Microbeads in personal care products

Countless tiny plastic beads in face and body scrubs, and even toothpaste, are polluting our oceans.

Spot the bead

Microbeads were once a desired inclusion in personal care products, proudly touted on the packaging for their cleansing and polishing properties. But now they're known as a major pollutant of oceans and waterways, and any mention of their presence is usually buried in the fine-print list of ingredients on the back of the product. 

Some countries and companies have banned the use of microbeads in cosmetic products, but there are many who haven't. We show you how to spot if microbeads are in your personal care products.

In this article:

What are microbeads?

Microbeads range in size from roughly 5μm to 1mm, and are made from synthetic polymers including polyethylene, polylactic acid (PLA), polypropylene, polystyrene, or polyethylene terephthalate.

Often found in toothpaste and body and facial washes, microbeads are used as bulking agents or abrasives. The tiny particles are unlikely to be captured by conventional wastewater treatment plants and many of them end up in rivers and oceans.

Each time a person uses a facial or body wash containing microbeads, up to 94,000 miniscule beads can be flushed down the drain, according to research from Plymouth University, UK.

In fact, a 150mL tube of facial scrub can contain as many as 2.8 million beads. Researchers estimate that from the UK alone, this could result in up to 80 tonnes of microplastic waste entering the sea every year.

Microplastics in the environment

The world is slowly waking up to the extent of plastic pollution accumulating in our oceans and rivers. Disturbing images of whales entangled in ropes and turtles choking on plastic bags are only one side of the picture – microplastics are the other.

The millions of tiny manufactured microbeads in body wash, scrubs and toothpaste are just one source of microplastics that end up in the ocean. Other culprits are fibres that are shed from synthetic fishing nets and clothes (see below), and the fragmentation of larger plastic pollution.

The minuscule microplastics don't always float atop the sea, but often sink to the ocean floor and into the sediment. Scientists are finding microplastics almost everywhere they look for them in oceans and lakes, and their impact on marine life and our food chain is being studied.

Looking for the best electric toothbrush? We review models from Oral-B, Colgate and Philips in our electric toothbrush reviews.

Microfibres in synthetic clothes

One cycle of a 6kg load of acrylic clothing or textiles (such as yoga pants, fleece jackets, acrylic onesies, running shorts and microfibre cleaning cloths) in a washing machine could result in over 700,000 plastic microfilaments being shed, according to another study at Plymouth University.

All clothing items – including cotton and wool – shed microfibres when washed, but the natural fibres biodegrade. Synthetic particles are resistant to degradation, are slow to break down and are capable of adsorbing toxins.

Ecologist Mark Browne from University College Dublin studied sediment along shorelines around the world and found synthetic microfibres everywhere, but in greatest concentrations near sewage outflows. He calculated that these fibres account for 85% of the human-made material on the shoreline.

The Plymouth University research team compared the shedding of microfibres from different fabrics. Acrylic was shown to be the worst offender, releasing nearly 730,000 tiny filaments in just one wash – almost one and a half times more than polyester and five times more than polyester-cotton blend.

Are microplastics harmful to marine life?

There's much conjecture about what effect microplastic pollution is having on sea life, but it is known that a range of toxic chemicals, including persistent organic pollutants (POPs), bond with plastic in waterways, particularly in the ocean. Microbeads are especially prone to this bonding due to their composition and relatively large surface area. It is also known that microplastics are ingested by marine creatures.

Professor Richard Thompson of Plymouth University has been studying the effects of litter in the marine environment for over 20 years.

"There is considerable concern about the accumulation of microplastics in the environment," Thompson says. "Our previous work has shown microplastics can be ingested by fish and shellfish and there is evidence from laboratory studies of adverse effects on marine organisms."

A study from the University of Exeter found that some zooplankton (tiny creatures that form a critical element of the marine food web) consume microplastics and this interferes with the animal's feeding habits, which adversely affects their ability to reproduce.

Another study at the same university showed that microplastics can enter the gills of crabs and remain there. It was suggested that the same could apply for crustaceans, molluscs and any animal with gills.

Lead author of the study, Dr Andrew Watts from the University of Exeter, says, "This is highly important from an ecological point of view; if these plastics are retained longer within the animal there is more chance of them being passed up the food chain."

Are microbeads in Australian waters?

Here in Australia, a study from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania found widespread microplastic pollution in ocean sediments off Australia's south-east coast.

More than 40 sites from Sydney to Adelaide were studied, including Sydney Harbour, Jervis Bay, Eden, Port Philip Bay, Port Adelaide and the coast south of Adelaide, as well as Hobart's Derwent Estuary and Tasmania's east coast.

The researchers had expected to find high levels of microplastics around major cities but were surprised to instead find them in high concentrations across the board.

Dr Scott Ling from the University of Tasmania tells CHOICE, "Microplastics were ubiquitous across all 42 sites spanning coasts around Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and Hobart."

How do I know if microbeads are in my products?

Microbeads can be found in some facial scrubs, toothpaste and body wash, but they may also be in lipstick, eyeliner, sunscreen, deodorant, nail polish and other care products.

Microbeads are commonly made from the following substances, so look for these ingredients on the back of the product:

  • Polyethylene (PE)
  • Polypropylene (PP)
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  • Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
  • Nylon (PA)

Neutrogena - highlighted Polyethylene_opt

What if there are no ingredients listed?

All cosmetic products have to list their ingredients but, if the product is listed with the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods as a therapeutic product, they only need to list the active ingredients and their percentages, plus any potential allergens or other ingredients that may affect some people.

Toothpastes are cosmetics but if they want to make therapeutic claims, they have to be listed as a therapeutic good with the TGA. As such, some brands do not list all of their ingredients.

If this is the case, you can ring the manufacturer directly to ask if there are any microplastics in the product.

A few years ago, some players in the cosmetics industry began to voluntarily phase out microplastics. But there are loopholes created by a narrow definition of the plastics as polyethylene. Some of the public commitments are specifically limited to polyethylene microbeads in personal care products.

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Banning microbeads in Australia

The US has banned the use of microbeads from July 2017, but Australia is relying upon a voluntary phase-out by industry. A spokesperson from the Department of Environment and Energy tells CHOICE:

"It was determined that 80% of companies identified as supplying products containing plastic microbeads have already phased out or have committed to phasing out microbeads.

"Ministers reasserted their position that if the current industry-led approach does not effectively phase out microbeads by mid-2018, governments will move to implement a ban."

Coles has stopped selling any cosmetics with microbeads and Woolworths has stopped selling microbeads in their own products. Aldi will phase out microbeads from its products by the end of 2017. Unilever, L'Oreal Australia, The Body Shop, Beiersdorf, Clarins, Clearasil and Ella Bache have agreed to the voluntary phase-out.

How you can help

  • Beat the Microbead is a collaborative campaign supported by more than 90 NGOs from 38 countries. Visit their website for a database of products that contain microplastic for a number of countries, including Australia. It's not exhaustive but it's a good place to search for the product you're interested in. You can also get the Beat the Microbead app for your smartphone from iTunes or Google Store – use it to scan a product's barcode to find out if it contains microbeads.
  • Download the Australian Good Scrub Guide, which lists the status of microplastics in many facial exfoliators.
  • If possible avoid buying synthetic clothing and textiles and reach for cotton and wool instead.
  • A German outfit has developed washing bags called Guppyfriend which it claims captures 99% of the fibres, although Mark Browne tells us he could find no scientific evidence to support this.