WHAT ARE MICROBEADS?

These little suckers are an incredibly insidious ingredient in facial cleansers, body scrubs and whitening toothpastes lining beauty aisles everywhere, perhaps even right here in Singapore. Essentially, these “brightening” beads function as an abrasive agent to slough off dirt and debris from our skin and pearly whites – but have since been found to confer a whole host of unintended harmful effects to us users and the environment at large.

WHY ARE THEY BAD FOR US?

Simple. These beads are more often than not made of so-called microplastics, which are essentially plastic in pellet form. This is when things get dicey. Keep in mind that most microbeads are too minuscule to be sieved out at traditional sewage plants. Translation? When you flush these non-biodegradable microplastics off your face and down your shower drain, they eventually end up in water the world over – and can stick around in the abyss for centuries.

That’s bad news unto itself, but it gets more dire. Studies have shown that microplastics are inherently “sticky” – good for grabbing onto dead skin cells, very bad for the environment. Non-degradable chemical compounds like DDT and PCBs piggyback on said “sticky” microplastics into the open oceans … and into the gaping maws of unsuspecting marine creatures.

When we polish off a plate of shrimp and scampi, the DDT and PCBs are passed down into our systems – which is very, very bad indeed. Why? These toxins been fingered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control & Prevention as causing cancer, brain damage and disruptive hormonal changes in humans.

Not into fish fingers? The stuff can also be found in your toothpaste, which dentists say may also be seriously grievous to your gums. “They’ll trap bacteria in the gums which leads to gingivitis, and over time that infection moves from the gum into the bone that holds your teeth, and that becomes periodontal disease,” Phoenix-based dentist Justin Phillip warns.

The body of evidence connecting microbeads to health hazards and plastic pollution may have reached a tipping point; just last December, US president Barack Obama signed into law the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, effectively banning microbeads in all cosmetic products starting January 1, 2018.

WHAT CAN YOU DO IN THE INTERIM?

All very reassuring indeed, but our faces can’t wait until 2018 for the next good pat-down. The solution is elegantly simple. For starters, opt for “natural” products the next time you’re perusing the pharmacy; zero in on ingredients like apricot husks, black sugar and honey to expel blackheads and debris.

Or concoct your own custom blend. Here’s an embarrassingly easy recipe I like: Whip up one part extra virgin olive oil to two parts brown sugar in a mixing bowl; slather on face; kick up your kitten heels and relax for five minutes; rinse off to reveal surpassingly supple skin.

Finally, be a beauty brainiac by doing your research and arming yourself with a comprehensive overview of the “good” and “bad” brands on the market. There’s a ton of advocacy groups and sites out there, so it’s really just a click and bookmark away to your virtual beauty manual.

I for one like browsing the Environmental Working Group’s searchable cosmetics database whenever I need an unbiased, blow-by-blow breakdown of a particular product’s ingredients. Another nifty source of info comes by way of an incredibly cool Apple- and Android-enabled app by the Plastic Soup Foundation. Scan the barcode with your smartphone’s camera and it’ll tell you if the product in question contains plastic microbeads.

Bottom line? Be conscious of what you’re scouring your face with, if only because you want to continue savouring your sashimi without wondering if you’re poisoning yourself in the process. Food for thought, eh!