of these by 2017, and [ban] the distribution of them in the state by 2018,” Steans said.

In New York, if pending legislation is signed into law, manufacturers will have until December 2015 to phase out products with microbeads. There are bills in Minnesota, Ohio and California that are targeting microbeads, as well.

Steans said consumers should look at labels, "If they have polyethylene or polypropylene on the labels, that indicates there's plastic in them," she says. "Sometimes, right on the front of the labels it will say, "Microbeads." L'Oreal, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble have already announced that they are phasing out the use of microbeads and are testing alternatives like sand and apricot seeds. Mason suggested that if you like facial scrubs with microbeads, try one with a different abrasive like cocoa beans, “I’d much rather wash my face with chocolate than with plastic,” she said.

Reach Lynn Youngblood at TheGreenSpace@sbcglobal.net.