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Plastic microbeads are solid, plastic particles that are intentionally used as product ingredients; they measure 5 millimeters or less and do not dissolve in water. Microbeads are used by many industries for a variety of purposes, including as ingredients in some rinse-off personal care products to improve their exfoliating or cleansing abilities. Many have raised concerns about the contribution of microbeads to the overall problem of plastic litter in oceans and other waterways.
The personal care products industry’s deep commitment to product safety and environmental stewardship includes protection of the marine environment that sustains life on our planet. That’s why the industry responded early and aggressively to concerns over microbeads, even though these ingredients make up a very tiny fraction of plastic litter in waterways. The industry announced a voluntary phase-out of microbeads, and then worked with elected officials, environmental advocacy groups and others to support laws that permanently ban them. The Microbead-Free Waters Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2015, bans the manufacturing of rinse-off products containing microbeads as of July 1, 2017.
As part of the industry’s commitment to a more sustainable future, we continue to work with environmental groups and others to find real solutions to plastic debris in waterways, for the benefit of our consumers and the marine environment we all share.
Historically, manufacturers have added plastic microbeads to rinse-off personal care cleansing products because of their safe and effective exfoliating properties that help remove dry, dead cells from the surface of the skin as well as help unclog pores in those with acne. Many consumers value microbeads for their ability to produce clean, smooth skin.
Many companies that previously used plastic microbeads are looking to replace them with alternatives, including those made from beeswax, rice bran wax, jojoba waxes, starches derived from corn, tapioca and carnauba, seaweed, silica, clay and other natural compounds.
Are Plastic Microbeads Safe for Use in Personal Care Products?
Yes. The safety of cosmetics and personal care products is governed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations under the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, requiring every product and its ingredients be substantiated for human safety prior to going to market. To ensure FDA regulations are met, the personal care products industry employs thousands of scientific, technical and medical experts whose primary responsibility is to ensure the human safety of products and their ingredients.
What’s the Difference Between “Microbeads” and “Microplastic”?
Microbeads are one type of contributor to microplastic litter. “Microplastic” refers broadly to all solid plastic particles of 5mm or less that are found as litter in oceans and other waterways. Leading sources of microplastic litter include particles from vehicle tires washed off of roads, fibers from textiles, and the breakdown of larger plastic litter, especially discarded packaging. (For answers to questions about personal care products and microplastic overall, click here.)
Are Microbeads in Personal Care Products a Major Source of Microplastic Marine Litter?
No. Studies from around the world, including research by independent scientists and NGOs, reveals that microbeads (from all sources, not just personal care products) are among the smallest contributors to microplastic litter in marine environments. Microbeads from personal care products have been estimated to make up 0.1 percent to 1.5 percent of all sources of microplastic litter.
Research also shows that microbeads can be effectively removed from water by wastewater treatment plants. In studies conducted in both the U.S. and Europe, wastewater facilities removed over 99% of microbeads and other microplastic litter.
Do Plastic Microbeads Harm People and the Environment?
No peer-reviewed research (studies that have been validated through the accepted scientific standard of review and critique by fellow scientists) has shown this to be true. For example, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme confirmed that current science does not support a conclusion that microbeads or other microplastics pose a health threat to humans.
Experts caution that studies often expose marine animals to much higher amounts of microbeads in the laboratory than they would actually encounter in their environment. And there is a growing scientific consensus that microbeads do not cause wildlife to be exposed to higher levels of pollutants.
As an innovative industry that supports reducing plastic litter in waterways, personal care product manufacturers are following the scientific research closely to better understand the sources and scope of microplastic found in the environment.
When Will I See Reformulated Products on Store Shelves?
The timeline will vary by manufacturer and product. Reformulating a product can be complicated and time-consuming -- not just a matter of switching one ingredient with another. A variety of experts must confirm that new ingredients meet all regulatory, safety and environmental requirements. Before a reformulated product can go to market, companies have to ensure that alternative ingredients:
- Meet federal and state regulations;
- Are sufficiently available; and
- Are built into the manufacturing process
Check out this product reformulation infographic about this process.
Microbeads from personal care products are a minor contributor to aquatic plastic debris
Essel, R. Engel., L., Carus, M., Ahrens, R.H. 2015. Sources of Microplastics Relevant to Marine Protection in Germany. Report for the Federal Environment Agency, Germany.
Gouin, T., Avalos, J., Brunning, I., Brzuska, K., de Graaf., J., Kaumanns, J., Konning, T., Meyberg, M., Rettinger, K., Schlatter, H., Thomas, J., van Welie, R., Wolf, T. 2015. Use of Micro-Plastic Beads in Cosmetic Products in Europe and their Estimated Emissions to the North Sea Environment. SOFW 141: 40-46.
Lassen, C., Hansen, SF., Magnusson, K., Norén, F., Bloch Hartmann, N.I., Jensen, P.R., Nielsen, T.G., Brinch, A. 2015. Microplastics: Occurrence, Effects and Sources of Releases to the Environment in Denmark. Report for Ministry for Environment and Food of Denmark Environmental Protection Agency Environmental, Project No. 1793, 2015.
Sundt, P., Schulze, P.E., Syversen, F. 2015. Sources of Microplastic Pollution to the Marine Environment. Report for Norwegian Environment Agency (Miljødirektoratet), Report No: M-321|2015.
Removal of microplastics by waste water treatment plants:
Carr, S.A., Liu, J., Tesoro, A.G. 2016. Transport and Fate of Microplastic Particles in Wastewater Treatment Plants. Water Research 91: 174-182
Murphy, F., Ewins, C., Carbonnier, F., Quinn, B. 2016. Wastewater Treatment Works (WwTW) as a Source of Microplastics in the Aquatic Environment. Environmental Science and Technology 50 (11): 5800-5808
Microplastics are not a significant threat to the wildlife
Kaposi, K.L., Mos, B., Kelaher, B.P., Dworjanyn, S.A. 2014. Ingestion of Microplastic has Limited Impact on a Marine Larva. Environmental Science and Technology 48 (3): 1638–1645
Mazurais, D., Ernande, B., Quazuguel, P., Severe, A., Huelvan, C., Madec, L., Mouchel, O., Soudant, P., Robbens, J., Huvet, A., Zambonino-Infante, J. 2015. Evaluation of the Impact of Polyethylene Microbeads Ingestion in European Sea Bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) Larvae. Marine Environmental Research 122: 78-85
Microplastic does not increase the exposure of wildlife to toxins
Gouin, T., Roche, N., Lohmann, R., Hodges, G. 2011. A Thermodynamic Approach for Assessing the Environmental Exposure of Chemicals Absorbed to Microplastic. Environmental Science and Technology 45 (4): 1466–1472
Koelmans, A.A., Nakir, A., Burton, G.A., Janssen, C.R. 2016. Microplastic as a Vector for Chemicals in the Aquatic Environment. Critical Review and Model-Supported Re-interpretation of Empirical Studies. Environmental Science and Technology 50 (7): 3315-3326
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