Until recently, most of us used cosmetic products that contained tiny microbeads of plastic. They were those little particles that were supposed to exfoliate your skin or help you brush your teeth better. But the issue with them is that they were made out of plastic and that meant they polluted the ocean. That is why we stopped using them at one point. Now scientists are trying to create an alternative; they are developing biodegradable microbeads that are made of cellulose and not plastic.
This is very important, since plastic has become so prevalent in the ocean that it even reaches some of its most unwelcoming places. For example, people have reported that they found plastic in parts of the Arctic that is miles away from any place that humans inhabit. The plastics also bring with them other pollutants like PCBs and dioxins. They also become a regular part of the food chain killing numerous aquatic animals. Worryingly, people have even reported finding plastic in their beer.
The first state to ban plastic microbeads was Illinois in 2014. California was next when it banned them in 2015. Even President Obama declared a nationwide ban, but with clauses that allow their use in other products.
The biggest issue with the microbeads is that they are usually made from polyethylene and polypropylene to cut the costs of production. And these two compounds are derived from oil, which means that they can take hundreds of years to break down.
This is where the scientists come in with the cellulose-based microbeads. Even though microbeads made out of cellulose are not as smooth as plastic microbeads, the material itself is flexible enough to be made to resemble them. Cellulose is a tough sugar fiber and is so versatile that it has even been used to manufacture clothes. When trying to picture what cellulose is like, it is much easier to think of it as a pulp rather than the bark of a tree. Cellulose is what is left when you strip away all other parts of the tree’s structure.
To create these all-natural microbeads, scientists had to dissolve the cellulose and then, later on, mix it into ethanol. This process helped the microbeads become sturdy enough to be fashioned into microbeads.
Here is one tidbit for all the molecular gastronomy lovers out there: the process of mixing the cellulose into the ethanol is similar to the spherification process, which is used when making caviar. Although the process is similar, the end-product is not something you would want to eat. But it is something that you would want to scrub your face and body with.
There are two ways in which scientists were able to accomplish this. The first one is by using a syringe to create the microbeads out of the cellulose and ethanol mix. The other is to create membranes which can then be scaled up to create microbeads of various sizes as necessary.
And the scientists are deliberately trying to create these cellulose microbeads so that they perfectly mimic their plastic counterparts. One of the more common substitutes that have seen use lately is ground walnut hulls. The issue with them is that they are usually too rough and irregular in shape to be an adequate substitute. The good thing about the cellulose-based particles is that they exfoliate evenly and they do not break down inside of cosmetic products.
Finally, the most significant advantage of natural microbeads is the fact that they are easily degradable. And an added benefit is that there is a possibility that companies may use cellulose left over from paper production to make these microbeads, which will then make the entire process more cost-effective.