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Consumer Decisions Can Curb Microbead Pollution

Ellen Perschbacher
Water Matters - Two shoppers viewing the cosmetics aisle

Part 3 of 4

Credit: Griszka Niewiadomski
Credit: Griszka Niewiadomski

Concerned citizens can help decrease the amount of microplastics entering the Great Lakes. It starts with paying attention to microbeads in personal care products.

Microbeads are a subcategory of microplastics. They are tiny, spherical plastic particles found in hundreds of personal care products manufactured globally. As ingredients in toothpastes, shampoos, face washes, sunscreen, makeup, nail polishes and shaving creams, these plastic particles get washed down the drain with each use and in most cases pass through wastewater treatment plants without being removed, flowing directly into surface waters such as the Great Lakes.

Once microbeads reach surface waters, aquatic organisms and wildlife can mistake microbeads for food. The particles may contain toxic substances such as phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA), and the petroleum present in the plastics serves as a magnet for other toxins such as the insecticide DDT.

DDT was banned in 1972 and 1981 in the U.S. and Canada, respectively, but can persist in the environment for decades and still enters the lakes through the air when it’s used in some Latin American countries. Reproductive and developmental health impacts from these toxic substances are well-documented, particularly as the toxins bioaccumulate in organisms higher in the food chain – including humans.

The insecticide DDT accumulates in insects fed on by other animals, with toxic effects to birds and fish. Credit: Tim Lang
The insecticide DDT accumulates in insects fed on by other animals, with toxic effects to birds and fish. Credit: Tim Lang

In 2012, the personal care product industry was worth $433 billion (U.S.) and growing at a rate of 8 percent annually. The choices consumers make can have a significant impact on reducing microbead pollution. A generic bottle of shower gel, for example, includes as much microplastic material by weight as its container.

First, choose not to purchase products that contain microbeads, which are listed as polypropylene, polyethelyne, polyethelyne terephthalate, nylon or poly(methyl) metreacrylate. Instead, purchase organic or environmentally friendly products that contain natural alternatives to microbeads such as ground almonds and walnut shells, cocoa beans, apricot pits, ground pumice, oatmeal or sea salt. These are widely used in natural or organic personal care products already, and were used broadly in personal care products prior to the introduction of plastic microbeads in the 1990s.

Apricots. Credit: Dennis Hill
Apricots. Credit: Dennis Hill

Second, download a free app called Beat the Micro Bead that will scan a product’s bar code to find out if it contains microbeads. The app is part of the International Campaign against Microbeads in Cosmetics, which thus far has the support of 79 nongovernment organizations from 35 countries, including Canada and the U.S.

Most organic or natural products have never included microbeads, and many companies have voluntarily committed to eliminating them. While U.S. federal legislation signed in December 2015 requires all companies to remove microbeads by 2017, existing stock on store shelves that may contain them are allowed until 2019. 

Finally, here’s a list of companies that have or are taking voluntary steps to reduce microbead pollution.

Thanks for reading. Share this story on Facebook or Twitter and let us know how you’ve changed your buying habits in response to microbeads.





Eucerin, Nivea

Goal stated in April 2013 was to replace all plastic microbeads by the end of 2015, no updates provided.


Replaced microbeads with 100% cellulose in 2015

Colgate Palmolive


Reformulating products to make them microbead free; process was to be completed by the end of 2014, although current stock on shelves will not be replaced.

Johnson & Johnson

Aveeno, Clean & Clear, Neutrogena

Will phase out the use of plastic microbeads in their products by the end of 2017.


Stopped selling products with microbeads after June 2013.


Life, President’s Choice

All household and cosmetic Life brand and President’s Choice products will be microbead free by 2018.


Biotherm, The Body Shop

Phased out its plastic microbeads in Biotherm products in 2014 and in The Body Shop products in 2015.

Proctor and Gamble

Crest, Oral-B

All Crest and Oral-B products will be microbead-free by March 2016.


All of their brand products were to be microbead free by end of 2015, negotiating with vendors for same.

Unilever PLC


Phased out microbeads by the end of 2015.

Walgreen Co.

Negotiating with its private brand suppliers to remove microbeads.


Source: Beat the Micro Bead

Coming up next: Legislative Update

Other articles in the series:

Tiny Plastics Inflict Huge Environmental and Human Health Impact

History and Evolution of the Microbead

Ellen Perschbacher

University of Waterloo, environmental studies, former intern at the IJC Great Lakes Regional Office

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