Pollution from Beauty Products : Microbeads

You have sure seen a lot about the negative impacts of plastic use, including microplastics, whereby the non-biodegradable nature of plastic and improper disposal raises environmental concerns. Land pollution, water pollution, you name it! BUT, what about this thing called microbeads? Make a guess on what it is.

About microbeads

A subset of microplastics, microbeads are tiny plastic particles <5mm in diameter, spherical or irregularly shaped and multicoloured (Miraj, 2019). Since its introduction in 1972, they have been used in more than 100 personal care products manufactured by industry giants like L’Oreal, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever (Dodds, 2020). Specifically, microbeads can be found in our personal care products such as hand-cleansers, soaps, toothpaste, shaving foam, bubble bath, sunscreen, shampoo, facial scrubs (UNEP, 2015). They are included to serve as an exfoliant, or even to provide a ‘feel-good factor’ for users (Miraj, 2019), with some products containing as much as 300,000 microbeads per unit (Winter, 2019).


While natural exfoliating materials are available such as pumice, oatmeal, apricot or walnut husks, they have mostly been replaced by microbeads made up of polyethylene plastic as it is easier and cheaper to produce (Miraj, 2019). And this is where the problem comes…


Every day, it is estimated that 808 trillion pieces of microbeads are washed down the drain in America and sent to water treatment plants. Here, about 99% of microbeads are extracted and deposited in the sludge, whereas the remaining 1% is bring released directly into waterways (Dodds, 2020). Unfortunately, those in the sludge are not spared from water bodies as the use of sludge as fertilisers often meant that these tiny plastics still end up in our waterways due to run-off.


Environmental problems of microplastics (microbeads)

Microplastic have been reported in every major sea and freshwater bodies.

Their small size makes them bioavailable to thousands of species across nearly all trophic levels, and thus there is a huge potential for microplastics to be ingested by aquatic animals and bioaccumulated via the food chain. Similarly, harmful chemicals or additives added to the plastic, as well as hydrophobic pollutants collected on the surface of these microplastic could also be bioaccumulated and biomagnified (Miraj, 2019) across the food chain, and eventually, reaching humans.

Visualisation of the bioaccumulation & biomagnification of plastics in the food chain


The way forward?

  • National & global scale: Phase out microbeads
  • Local scale: avoid products with microbeads, search for alternative exfoliants that are made with natural ingredients



Dodds, D. (2020, September 13). How makeup pollution endanger the ocean.  Wave Tribe. https://www.wavetribe.com/blogs/eco/how-makeup-pollution-endangers-the-ocean

Miraj, S. S., Parveen, N. & Zedan, H. S. (2019): Plastic microbeads: small yet mighty concerning, International Journal of Environmental Health Research, DOI: 10.1080/09603123.2019.1689233

UNEP. 2015. Plastic in cosmetics. ISBN: 978-92-807-3466-9.p. 33

Winter, L. (2019, June 8). We looked at the effect of plastic on our oceans – and what we discovered will shock you. Glamour. https://www.glamourmagazine.co.uk/article/plastic-beauty-products-environment-ocean-impact