Have you ever used an exfoliating scrub or toothpaste? Chances are, it contained plastic microbeads. These tiny round beads look innocuous—but they’re actually pretty evil.


When we use products that contain them, these plastic microbeads go down the drain. Because they’re too small to be filtered—less than a grain of salt—they end up in our rivers, lakes and oceans. In the United States, we release 8 billion plastic microbeads into the environment each day. That's nearly 3 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.

But the thing to remember about plastic microbeads is: You can avoid them. It’s simple: Pledge to go #beadfree and avoid products that contain polyethylene, polypropylene, polylactic acid (PLA), polystyrene, or polyethylene terephthalate.


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, and in 2015, President Obama signed The Microbead-Free Waters Act into law. Beginning in 2017, it became illegal for companies to manufacture products that contain plastic microbeads, and by 2018 the sale of these products will also be prohibited.

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 it. 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! But the story doesn’t stop there. At the current rate, more than 7.3 trillion microbeads will enter the marine environment before the Microbead-Free Waters Act becomes effective in 2018.

Here are four more #beadfree actions you can take today:

  • 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 facial scrub? Make your own from natural ingredients like brown sugar and oatmeal. 

  • Sign up for our newsletter to stay in the loop on the fight against microbeads!

  • Check out our Plastic-Free Shopping Guide for options on how to live without plastic in your exfoliant.