Environmental groups have called on cosmetics and personal care products companies to ban the use of microbeads—used as exfoliants in skincare scrubs, soaps and shower gels—claiming that the micro-plastic particles can move through water filtration systems to oceans and lakes, which harms marine life and disrupts ecosystems. Microbeads have reportedly become popular in the cosmetics market only during the past decade, as manufacturers began using them as an exfoliating alternative to ground walnut shells, which can have sharp edges and pose allergy risks to some consumers.

According to advocacy group 5 Gyre, which conducted a soon-to-bepublished study of water in the Great Lakes, microbeads are one of the most “egregious sources” of plastic pollution because they are designed to be washed down the drain. Stiv Wilson, a 5 Gyre spokesperson who reportedly took the samples for the Great Lakes study said, “We didn’t even know we had them, at first. You can’t really see them and it’s not like they float on the surface. But you run the water through a coffee filter and you can see them with the naked eye…up to 10 milliliters of a 100-milliliter sample was plastic. Trillions and trillions and trillions of these beads are going into the water.”

The group has asked cosmetic manufacturers to use natural alternatives, such as apricot shells and cocoa beans, as a sustainable alternative to plastic microbeads. It has also sought to (i) pressure retailers to stop selling products that contain microbeads, (ii) encourage manufacturers to stop using microbeads in cosmetic and personal care products, (iii) raise awareness about the issue and encourage consumers to boycott companies that use microbeads, and (iv) ask legislators to ban the use of microbeads in consumer products. See Plastics News, June 7, 2013; 5gyres.org.