What are Microbeads Doing to our Environment?

May 25, 2015


By Dr. Jen Newell

The Ontario government is considering passing a motion to ban microbeads from personal care products. Environmental crusaders and concerned citizens have been warning about the environmental threat that these tiny petro-particles pose as they slip past wastewater treatment plants and into the Great Lakes.

What are microbeads?

Microbeads are tiny (<1mm) balls of plastic made of polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate or nylon. They are used in many personal care products such as scrubs, body wash and toothpaste to aid exfoliation. These microbeads are becoming an increasingly significant source of pollution throughout the marine environment because they are too small to be retained by the filters used at water treatment facilities and they do not biodegrade.

What are microbeads doing to our environment?

Marine species are unable to distinguish between food and microplastics and therefore indiscriminately feed on microplastics. In an overview published for the Convention on Biological Diversity, it was shown that over 663 different species were negatively impacted by marine debris with approximately 11% of reported cases specifically related to the ingestion of microplastics.

The petroleum in the plastic serves as a magnet for other pollutants in the environment like DDT, PCBs, flame-retardants, and other industrial chemicals. Because these microbeads easily attract and absorb toxins, the beads are potentially toxic to any wildlife that eats them. The toxins from the beads can also accumulate in fish and wildlife, even potentially reaching humans who eat wildlife around the Great Lakes region.

The American non-governmental organization (NGO) 5Gyres, found a large number of microplastics in the Great Lakes and estimates that one single care product (Neutrogena’s Deep Clean) contains 360,000 microbeads. Beginning in 2012, a research team that included scientists from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia and The 5 Gyres Institute began sampling the Great Lakes to better understand plastic pollution in our most treasured resource. The recent research to collect data on the prevalence of plastics in the lakes is showing alarming results. Lake Michigan had an average of 17,000 microbeads per square kilometer. The levels were much lower in Lake Huron and Lake Superior, but Lake Erie and Lake Ontario had much higher concentrations. Lake Ontario’s levels are highest, with counts of up to 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometer.

What can we do?

Support the ban on microbead use and avoid products that use them for manual exfoliation. There are a number of natural, sustainable alternatives to microbeads, such as enzymes, sugar, and jojoba beads, which can be used in personal care products. Put your consumer power behind companies using more environmentally friendly ingredients and let the government know your position by writing a letter to Glen Murray, Minster of Environment and Climate Change.


Dr. Jen Newell is passionate about helping people embrace health, feel amazing and easily incorporate “real” food into their busy lives. Her mission is to make health accessible and achievable, and to inspire patients to live an active, vibrant and healthy life.

Jen has a clinical focus on digestive health, food sensitivities and healthy nutrition; mental health and stress-related illness; women’s health, hormone balance and fertility; optimal aging; and dermatology. She focuses on integrating healthy foods into one’s diet in a medicinal and therapeutic capacity and providing individuals with nutritional support that is easy to incorporate into a busy day. Dr. Newell practices at the Integrative Health Institute in Downtown Toronto.


Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel—GEF (2012). Impacts of Marine Debris on Biodiversity: Current Status and Potential Solutions, Montreal, Technical Series No. 67.

L.S. Fendall, M.A. Sewell, ‘Contributing to marine pollution by washing your face: microplastics in facial cleansers’, in: Marine Pollution Bulletin, 58 (8) (2009), pp. 1225-1228.

  1. Lithner et al., ‘Environmental and health hazard ranking and assessment of plastic polymers based on chemical composition’, in: Science of the total environment 409 (2011), pp. 3309–3324.



(Image: Pierre Bourrier/Getty Images)

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