Microscope image: microbead amongst sand particles
What are microbeads?
Microbeads are tiny particles of plastic which tend to be less than 1mm in size. They can be spherical or irregular in shape and are produced in a multitude of colours.
They are manufactured for use in consumer products such as body and face scrubs as an exfoliant, to produce a “feel good factor”. Microbeads are also used in other products such as cleaning products and are also used in the biomedical and health science fields.
The types of plastic most commonly used as microbeads in bodycare products are:
polyethylene (PE), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), nylon, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polypropylene (PP)
What problems do microbeads cause?
Plastic microbeads are contributing to the increasing flow of plastic into our oceans. These unnecessary microscopic pieces of plastic are contributing to the unhealthy ‘plastic soup’ contaminating our seas.
When used as directed, microbeads are washed down drains and into waste water systems where they are known to pass through these treatment facilities and are consequently flushed out to sea.
A major concern with microbeads is that because of their small size, they have a large surface area to volume ratio, so as a consequence of their use, huge numbers of readymade, highly efficient toxic accumulators are being intentionally released into the environment.
Microplastics in the marine environment are known to accumulate toxic contaminants – persistent organic pollutants such as pesticides, flame retardants and industrial chemicals.
Food chain contamination
A 2013 study found that phytoplankton and zooplankton at the base of the food chain can ingest microplastic particles. Having plastic in their diet could “negatively impact” the health of the marine life, the study concluded.
This video was made at the University of Plymouth showing the size of both plankton and plastic particles, and ingestion during a laboratory simulation.
How long have microbeads been used?
Microbeads were patented in the 1970s, but have only been used in consumer products since the 1990s.
There have been many thousands of brands worldwide that that have used plastic as the scrubbing, bulking or polishing agent in their personal care products. Microbeads have been added to personal care products such as face washes, exfoliators, cosmetics, shaving creams, lotions, toothpastes, shampoos and sunscreens.
As a result of NGO and consumer action calling for plastic ingredients to be removed from personal care products, more and more companies have replaced plastic microbeads with natural materials as the exfoliating ingredient.
Hong Kong microplastic sample separated by HKU. Note the wedge of spherical-shaped microbeads in the lower left of the petri dish
Global Microbead Legislation
An increase in peer reviewed published research, and reports from the United Nations Environment Program has raised awareness of the effects of microbeads to a level that resulted in the US government introducing the Microbead Free Waters Act (2015), becoming the first country to ban the sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads. Many countries have since introduced legislation on microbeads in personal care products. Some countries are also encouraging companies to voluntarily phase out plastic microbeads. Hong Kong has a voluntary ban. The government is promoting this with a campaign called Bye Bye Microbeads.
In the US, this ban gave a time frame for manufacturers to phase out microbeads from their products, from 2017-2019. In Canada, microbeads were added to the List of Toxic Substances, allowing the government to regulate microbeads under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
Along with the research on microbreads, the relentless organised pressure from NGOs, community groups and concerned citizens forced the governments to act. This was a big win for the environment and for activists.
In research undertaken by Plastic Free Seas and the Environmental Geochemistry & Oceanography Research Group at Hong Kong University, microbeads were found in 60% of 147 samples of surface water taken in various locations across HK.
An organisation in Amsterdam called the Plastic Soup Foundation initiated the Beat The Microbead campaign in 2012 to raise awareness on the issue of microbead pollution. They continue to educate the public and brainstorm ideas on how to beat the problem of plastic microbeads. They have broadened their focus to include all types of plastic in body care products and cosmetics, beyond the original 5 microplastic ingredients.
Map source: www.beatthemicrobead.org
There are numerous natural alternatives to use instead of plastic microbeads. These include crushed nuts and shells, salt, charcoal, sand, sugar, pumice and oatmeal to name a few.
Using a washcloth will also serve the same purpose.
Safe, non-plastic alternatives are available and widely used by many leading brands.
There is growing international pressure for companies to ensure that their products are not only safe for their customers to use but also safe for the environment that their products may ultimately end up in.
The scrub products containing plastic pollute by the nature of their design. There is no way that the producers can ensure the product they manufacture (and profit from) will not pollute the environment unless they do not contain plastic ingredients.
What is happening in Hong Kong?
A.S. Watson Group release their position on plastic microbeads
Ahead of potential legislation, A.S. Watson took the positive step to ban the use of microplastic in rinse-off Own Brand cosmetics/personal care scrub products development in 2014. Since January 2020, they have stopped selling any rinse-off personal care products containing microbeads. Read their statement here.
On August 22, 2016, SaSa published their pledge to ban the sale of products containing microbeads in all exfoliating and cleansing products by the end of 2018.
The government commissioned a consultancy paper on microbeads in personal care and cosmetic products (PCCP) in April 2018. The government has accepted the recommendation to implement a voluntary scheme for the phase out of microbeads in PCCP. A voluntary scheme was rolled out in September 2021, including the establishment of a ‘Microbead-Free Charter’. Read the original Press Release and find out more about the government’s Bye Bye Microbeads campaign here.
Check out this short animated on microbeads from The Story of Stuff
Did You Know?
More than 60% of the 150 samples collected by Plastic Free Seas from Hong Kong seawater in 2016/17 were found to contain plastic microbeads. The HKU scientists analysing the data found up to 380,000 microbeads per square kilometre of seawater around the city.
Did You Know?
In 2013, Plastic Free Seas initiated an online microbead campaign in Hong Kong with a goal to ban microbead sales. To reach this goal we have worked with scientists, schools the community and met with government many times.
Did You Know?
Prior to a change in formulation removing polyethylene as the main scrub ingredient, a popular 130gm scrub product contained 1,476 million plastic particles!
That equated to 17,000 plastic beads down the drain for every wash.
Did You Know?
Scientists estimated in 2016 that there were 342.2 billion plastic microbeads emitted to the coastal waters off Hong Kong. This is equivalent to 9.4 billion microbeads flushed out to sea every day!