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A form of plastic (synthetic polymer) that has numerous functions in cosmetic products.

  • Rounded polyethylene beads serve as an abrasive agent in many facial scrubs.
  • Also used as a stabilizer, binding agent, thickener, and film-forming agent.
  • No known toxicity for skin.
Polyethylene & marine life

According to a report in the April 2010 issue of Cosmetics & Toiletries magazine, “Despite this speculation on the subject, no technical data exists to support these statements and in many cases, these myths are generated by companies distributing natural ingredients and products.” It may interest you to know that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) classifies polyethylene as an inherently biodegradable material. The group also mentions that “the volume of these microspheres used in cosmetics and personal care is small and most of the particles are expected to be removed during sewage treatment.” (Additional source:

On the other hand

In December 2013, research published in the peer-reviewed journal, Marine Pollution Bulletin, demonstrated that although polyurethane beads are non-toxic to humans, they are not filtered during sewage treatment, so are accumulating in waterways, which may have a negative effect on animals that consume them. Another study demonstrated that polyurethane beads have the potential to absorb pollutants while in waterways. This research was conducted to establish the potential of absorption; however, it was not conducted using samples from actual waterways.

Microbeads in ingredient lists

The list is not comprehensive, so you should always check a cleanser’s ingredient list for polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, polylactic acid, or nylon— these are the most common plastics that make up microbeads.

Microbead phase-out

Personal care brands, like Johnson & Johnson and Unilever, have announced plans to phase out the ingredient from their product lines throughout 2015. L’Oreal is already ahead of schedule. The company said 80% reformulation has been completed and 100% of its rinsed off products will be reformulated by the end of 2016, ahead of the company’s forecasts.

L’Oréal made the decision to phase out the infamous ingredients back in 2013. Like other manufacturers, the company is opting for alternatives such as minerals like clays and perlite, powder of fruits kernels and some natural waxes, either alone or in association.

Illinois has banned the sale of products with microbeads; Ohio and New York are considering doing the same, as is Toronto. New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. introduced a bill to implement a ban nationwide by 2018, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has proposed similar legislation.

More sources
Eriksen M, Mason S, Wilson S, Box C, Zellers A, Edwards W, Farley H, Amato S. Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes. Mar Pollut Bull. 2013;77(1-2):177-82.
Browne M, Niven S, Galloway T, Rowland S, Thompson R. Microplastic moves pollutants and additives to worms; reducing functions linked to health and biodiversity. Curr Biol. 2013;23(23):2388-92.
Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, Inc. Our Safety & Care Commitment: Microbeads.
Unilever. Micro-plastics.
Forbes Magazine

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