The United States is set to ban exfoliating cleansing products containing plastic microbeads because of their toxic effect on the marine environment.

The United States is set to ban soaps and other exfoliating personal care products containing plastic microbeads. The United States Senate has passed legislation to phase out their use, by banning their manufacture from July 2017 and their sale from 2018. Australia is set to introduce a voluntary ban from July 2018. Australia’s two largest supermarkets have committed to phase out their own products containing microbeads from 2017.

What are microbeads and why are they a problem?

Microbeads are extremely small pieces of plastic widely used in cleansing products as an exfoliant to remove dead cells from the surface of the skin. They are very small and typically measure less than 1 mm in diameter. A study undertaken by Canadian Department of the Environment has recommended that microbeads are added to their list of toxic substances. The study concluded they had been shown to elicit both short and long-term effects in laboratory organisms.

Microbeads readily enter the marine environment after use by being literally washed down the plughole. Their small size means that they are not generally removed during water treatment and enter the marine environment. Once in the marine environment they can persist for more than one hundred years. They can absorb a variety of water pollutants, including persistent organic pollutants. Once absorbed, these pollutants can enter the food chain when they are mistakenly eaten by marine organisms and birds. Research has shown that once in the food chain microbeads can transfer to other species and can ultimately enter the human food chain.

Many product bans such as this would be unnecessary if only companies considered products systemically. Systems can be characterised by a set of common properties. One such property is lifecycle. Systems are created, they operate and eventually they are discarded when they reach the end of their useful lives. When exfoliating soaps and scrubs reach the end of their useful life they are simply rinsed off the body.

Until about twenty years ago, the cosmetics industry used natural exfoliants such as ground apricot kernels or crushed walnut shells, before switching to microbeads. Had the industry considered the quantity, polluting effects and cost to the environment they may not have switched in the first place.