What is Microplastic?

Microplastic refers to any type of tiny, solid plastic particle or fiber found as litter in oceans and other waterways. Microplastic most often starts as larger pieces of plastic debris, such as plastic packaging, cigarette filters, car tires, or synthetic fabric that breaks down into tiny pieces over time.   These particles and fibers measure 5 millimeters in diameter or less and do not dissolve in water. Microplastic that started as larger litter is called “secondary microplastic,” while particles that are intentionally developed as small plastic particles are called “primary microplastic.” Plastic microbeads are a primary type of microplastic. Microbeads are purposely developed to be tiny so they can be used as ingredients in products for a wide variety of purposes, from industrial boat cleaning and paints to rinse-off personal care products. 

The personal care products industry takes product safety and environmental protection very seriously.  That’s why the industry responded early and aggressively to concerns over microbeads (by voluntarily phasing them out and supporting the law that bans them – The Microbead-Free Waters Act which takes affect nationwide on July 1, 2017) even though microbeads make up a very tiny fraction of microplastic litter in waterways.  While no other common ingredients in our products have been found as microplastic litter, we’re working 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.

 For answers to more questions about microbeads in personal care products, click here.

Do Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Contain Plastic Ingredients Besides Microbeads?

Other than microbeads, no ingredient commonly used in cosmetics and personal care products has been detected in marine plastic litter. There are some additional solid plastic ingredients used in personal care products.  Research looking at the occurrence and environmental fate of these materials is currently being conducted by the industry, although to date there is no evidence to show that these contribute to marine litter.

The vast majority of ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products are in the form of liquids or waxes, not solid particles.  Unless an ingredient is in a solid form, it is not plastic and will therefore not contribute to marine plastic litter. Importantly, you can’t determine whether cosmetic or personal care products contain plastic just by looking for an ingredient name on the label: Ingredients sharing the same name may be used as solid particles in one product or as a liquid in another.  Polyethylene is an example of such ingredient that can be used as a plastic or a [no-ler[/no-he names on the label do not mean they are plastic. 

What Is A Polymer And Does It Contribute To Microplastic Litter?

You may hear that products containing “polymers” are sources of microplastic litter, but that is misleading. Polymers come in many forms, including solids, liquids and waxes.  The same polymer may be used as a liquid in one product and a solid in another. Plastics are an example of solid, man-made materials made from polymers.  But while all plastics are polymers, not all polymers are plastics. The vast majority of polymer ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products, for example, are not plastics but are in liquid or other form that cannot become microplastic litter. Polymers provide important benefits in products, such as making products water-resistant or longer-lasting. It is important to remember that these ingredients have been found safe by regulators and are used in many other types of consumer products, including in medicines and food.

What Are the Sources of Microplastic Litter?

Studies have shown the main sources of microplastic litter to include the breakdown of plastic packaging, such as bags and bottles; tire dust washed from roadways; plastic pellets used in manufacturing; and synthetic fibers from garments and textiles. Perhaps surprisingly though, the largest contributor to microplastic litter is car tires. Ingredients in personal care products are among the smallest contributors to plastics pollution. 

A major report on marine litter for the European Commission includes a chart (below) showing the sources and their relative contributions.

Importantly, microplastic litter can be effectively removed from water by wastewater treatment plants.  In studies conducted in the U.S. and Europe, treatment facilities were found to remove more than 99 percent of microplastic particles. Moreover, the main type of microplastic that was detected in these studies was fibers.

Is Microplastic Harmful to Marine Life or to Humans?

There is no peer-reviewed research showing that microplastic litter harms fish or other aquatic life at environmentally relevant levels. (“Peer review” is a widely-accepted scientific validation process in which studies are reviewed and critiqued by fellow scientists.) In addition, a report on plastic litter by the United Nations Environment Programme , found no evidence to conclude that microplastics pose a threat to humans. 

One proposed theory is that microplastic particles and fibers act as vectors for transport of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the environment, leading to an increase in exposure of aquatic and marine life to toxic pollutants. However, a number of independent studies have found that microplastic does not increase the exposure of wildlife to these attached toxins.  It also found that laboratory studies reporting concern about exposure of marine life used unrealistically high levels of microplastic, producing results that do not reflect what actually occurs in the environment.  

What is the Industry Doing to Combat Microplastic Litter?

The industry’s deep commitment to environmental protection drove its response to enacting a voluntary phase-out of microbeads and supporting the passage of laws to formally ban their use, despite the extremely small role they play in microplastic litter.  The industry continues to work with environmental NGOs, scientists, policymakers and others, to better understand and find ways to reduce plastic debris in oceans and waterways.

Real solutions must address the leading sources of plastic litter both large and small – especially the large plastic litter that forms massive “garbage patch” islands in oceans.  This material harms wildlife that ingest or become entangled in it, as well as ultimately breaking down into microplastic litter.  

Finally, solutions must reach well beyond the U.S. and Canada. According to a study by the Trash-Free Seas Alliance, the majority of plastic marine litter comes from improper trash disposal by countries in Asia and the Pacific Rim – particularly China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.


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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