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This article is about plastic microspheres commonly used in cosmetics. For microbeads of varying composition that are used in research, see Microbeads (research). For other uses, see Microsphere (disambiguation).

Microbeads are polyethylene microspheres that are widely used in cosmetics, skin care and personal care industries, as well as biomedical and health science research, microscopy techniques, fluid visualization and fluid flow analysis, and process troubleshooting.[1] They are commercially available in particle sizes from 10 um to 1000 um (1mm). Low melting temperature and fast phase transitions make this material especially suitable for creating porous structures in ceramics and other materials.

In the cosmetics industry they are usually used as exfoliating agents. Sphericity and particle size uniformity create a ball-bearing effect in creams and lotions, resulting in a silky texture and spreadability. Exceptional smoothness and roundness also provides lubrication during application. Microspheres in different colors add visual appeal to cosmetic products.[2] Plastic particle water pollution by microplastics including plastic microbeads has become a substantial environmental concern.


Fluorescent polyethylene microspheres are commonly used to run blind tests on laboratory and industrial processes, in order to develop proper methods and minimize cross-contamination of equipment and materials. Microspheres that appear to be invisible in the daylight can be illuminated to display a bright fluorescent response under UV light.

Colored polyethylene microspheres are used for fluid flow visualization to enable observation and characterization of flow of particles in a device. Colored microspheres can also be used as visible markers in microscopy and biotechnology.

Black polyethylene microspheres can have magnetic or conductive functionality, and have uses in electronic devices, EMI shielding and microscopy techniques.


Microbeads from cosmetics and personal care products are washed down the drain after use, entering the sewer system before making their way into rivers and canals.[3] From there, they can easily end up in seas and oceans, contributing to the issue known as the plastic soup. In 2009 researchers at the University of Auckland published an article which shows that microbeads pass into household waste water streams directly and are not filtered out at sewage treatment plants.[4]

Plastic microbeads found in exfoliating personal care products and toothpastes are polluting the Great Lakes. Recent research published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, a peer-reviewed journal, found high concentrations of plastics in U.S. lakes, particularly Lake Erie. Microbeads accounted for 90 percent of these plastics. [5] Microbeads are designed to be small enough to wash down the drain, but they are not caught by sewage treatment, instead flowing into waterways.

Illinois became the first U.S. state to enact legislation banning the manufacture and sale of products containing microbeads; the two-part ban goes into effect in 2018 and 2019.[6] The New York State Assembly voted in May 2014 to ban microbeads, and additional legislation was under consideration in Ohio and California. The Personal Care Products Council, a trade group for the cosmetic industry, has come out in support of the Illinois bill, which prohibits the sale of personal care products with microbeads by 2019.[7] Major beauty companies such as The Body Shop, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, and Procter & Gamble have pledged to phase out plastic microbeads from their products. In August 2014, the proposed bill that would ban use of microbeads in California failed to pass the Senate voting.[8] In October 2014, the New Jersey legislature passed a similar ban[9] which is awaiting action from Governor Chris Christie.

The Netherlands is the first country in the world to announce its intent to be virtually free of microbeads in cosmetics by the end of 2016.[10] State Secretary for Infrastructure and the Environment Mansveld has said she is pleased with the progress made by the members of the Nederlandse Cosmetica Vereniging (NCV), the Dutch trade organisation for producers and importers of cosmetics.[11] All members have ceased using microbeads or are working towards removing microbeads from their product. By 2017 80% of them should have completed the transition to a microbead-free product line. Among the NCV's members are large multinationals such as Unilever, L'Oréal, Colgate-Palmolive, Henkel, and Johnson & Johnson.

Beat the Microbead campaign[edit]

In 2012, the North Sea Foundation and the Plastic Soup Foundation launched an App, allowing Dutch consumers to check whether personal care products contain microbeads.[12] In the summer of 2013, UNEP and UK based NGO Fauna and Flora International joined the partnership in order to further develop the App for international audiences. The App has enjoyed great success, convincing a number of large multinationals to stop using microbeads.[13] The App is now available in seven languages.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Paint and Coatings Industry Magazine, January 1st, 2010 : Opaque Polyethylene Microspheres for the coatings applications
  2. ^ Cosmetics and Toiletries, April 2010 Issue: Solid Polyethylene Microspheres for effects in color cosmetics
  3. ^ "Science - Beat the Microbead". Beat the Microbead. Retrieved November 25, 2014. 
  4. ^ Fendall, L.S.; Sewell, M.A. (2009). "Contributing to marine pollution by washing your face: microplastics in facial cleansers". Marine Pollution Bulletin 58 (8): 1225–1228. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2009.04.025. 
  5. ^ Eriksen, Marcus; Mason, Sherri; Wilson, Stiv; Box, Carolyn; Zellers, Ann; Edwards, William; Farley, Hannah; Amato, Stephen (2013). "Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes". Marine Pollution Bulletin 77 (1-2): 177–182. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2013.10.007. 
  6. ^ "Governor Quinn Signs Bill to Ban Microbeads, Protect Illinois Waterways". Illinois Government News Network. June 8, 2014. 
  7. ^ Johnson, Jim. "Momentum building for plastic microbead bans," Plastics News, May 9, 2014. Accessed May 22, 2014.
  8. ^ Pitman, Simon. "California bill to ban microbeads fails". Retrieved 22 September 2014. 
  9. ^ Johnson, Brent. NJ Advance media for NJ.com http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2014/10/bill_to_ban_microbeads_in_nj_heads_to_christies_desk.html. Retrieved 24 October 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  10. ^ "Beat the Microbead: Nederland spreekt zich uit". Plastic Soup Foundation. October 29, 2014. 
  11. ^ "Appreciatie RIVM rapport en stand van zaken microplastics en geneesmiddelen". Rijksoverheid. October 28, 2014. 
  12. ^ "In short - Beat the Microbead". Beat the Microbead. Retrieved November 25, 2014. 
  13. ^ "Results - Beat the Microbead". Beat the Microbead. Retrieved November 25, 2014. 

External links[edit]