Ever noticed the tiny little beads in hundreds of personal care products such as hand soaps, toothpaste and facial cleansers? Microbeads (less than 1 mm across) are made from a variety of plastics, including polyethylene, polypropylene, nylon and others.
What's the issue?
When we use these products with plastic microbeads, those beads wash down the drain, ending up in wastewater treatment systems. Depending on the type of wastewater treatment, some of the microbeads will be captured in sewage sludge, but some slip through our systems and into our rivers.
Why it's important
Like many emerging issues, we are not quite sure of the long-term effects of microbeads, but we do suspect that they will impact our aquatic ecosystems and human health.
Microbeads are about the size of fish eggs, so water creatures, fish and birds see them as food, apparently mistaking them for fish eggs. And if we eat the fish and birds, scientists suggest that those chemicals and the chemicals they may absorb could be passed on to us.
Few studies have yet been published on the occurrence of microplastics in freshwater organisms, but research is underway, especially in the Great Lakes. The University of Michigan is working on a project to assess the impact of microplastics on the Great Lakes' ecosystem health. A University of Wisconsin-Superior researcher is examining persistent organic chemicals related to microplastics and microbeads in Great Lakes fish.
What's being done
The best way to prevent harm from microbead plastics is to keep them out of our water in the first place.
Actions to phase out microbeads
Illinois became the first state to ban the manufacture and sale of products containing microbeads in June 2014. Legislation to phase out products containing the beads is pending in other states. Makers of personal care products, such as L'Oreal, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have announced phaseout plans.
From a consumer perspective, it is possible to avoid using personal care products that contain microbeads by reading the label. More natural, biodegradable alternatives to plastic microbeads are available and are already in use in consumer products. Consumers should look at labels. If they have polyethylene or polypropylene on the labels, that indicates there's plastic in them. Sometimes, right on the front of the labels it will say, "Microbeads."
However, labels can be confusing since there are a number of possible plastic ingredients (i.e., polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) or nylon). Furthermore, varying and unclear terminology is used on labels (e.g., “exfoliating microspheres”), some products contain natural agents in combination with plastic microbeads and are labeled as “natural,” and the microbead ingredient may not be conspicuous on the label.
The Beat the Microbead campaign produced an app that allows you to scan a product's barcode with your smartphone to determine whether it contains microbeads. The app will read the bar code and tell you—using color coding—whether microbeads are present in the product.
- Red: This product contains microbeads.
- Orange: This product still contains microbeads, but the manufacturer has indicated it will replace in a given timeframe or adapt the product accordingly.
- Green: This product is free from plastic microbeads.
Learn more: Microbeads: Beat the microbead campaign