Have you ever used an exfoliating scrub or toothpaste? If you're outside of the United States, it probably contained plastic microbeads. These tiny round beads look innocuous—but they’re actually big polluters. 


When we use products that contain them, these plastic microbeads go down the drain. Because they’re too small to be filtered, they end up in our rivers, lakes and oceans. In the United States, we release eight billion plastic microbeads into the environment each day. That's nearly three trillion each year. Once in the water, plastic microbeads attract persistent organic pollutants like flame retardants and other industrial chemicals linked to human health problems—even cancer. A single plastic microbead can be one million times more toxic than the water around it. These pollutants work their way up the food chain and onto our plates. A study found that one-quarter of all fish sold in California markets had microplastics and fibers in their guts.

We set out to fix the problem. In 2012, research conducted by 5 Gyres and SUNY Fredonia found a high concentration of plastic microbeads in the Great Lakes in an open-water setting. The findings inspired a coalition of dedicated non-profits and a community of passionate activists. We worked with Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, L'Oreal and Unilever to voluntarily phase out plastic microbeads from products made by brands like Neutrogena, Dove and The Body Shop. In 2015, President Obama signed The Microbead-Free Waters Act into law, making these plastics illegal in the United States as of 2018. Go team!

Meanwhile, the thing to remember about plastic microbeads is: You can avoid them. Pledge to go #plasticfree:

  • Don't buy products that contain microbeads, often identified on labels as polyethylene, polypropylene, polylactic acid (PLA), polystyrene or polyethylene terephthalate.

  • If you own a product that contains plastic microbeads, don’t squirt it down the drain! Squeeze the contents into the trash, then recycle the plastic packaging.

  • Need a skin scrub? Make your own from natural ingredients like brown sugar and oatmeal. 

Take the pledge today!


Currently, the United States, Canada and the U.K. are the only countries to implement plastic microbeads bans, but many other countries—including Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, China, India, Indonesia, Ireland, France, Luxembourg, Malaysia, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and Taiwan, Province of China—are considering one. Even the United Nations recommended a worldwide ban. Through the #breakfreefromplastic movement, 5 Gyres is connected to many of the organizations working globally on this issue.

In 2013, 5 Gyres launched the #beadfree Action Campaign to discourage the use of plastic microbeads. In just three months, the campaign diverted 16 billion microbeads from American oceans and lakes!