When people hear the word microbeads, they may wonder what the term actually means. Microbeads are small pieces of plastic which are .5 millimeters or smaller in size. (2) These tiny pieces of plastic are mostly comprised of Polyethylene (PE). (9) Since microbeads are very small, you may not think they can have a negative effect, but they have a lasting effect on the environment. Why are microbeads harmful to the environment? Why are they such a big deal? Why should we know about them? These questions are important because these tiny little pieces of plastic are harming us, those we care about, the environment, animals and our oceans because they become marine litter. (9)
Each and everyday people around the world use products which have tiny microbeads, also known as micro-plastics, within them. Microbeads are used in face wash, toothpaste, shower gel, types of makeup, laundry detergent, and other everyday products used as an exfoliant. (9) When people use microbeads, they are putting harmful plastics on and in their bodies. After the products containing microbeads are used, they are then washed away into our sewage. (9)
Unfortunately, these products which make up microbeads are unable to be filtered out and they end up in our waters. (9) In the United States alone, it is calculated that 8 trillion microbeads are being released into the oceans every single day. (6) Once in our waters, many animals confuse the microbeads as a food source and they end up eating them. (3) The toxins in the microbeads then cause changes to the animals eating and behavioral habits as the beads move from the digestive system to the bloodstream. (1) Predators can detect toxins in prey and therefore will avoid those animals, causing issues within the food chain as sick animals are left and healthy animals are eaten. (1) Unfortunately a majority of fish with the toxic microbeads in their system end up on the tables of humans, making them sick from ingesting the toxins and pollution in the fish. (5)
Microbeads have been a constant problem for almost fifty years, but there has been a recent increase in the studies surrounding them. (10). Unfortunately, microbeads are cheaper to use than natural products so more companies replaced natural products with microbeads, increasing the percentage of plastic waste.(10) With studies increasing in the toxicity of microbeads, countries all over the world, including England, Canada, France, Ireland and the United States, have either banned microbeads or are in the process of banning them. (7) In 2015, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. (10) This act bans the use of microbeads in cosmetic and personal care products, raising the question as to why are products still being made with them? (9) Section 2 of the Act states: “Prohibition against sale or distribution of rinse-off cosmetics containing plastic microbeads.”(4) When the act was signed, it gave companies a timeline to rid microbeads from their products.(2)
- For rinse-off cosmetics:The deadline was July 1, 2017 to stop the manufacturing of the products described in the law.
- The deadline is July 1, 2018 to stop the introduction or delivery for introduction of these products into interstate commerce.
- For rinse-off cosmetics which are also non-prescription drugs:The deadline is July 1, 2018 to stop manufacturing the products described in the law.
- The deadline is July 1, 2019 to stop the introduction or delivery for introduction of these products into interstate commerce.
- This means products with microbeads will still be sold, used, and rinsed off into our environment until 2019.
By not buying products which contain microbeads, people are not only helping themselves, but also our environment. Our oceans are in need of help and even the smallest effort could make a difference. Remember, everything is interconnected. It is important to help protect our waters which in turn helps to protect the ecosystems, plant lives, and animals who rely so heavily on water. It’s one of the most important aspects of our lives.
Written by Jillian Arenson
Edited by Bob Stone
Infographic by Lara Randolph and Thiffany Belda
- Adventure Scientists Worldwide Microplastics Project. Adventure Scientists, 2017,
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Laws and Regulations – The Microbead – Free Waters Act: FAQs.” U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, 6 Dec. 2016ADAD,
- Drahl, Carmen. “What You Need To Know About Microbeads, The Banned Bath Product Ingredients.” Forbers, Forbers Magazine, 9 Jan. 2016, www.forbes.com/sites/carmedrahl/2016/01/09/what-you-need-to-know-about-m...
- 4. GOP15: Prohibition against sale or distribution of rinse-off cosmetics containing plastic microbeads
- Hrala, Josh. “Microbeads Could Be Turning The Fish We Eat Toxic, Study Finds.” ScienceAlert, 17Aug. 2016, www.scienctalert.com/microbeads-are-causing-the-fish-we-eat-to-become-toxic-study-finds.
- Imam, Jareen. “8 Trillion Microbeads Pollute United States’ Waterways.” CNN, Cable News Newtowkr, 6 Oct. 2015, www.cnn.com/2015/09/19/us/8-trillion-microbeads-pollute-water-daily-irpt/index.html.
- Marsden, Harriet. “These Are the Only Counties That Have Banned Harmful Microbeads.” Indy100, 27. Jan. 2017, www.indy100.com/article/microbeads-harmful-where-are-they-banned-countries-7549811.
- Product Lists. Beat the Microbead, 2017, X
- “Science.” Beat the Microbead, www.beatthemicrobead.org/science/.
10. US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “What Are Microplastics?” NOAA’sNational Ocean Service, 13 Apr. 2016,