Cosmetic containing microbeadsMicrobeads are a type of microplastic or tiny particles of plastic less than a millimeter thick that in recent years have been added to personal care products. They are found as exfoliants and cleansing agents (in scrubs, washes and soap bars); as fillers in creams (such as anti-wrinkle and moisturizers); hair gel; and even as whiteners in some toothpastes. It may sound like a strange use of plastic, but cosmetic companies apparently found that microbeads were cheaper than natural alternatives. The beads themselves are most often made of polyethylene (but can also be made of other petrochemical plastics such as nylon, polypropylene or more hazardous polystyrene, acrylic, and PET). They wash directly down the drain, and eventually will pass right through water treatment plants, which are not designed to deal with them. In Massachusetts, treatment plants often directly empty into the ocean. These microplastics permanently displace food like plankton, because they don't biodegrade. They cannot be systematically removed from bodies of water. Furthermore, researchers warn that microplastics can bind to toxic substances in the water such as DDT, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and polychlorinated biphenyls. Creatures in the water ingest these now poisonous pellets, endangering themselves and the food chain including humans.

The first action you can take is to stop buying products with microbeads. To find out if a product contains these beads, check the label for “polyethylene” (PE) or “polystyrene” (PS). The organization Beat the Microbead has a list of products known to contain the beads.

To learn more, see our Microbead Fact Sheet.

Congressional Action

Congress passed the Microbead-Free-Waters Act of 2015 which banned "rinse-off" plastic microbead products that have an exfoliating function like toothpaste, face wash and other cosmetic products. President Obama signed the act into law. This law preempted all state and local laws such as the one that was under consideration in Massachusetts.

However there is a loophole in the law that continues to allow other non "rinse-off" products as well as cleaning products. For example there are still make-up products and detergents with microbeads that are not covered under this law, which could be the subject of future local regulation. Many forms of glitter used in personal products are also made from plastics which is becoming a concern for environmental scientists. When purchasing glitter products you can look for environmentally friendly options that biodegrade and break down naturally.