Photo credit: 5 Gyres Institute

Scott Benowitz explains what are microbeads, and why their worldwide ban is necessary.

Microbeads are small plastic beads which some manufacturers of cosmetics products infuse into some of their lines of liquid soaps, skin creams hand sanitizers, shampoos, toothpaste, and other beauty and cosmetics products. The purpose of microbeads is that they allow these products to flow smoothly onto peoples’ skin, hair or teeth.

Why were plastic microbeads ever permitted to be used in beauty care products, to begin with?

Many of the severe pollution problems throughout the world had been caused by the extensive use of various industrial chemicals during the industrial revolution. At that time, scientists did not yet understand how using those chemicals would damage air, water, soil, wildlife species and ecosystems throughout the world.

By contrast, the use of microbeads in cosmetics is much newer and should never have been permitted to begin with. Small plastic beads cannot evaporate into the air.  Microbeads wash into the grey water when people use these cosmetics products, so they inevitably end up being absorbed into groundwater and soil. 

Companies which manufacture cosmetics products first began to use microbeads as an additive back in the 1960’s.  By the 1960’s, scientists in a number of countries were beginning to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how industrial pollutants and particulates permeate into groundwater, and then end up damaging ecosystems and numerous wildlife species.

Most of the microbeads that are used in cosmetic products are too small to be seen with the naked eye.  Microbeads are not biodegradable, but once they enter into grey water, they do gradually break down into even smaller particles.  All plastic particulates which end up in groundwater will eventually end up in streams, creeks, brooks, rivers, lakes, ponds, harbors, seas and oceans, and plastic particulate will gradually damage every ecosystem throughout the entire planet.  

Plastic particulates will be absorbed as well as eaten by marine organisms, including numerous species of shellfish and fish, and the particles will continue to be passed on throughout the food chain. Any animals which eat fish will end up consuming the same plastic particulates that the fish had consumed.  

The process of how industrial pollutants such as lead, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyl enter into groundwater and soil, and then damage species in ecosystems throughout the world has been well understood since the1970’s.  The use of lead and mercury in numerous products has been limited and strictly regulated by most governments throughout the world since the 1970s.  

With specific regard to pcb’s, international conventions such as the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (2001)limit the use of those chemicals, and in countries such as the U.S. whose national governments continue to refuse to sign party to this convention, national as well as state laws have been limiting use of pcb’s since the 1970’s.  However, there are no international conventions which are intended to limit or end the use of microbeads worldwide.   

There are a number of alternatives which manufacturers of beauty and healthcare products have been using as a substitute for microbeads in recent years, which do not result in pollution problems. There are components of certain kinds of seeds, nuts, shells, and beeswax which can be infused into all of the same products that microbeads have been used in, and these natural products cause no harm to water, soil or air.

The governments of the US, Canada, France, India, Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, South Africa, Taiwan, and the UK have banned the use of microbeads in cosmetics products.

 A number of the larger manufacturers of healthcare and beauty care products have stopped using microbeads however, some companies do still continue to infuse microbeads into some of the products they manufacture.  They distribute products which contain microbeads for sale in the countries in which microbeads have not yet been banned. 

How can a global ban on the use of microbeads be accomplished?

There are a number of ways that a worldwide ban on the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics products could be accomplished. A ban on the use of microbeads could be accomplished by the national assemblies of each national government throughout the world opting to enact legislation which would indefinitely ban the use of microbeads.  Alternatively, the assemblies of regional IGO’scould also enact a ban.  If neither regional IGO’s or the national governments in the countries which still allow the use of microbeads in cosmetics and healthcare/ beauty care products opt to ban the use, then this is an issue which the United Nations Environment Program could potentially address. 

Bans can also begin at the local levels.  For example, in the U.S., some counties and states had banned the use of microbeads before the national ban was proposed.  In March of 2015, the U.S. Congress proposed The Microbeads Free Waters Act, which they approved, and this act was signed into law in December of 2015.  

City, county, provincial and state governments throughout the world can opt to ban the manufacture and sale of healthcare products which contain plastic microbeads in them within their jurisdictions until national, regional and international bans are enacted. 

The delegates from the countries throughout the world who work at the UN will have quite a few other very important issues which they’ll need to address throughout the course of the 2020s, but this particular issue is easily solvable.  The people who work at the plastics companies which manufacture microbeads are the only people who have anything to gain by allowing the continued use of these microbeads in beauty care and healthcare products, so enacting a worldwide ban should be relatively easy to accomplish.  

Our great-grandchildren will need clean water, clean air, and clean soil.  This will only be possible if the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics products is banned.

What can we do?

You can talk to your politicians as well as candidates who are running for office, let them know that clean water, air and soil are important to you and that the use of plastic microbeads in all healthcare and beauty care products will need to be banned.

And until a ban is enacted, there’s an even simpler solution.  You can opt to stop purchasing or using products which contain microbeads when you’re traveling, living or working in countries in which cosmetics, beauty and healthcare products which contain microbeads are still permitted to be sold. You can look up current information about cosmetics products which contain microbeads from the “beatthemicrobead” website

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...