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The Environment Doesn’t Need Microbeads, and Neither Do You!

By Robin Garcia

In a recent bipartisan victory for the environment, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 into law. The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in March and was passed by both the House and Senate within a month.

The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to include a ban on “the manufacture or the introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of a rinse-off cosmetic that contains intentionally-added plastic microbeads.” The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 does not apply to drugs that are not cosmetics as defined by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.


The ban on manufacturing will begin on:

  1. July 1, 2017 for cosmetics

  2. July 1, 2018 for nonprescription drug cosmetics.

The ban on introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce will begin on:

  1. July 1, 2018 for cosmetics

  2. July 1, 2019 for nonprescription drug cosmetics.


Banning microbeads is not a new concept in the US. Illinois was the first state to pass a ban on the manufacture and sale of products with microbeads in 2014. Illinois has been followed by Colorado, Indiana, Maryland, Maine, New Jersey, and most recently California.

So what’s the big deal with plastic microbeads anyway?

The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 defines microbeads as any solid plastic particle that is less than five millimeters in size and is intended to be used to exfoliate or cleanse the human body.

You have likely seen them – these are the exfoliating beads in your face wash, body wash, and toothpaste. They are also placed in deodorants, sunscreen, hairspray, and other personal care products to deliver active ingredients and to create a film for that highly-desired “long-lasting” effect.


Microbeads do their job very well, but when their job is done – when your face wash, body wash, and toothpaste is rinsed down the drain – that is where the problems begin.

Most water treatment facilities are ill-equipped to remove microbeads; consequently they have been found in every ocean, including the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. Microbeads can then be consumed by marine and aquatic organisms, such as fish. Recently, a study documented zooplankton consuming microbeads. This revelation especially troubling since plankton forms the bottom of marine and aquatic food webs.

Microbeads can make their way onto your dinner plate through the food web, but it is also making its way through another route – salt. A study found microbeads in both table and sea salt in China.

Even if you don’t ingest microbeads, they can linger in you. A dental hygienist has reported finding microbeads embedded in the gums of patients. Further research is needed to determine if there are any adverse effects, but microbeads are meant to clean your teeth and then be rinsed out, not to get stuck under your gums.

In marine and aquatic environments, microbeads are chemically attracted to persistent organic pollutants (POPs), increasing the concentration of these pollutants in the environment. When animals and humans digest microbeads, they are also digesting the POPs attached to the surfaces of those microbeads. POPs are lipophilic, meaning that they are attracted to fats and are repelled by water. This quality makes fatty tissues in organisms highly susceptible to microbeads and the chemical compounds that they can carry.

Marine debris degrades over time, leaving tiny plastic particles adrift

Marine debris degrades over time, leaving tiny plastic particles adrift

While this law is a great accomplishment, it does not cover every means of microbead introduction into the environment. Many microbeads are intentionally manufactured, but many are also created as larger plastic litter break down. It is important to continue reducing all plastic pollution by recycling and using reusable items.

If you’d like some ideas for exfoliates to use instead of products with microbeads, check out this list (note that one of the listed options is sea salt, which for reasons that I just mentioned may not be the best choice!). Additionally, look out for products with polyethylene or polypropylene in them – ingredients for plastic.

Robin is a Communication Specialist at NOAA and a DC EcoWomen board member. A DC native, she enjoys exploring her hometown, developing her yoga skills, and getting out on the water as much as possible. She also wishes she could hibernate until spring comes back.


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