Microbeads: The facts, the fears and the fight have them banned

Q&A: Consuming water or food containing microbeads carries a series of ‘potential risks’

What are microbeads?

Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic frequently used in cosmetic and cleansing products. They are less than 5mm in diameter. They are found in toothpastes, shower gels, defoliants, bodywashes, face scrubs,detergents, cleansing agents, sunscreens, scouring agents and synthetic fibres in clothing.

Invented in the 1980s, they had medical applications including in Aids testing and cancer treatments but began to get a notorious reputation when they were increasing found in marine environments.They are too small to be removed by sewage filtration systems and end up in rivers and oceans, where they are ingested by birds, fish and other marine life.

What are they used for?


Microbeads are used to give products their gritty texture, or in some instances a smooth structure.

How prevalent are they?

There are about 100,000 microbeads in a facewash product. A single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean, according to one estimate – the number that gets washed down plugholes in the US every day has been calculated at about 808 trillion. They get eaten by tiny plankton and work their way up the food chain where they have been found in the stomachs of large fish and fish-eating birds.

The amount of plastic waste created in Ireland is unknown, as the EPA is only obliged to report on plastic packaging waste. Microplastic waste created by a range of industries is currently not measured or regulated, although new research from Galway Mayo Institute of Technology gives an indication of its occurrence in rivers and lakes.

Some 90 per cent of microplastics, it found, are channelled through the waste water treatment system and is ending up in sewage sludge and 10 per cent is still going out in treated water, which then goes back into our rivers and lakes. We apply sewage sludge mostly to agricultural land for tillage yet we don’t know or understand what happens to it after that.

Marine experts fear there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, measured by weight, according to a factsheet from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-based charity working to end waste in the economy. Plastic is omnipresent in oceans, it notes – the same goes for microbeads.

Where are mircobeads banned?

The Netherlands banned them in 2014, the US in 2015 and Canada in 2016. The UK has followed suit with a plan to ban microbeads in cosmetics by the end of 2017. Some cosmetic companies have also stopped using them voluntarily. In 2012 Unilever said it would no longer put them in its products, while L’Oréal and Procter & Gamble have also said they will stop using them. Boots removed microbeads from its own brands in 2014.

What are the implications for human health?

So far there is no scientific evidence that microplastics pose a risk to humans when passed up the food chain by fish but there is growing concern about the possibility.

A review by the European Food Safety Authority says the digestive tract of marine organisms contains the largest quantities of microplastics but this part is normally discarded before consumption. However, the digestive tract of bivalves such as mussels is eaten. It says microplastics are likely to originate from other sources than the food itself, e.g. processing aids, water, air or being release from machinery, equipment and textiles. It is therefore possible that the amount of microplastics increases during processing.

The GMIT study, however, outlines a series of “potential risks” to humans from drinking water or eating food that contains microbeads.

What can you do to minimise their use?

Consumers can help by checking product labels for cosmetics and cleaners to see if they certify they are microplastic free.

Scientists at the University of Bath have developed biodegradable cellulose microbeads that could replace plastic versions, but this promising breakthrough is likely to take some years before they may be routinely used in commercial products.

In the meantime, natural, biodegradable, alternatives to microbeads exist, such as jojoba beads, apricot kernels, ground nutshells and salt.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times