Think Microbeads are Over? Check Your Toothpaste

Microbead scrubs are getting banned, but they're not the only source of environmentally hazardous microplastics.
Publish date:
April 21, 2015
environment, eco-friendly, microbeads, government, toothpaste

The last time we talked about microbeads on xoVain, Marci told you that New York was considering banning them. Microbeads are a common ingredient in many exfoliating scrubs. They’re actually tiny pieces of plastic--and they’re really bad for lakes and oceans.

Every time you use a product that contains microbeads, the tiny bits of plastic wash down your drain. Unlike larger pieces of plastic, they can’t be filtered out by our sewage systems, which just weren’t designed with this task in mind. Eventually, the plastic microbeads reach the ocean. Since microbeads don’t biodegrade, they’ll last forever, swirling around the ocean with all the other plastic trash we’ve put there.

Microplastic is a particularly insidious form of pollution. Small marine animals eat the microbeads, because they can’t tell microplastic from actual food. Then a fish eats the small animal, and the collection of microplastic moves up the food chain. According to, it’s likely that humans are also absorbing microbeads when we eat eat sea food.

The good news...

Activist groups like 5 Gyres have succeeded in getting the attention of governments and the cosmetics industry. Since Marci’s last post on the subject, more governments are considering banning microbeads.

  • Environment Canada is studying the harmful effects of microbeads. The findings of this study are supposed to determine a federal-provincial action plan. Canada’s NDP party has also introduced a motion calling for a ban on microbeads.
  • New York State banned the sale of cosmetic products containing microbeads in 2014.
  • Illinois has banned the manufacture and sale of products with microbeads by the end of 2017/2018. Sadly, this bill contains a loophole allowing "biodegradable plastics" to be used as an alternative. Biodegradable plastics don’t break down in a cold, ocean environment.
  • New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. introduced a bill to implement a nationwide ban by 2018.

Major cosmetics companies have also started responding to public pressure.

  • Unilever says it has removed all microbeads from its personal care products as of January 2015.
  • Procter & Gamble has announced that it is phasing out the use of microbeads from all its toothpaste products, which is expected to be complete by March 2016.
  • L’Oréal has promised to replace its products containing microbeads, a process that will take until 2017 for its most popular products. L’Oréal said the move affects at least one hundred products.

The bad news...

Microbeads are not the only source of microplastics, and some sources are harder to avoid than others. Other sources include...

  • Toothpaste. Check the ingredient list for “polyethylene,” “polythene,” “polypropylene,” and “polyethylene terephthalate.” These are all plastics.
  • Laundry and dishwasher soap pods. Switch to liquid or powder laundry soap, and tablets or powder dishwashing detergent. Again, check the ingredients for “polyethylene”, “polythene”, “polypropylene” and “polyethylene terephthalate.”
  • Fibres from synthetic clothing (when you wash it, the rinse water takes microscopic fibres into the sewer). Sadly, there’s no way to avoid this, at least until someone invents a washing machine that can filter out clothing fibers. You could switch to natural-fibre clothing, but the vast majority of clothing is terrible for the environment anyways (dyes pollute waterways, cotton sucks up water, etc.)
  • Plastic bags and other plastic pollution. As plastic bags break down, they shred into tiny pieces of microplastic. This is a good reason to limit your plastic consumption where you can.

How to avoid microplastics

Use the Warning: Plastic Inside app, developed by the North Sea Foundation and the Plastic Soup Foundation. This app allows you to scan a bar code with your smartphone camera to determine if a product has microbeads. It’s available for iOS, Android, and Windows phones.

Check your toothpaste, laundry soap and dishwashing pods for the following ingredients: “polyethylene,” “polythene,” “polypropylene,” and “polyethylene terephthalate.”

Look at this list of popular US products that contain microbeads--and don’t buy them! Don’t just assume that microbeads are only in drugstore products. Lots of high end brands are on this list, including Bliss, Caudalie, Kate Someriville, and Laura Mercier.

  • Are you running to check your toothpaste right now?
  • Is anyone going to join me in giving up dishwasher pods?
  • What’s your favourite way of exfoliating that doesn’t use tiny pieces of plastic?