Microbeads, commonly found in exfoliating and personal care products, are one of the many types of microplastic that has been discovered in the guts of marine wildlife over recent years.

Scientists from the College of Science at Oregon State University believe that eight million of these microbeads are emitted into aquatic habitats each day, with a further 800 trillion leaking into streams through the surface run off caused by sewage sludge.

Stephanie Green, a conservation research fellow at the College of Science at Oregon State University, said: “We’re facing a plastic crisis and don’t even know it. Part of this problem can now start with brushing your teeth in the morning. Contaminants like these microbeads are not something our wastewater treatment plants were built to handle, and the overall amount of contamination is huge. The microbeads are very durable.”

Legal loophole

The report has called for an outright ban of the material which the scientists believe possesses toxic qualities for wildlife that comes into contact with it. Multinational companies including Unilever, Procter & Gamble and IKEA have publically supported the ban in ‘rinse off’ products, but as the report identifies, there are still legal loopholes being exploited.

Scientific Evidence Supports a Ban on Microbeads

Many microbeads are around the size of a grain of sand and often used for hygiene purposes. But not all are classed as rinse off products, such as deodorants, so still end up in water supplies. Some of the current regulations only allow the use of ‘biodegradable’ microbeads; however companies are apparently bypassing this legislation with beads ‘can biodegrade just slightly’.

The report calls for “new wording should ensure that a material that is persistent, bio-accumulative, or toxic is not added to products designed to go down the drain…the probability of risk from microbead pollution is high, while the solution to this problem is simple”.


Almost all of Britain’s major retailers have pledged to phase out the harmful beads from their own-brand cosmetic and beauty products.

Last year, Innovative UK provided funding for Canadian company TerraVerdae BioWorks which has developed a commercial-scale biodegradable replacement for mainstream microbeads. 

Matt Mace

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie