Product story

Engineering a natural alternative to plastic beads in cosmetic products

The mineral perlite is an effective replacement for microbeads in scrubs and shower gels – not only for its exfoliating performance, but for reducing plastic pollution in oceans.

Cosmetic product squeezed onto the palm

The mineral perlite is an effective replacement for microbeads in scrubs and shower gels – not only for its exfoliating performance, but for reducing plastic pollution in oceans.

If you had a shower this morning and used a body wash or exfoliating scrub that contains microbeads, you flushed around 100,000 tiny plastic particles down the drain and into the sewer.

In cosmetic products, these plastic beads are designed to remove dead skin cells. But their size – less than a millimetre in diameter – means they pass through water treatment filters and end up in our rivers, seas and oceans.

This pollution is having a devastating impact on marine life, as the plastic never fully decomposes. These polyethylene particles have been observed in the stomachs of fish, which has an impact further up the food chain – to larger fish and in food consumed by humans.

The global body scrub market is fast-growing – it is expected to reach almost $19 billion by 2025 – so human desire for healthier-looking skin will come at a huge environmental cost if the industry does not act responsibly and quickly.

A change in strategy and legislation on microbeads

Many cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies that make personal care products have been looking for natural, safer alternatives.

Marjorie Salot, Technical Support Manager for ImerCare®, Imerys’ range of engineered minerals for the Cosmetics & personal care market, says: “Over the past few years, the market has made it clear it is changing its point of view on plastic beads in scrubs. They have realised their products do a good job as far as human hygiene is concerned, but they perhaps haven’t always been as good at addressing their impact on the environment.”

Consumers are also holding brands to account and calling for greater transparency over what goes in the products they buy and where the ingredients come from.

“Consumers are doing their research”, says Marjorie. “They’ll read the product labels and if they see it contains plastic beads, many will choose not to buy it. Consumers favour products that have a natural source.”

Regulation is, thankfully, driving the change, with California leading the charge. Its 2015 legislation*, which came into effect on 1 January 2020, prohibits the sale or offer for promotional purposes in the state of California of "a personal care product containing plastic microbeads that are used to exfoliate or cleanse in a rinse-off product”. Other regions and countries around the world have followed suit with their own production bans.

Perlite: a natural alternative

Extensive research and development into alternative ingredients has identified several minerals that deliver the same or even better scrub performance and help protect marine life.

Imerys introduced perlite as a 100% natural replacement for plastic beads. Its P-Scrub range is made from engineered perlite, derived from volcanic rock, for use in face, body and foot scrubs. No chemical ingredients are used in this process.

“Although perlite is not biodegradable, a rock, by definition, is inert,” says Marjorie. “It is hard to include a biodegradable ingredient in a product like a cosmetic scrub, which, due to regulation, needs to have a three-year shelf life. A biodegradable product would not likely perform as well after three years. As a 100% mineral product, perlite will remain stable.”

Specially engineered to be safe, spherical and smooth

From its dedicated plant in Rubí, Spain, Imerys uses a patented mechanical heat treatment process that gives the perlite its spherical shape and also kills all bacteria.

Expanded perlite and crashed perlite
Expanded perlite and crushed perlite

Aside from the environmental benefits, perlite offers superior cosmetic performance. Unlike other mineral alternatives for plastic beads, such as silica or sand, perlite can replicate the smooth feel of round plastic beads as it rolls on the skin.

“If you look at sand grains you’d find on the beach, you will see that they are not spherical,” explains Marjorie. “Both sand and silica are sharp in texture. Apricot seeds are also used in scrubs and wraps, but they leave small, angular particles when crushed.”

One customer of Imerys’ perlite ImerCare® 400P-Scrub says: “We were looking for an exfoliant of mineral and volcanic origin – something good for the environment – that would work in one of our products that also contains spirulina, blue-green algae from freshwater ponds and lakes. The perlite and spirulina combine wonderfully. We have a 100% pure and natural product, with fine beads that provide gentle exfoliation.”


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