How to cut out microbeads

Plastic microbeads have been banned in the UK for rinse-off cosmetics... but that's not the end of the matter.

What are microbeads?

'Microplastics' is a term used for any plastics less than 5 mm long; some of these plastics have come from larger pieces that have simply degraded, while others have been manufactured to be small.

For the last 50 years, manufactured tiny particles of plastic less than 1mm wide – (known as 'microbeads') - have been used in personal care products and cosmetics such as facial scrubs, shower gels, eyeshadow and toothpaste. It’s estimated that there can be as many as 360,000 tiny plastic beads in a standard bottle of some facial cleansers! Every year, 35,000 tonnes of microplastics from cosmetics alone end up in the ocean.

Why are they a problem?

Microbeads can’t be recycled and are so tiny, they slip through water treatment plants into our seas and rivers. They don’t just disappear although they may break down into even smaller pieces, and they can have detrimental effects at all levels of the food chain - from microscopic plankton to fish and sea birds, with the potential to accumulate in animals' bodies further up the food chain. With plastics being found in seafood, this means that humans are at risk of ingesting plastic too.

Microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics have been banned in the UK, but can still be found in many other products, including sunscreen, lipstick and paint


Weren't microplastics banned in the UK?

In early 2018, a ban on the manufacture of products containing microbeads was put in place. In June 2018, a further ban on the sale of rinse-off products containing plastic microbeads cam into force in the UK. This ban includes products like toothpaste and scrubs.

The problem is, plastic microbeads are still allowed in many other products, including cleaning products, sunscreen, paints and lipstick, so it's still important to be on the lookout. It is estimated that 210,000 tonnes of plastic from paint on roads and buildings end up in the ocean every year, meaning the ban is only affecting a very small portion of the problem!

What can I do?

Check product ingredients for microbeads, especially items that claim to polish, add extra shine, or shimmer. Because they are made from various plastics, they come under many different names, making them hard to spot. Here are some of the most commonly used plastics to look out for:

  • polyethylene (PE)
  • polypropylene (PP)
  • polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  • polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
  • nylon (PA)

Even though the ban has taken effect in the UK for rinse-off cosmetics, you may still have some products lurking in your bathroom at home. If you do come across any, don't wash them down the sink! Using a coffee filter, you can try straining the product by pressing it through a coffee filter to capture the beads. You can dispose of the beads in your refuse bin, and use the remainder of the strained product plastic-free!