Microbeads — those tiny plastic particles used in some cosmetics products — are officially on their way off the market. On Dec. 28, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 into law. Under the terms of the legislation, companies will be required to stop manufacturing products containing microbeads by July 1, 2017, with sales bans beginning in 2018 and 2019.

The bill quickly worked its way through the channels of the U.S. Government. It was introduced to the House in March and passed in December. One week later, the Senate passed it unanimously without making any changes. Lawmakers left no room for loopholes, specifically wording the language of the bill to define microbeads as “any solid plastic particle that is less than five millimeters in size and is intended to be used to exfoliate or cleanse the human body or any part thereof…”

Environmental Threat of Microbeads

Many popular cosmetics brands sell products that contain microbeads, including Clean & Clear, Neutrogena, Bliss, Clinique and Olay. These tiny little beads are placed in a variety of products — such as exfoliators, body wash, toothpaste, and facial cleansers — as a mild abrasive to remove dirt and grease. While they may be an effective beauty agent, they’re extremely harmful to the environment.

When microbeads are rinsed off the body, they go down the drain, and due to their small size, most glide straight through wastewater treatment plans and into local waterways. Instead of dissolving in rivers, oceans, and lakes, plastics just stay right where they are — sometimes even for decades.

Microbeads are non-toxic, but they attract harmful chemicals such as PCBs when they hit the water, which stick to their surface. As time goes on, these tiny plastic pieces continue to break off into even smaller fragments, polluting local bodies of water and killing marine life that mistakes them as food. These toxic chemicals are then ingested by fish and can ultimately be transmitted to humans who later eat impacted fish.

In a December 2015 interview with The New York Times, Sherri A. Mason, an environmental chemist at the State University of New York in Fredonia, estimated that 11 billion microbeads enter U.S. waterways on a daily basis. This new legislation won’t eliminate the more than eight million metric tons of plastic debris that enter the nation’s bodies of water each year, but it should have a positive impact.

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