Microbeads… What are they?

What impact do microbeads have on the environment and our health and how you can tell if a product contains them?

In this post I take a look at why microbeads may be more immediately dangerous to the environment than a discarded plastic drink bottle.

Podcast: Play In New Window

Subscribe in iTunes

Let me take you back 20-odd years to the year 1995.

I was studying environmental engineering at RMIT University, in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD.

During breaks in between lectures I’d frequently head over the road with a friend to browse through the Daimaru department store in Melbourne Central. Having a “play” at a cosmetic counter one day I stumbled on a few product from a leading cosmetic brand… a 7 day scrub cream.

It was touted as the best face scrub as it contained a new, ingredient “microbeads”.

Now having struggled with acne constantly through my teens, and not realising what these microbeads were, I fell for the sales pitch hook line and sinker.

Not long after that new scrub hit the market, microbeads became a staple ingredient in countless cosmetic products, and we’re only beginning to fully appreciate the impact of this addition.

I ditched that scrub years ago, but I wonder how many products I’ve used since then that, unknown to me, contained microbeads.

Luckily for the environment, microbeads are now experiencing a fall from grace, but we still have a long way to go. In this post I’ll uncover what microbeads are, what impact they have on the environment and our health and how you can tell if a product contains them.


What exactly are microbeads and where are they found? 

Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic ranging in size from 5 um to 1000 um (1mm) in size. They’re found in beauty products like facial and body scrubs and even some toothpastes, where their purpose is to provide a grainy texture for exfoliation.

The plastics found in microbeads like polyethylene and polypropylene are the same types of plastic used to make milk jugs, bottles and other common household containers.


What is the environmental impact/risk of microbeads? 

When you think about the environmental impact of washing your face, you’re probably just worried about wasting water. But unfortunately, the environmental impact of washing your face with a product containing microbeads is much more significant than that!

According to research from Plymouth University in the UK, each time a person uses a facial or body wash containing microbeads, up to 94,000 tiny plastic beads can be flushed down the drain!

In fact, a 150mL tube of facial scrub can contain as many as 2.8 million beads!

These beads are too small to be filtered by sewerage treatment systems, and therefore flow into our oceans, rivers and lakes. Aquatic organisms such as worms and small fish mistake these tiny beads for food – meaning that these microplastics and the toxins they absorb (because toxins love to stick to plastics!) are ingested by marine life and enter the food chain.

Humans then consume the toxins when they eat the fish or animals who have ingested the plastics.

This makes them even more immediately dangerous than a discarded drink bottle!!

For more information on the impact of plastics in our oceans, refer to How our Plastic Oceans Are Impacting Our Environment with Craig Leeson.


Are microbeads an issue in Australia? 

Microbeads have been detected in all oceans, bays, gulfs and seas worldwide, including seemingly pristine waters of Antarctica.

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 including Sydney Harbour, Jervis Bay, Eden, Port Phillip Bay, Port Adelaide and Tasmania’s East Coast.

Following US legislation to ban microbeads in early 2016, Australian State and Territory Governments agreed to a voluntary phase-out of the beads by July 1, 2018.

Supermarket giant Coles has stopped selling any cosmetics with microbeads. Woolworths has stopped using microbeads in their own products and Aldi will phase out microbeads from its own products by the end of this year.

Major companies including Unilever, L’Oreal Australia, The Body Shop, Beiersdorf, Clarins, Clearasil and Ella Bache have also committed to the voluntary phase out.

With the major companies on board, the next step may be national legislation to ban the importation of cheaper products from entering Australia.


How do you know a product has microbeads in it and how can you avoid them? 

In the past, the use of microbeads in products was advertised, but more likely these days it’s hiding in the ingredients list.

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)

Luckily, the folks at Beat the Microbead have made an app to help you find out if these tiny pollutants are in your favourite products. You can download the app and scan the product barcode and it will tell you if the product contains microbeads.

Brands and companies that do not use microplastic ingredients in their products can carry the ‘Zero Plastic Inside’ logo. The producer of the brand has publicly declared that its products are totally free of micro plastic ingredients.

But app aside, it makes sense to use more natural products to clean your skin.

You can exfoliate the skin easily using a gentle fabric mit or make your own face and body scrubs using items from your pantry including coffee grains, oatmeal, ground almonds, sugar and sea salt.  By doing so you’ll also avoid exposing yourself to other chemicals found in beauty products, such as preservatives, but that’s a topic for another day…..