Cosmetic Microbeads – The Tiny Toxins Polluting Our Oceans

Cosmetic Microbeads – The Tiny Toxins Polluting Our Oceans

Jul 21, 2016Adam Hart

We hear it all the time – beauty shouldn’t cost the earth.

So why have cosmetic manufacturers been so slow to get rid of microbeads?

In case you haven’t heard of them, microbeads are microscopic particles of plastic used widely in toiletries and beauty products such as toothpaste, shaving cream, shower gel and exfoliating scrubs. Each product can contain thousands of microbeads.

For example, the American non-governmental organisation (NGO) 5Gyres, estimates that one single care product contains 360,000 microbeads. One researcher in Holland found that microplastics made up 10.6% of one scrub.

What you need to know


  • Microbeads – microscopic particles of plastic – are used widely in cosmetics and are now ubiquitous environmental pollutants.
  • In some products they constitute as much as 10% of the ingredients.
  • Washed down the drain, they accumulate in lakes, rivers and oceans and work their way back up and into the human food chain.
  • Microbeads are made with hormone-disrupting plastics that have implications for human health.

The microbeads used in personal care products are mainly made of polyethylene (PE), but can be also be made of polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon. Barely visible to the naked eye they are washed down our drains and into our waterways and oceans where turn our oceans into a plastic soup.

Microbeads cannot be removed in wastewater treatment plants and they are not biodegradable. Once they enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove.

Microbeads attract pollutants like magnets and studies show that marine species are unable to distinguish between food and microplastics. So as marine creatures eat them they can be poisoned by them. But they can also be passed up the food chain and back into our bodies.

Human health implications

For the environment, microbeads pose a problem because many contain harmful chemicals like PCBs – which are hormone disrupting – along with other fat-soluble compounds known to cling to polyethylene, the plastic used to make them. These hormone-disrupting chemicals have a gender-bending effect, particularly on male fish problems and can damage fish eggs that causes impairments and nonviability.

Humans may also be affected. Some dental professionals claim that they can contribute to buildups of plaque, tartar and gingivitis by getting stuck under the gums. Amazingly given the potential risks, very little pre- or post-marketing research has been done to on human health effects.

The scale of the problem

The tiniest toxins can also often be the most toxic and troublesome and the scale of the problem is truly immense. Scientists have found evidence of microbeads in numerous bodies of water in the United States, including increasingly in the Great Lakes, the world’s largest source of freshwater.  For example;

Things are changing

The scandal is that none of this has to happen. Natural, biodegradable and effective alternative ingredients such as ground grains and nut shells and salt crystals are readily available to use in cosmetics.

Positive action on behalf of manufacturers has meant that more and more of these microbeads are being removed from personal care products and replaced by naturally biodegradable alternatives.

Neal’s Yard Remedies – always microbead free

Fauna & Flora International (FFI), the world’s oldest international conservation organisation, has launched the Good Scrub Guide to help consumers avoid skincare products containing plastic microbeads that harm sea life and marine ecosystems.

At Neal’s Yard Remedies, we have never used microbeads, and NYR’s our facial polishes and scrubs, namely: Rehydrating Rose Facial PolishPurifying Palmarosa Facial PolishHoney & Orange Scrub, NYR MEN Revitalizing Face Scrub, have been awarded the Good Scrub Guide’s ‘green light’ for being 100% microplastic-free.

The Guide only focuses on facial scrubs so our body scrubs are not currently listed. But at Neal’s Yard Remedies our ethical organic formulations contain only natural exfoliating particles – organic ground rice, rosehip seed powder, argan kernel powder and pumice powder to name a few.

Someday all brands will be made like ours – with care and respect for the people who use them and for the environment!

Have you tried any of our polishes or scrubs? We'd love to hear your thoughts - share them in the comments below!

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