PCPC supports our member companies’ strong commitment to product safety and environmental stewardship, including protection of the marine environment that sustains life on our planet. That’s why we responded early and aggressively to concerns about microbeads and their presence in oceans and waterways.

In 2014, the beauty industry announced a voluntary phase-out of microbeads in the U.S., followed by a similar action in Europe a year later. PCPC worked with elected officials, regulatory authorities and environmental advocacy groups to support laws and regulation that permanently ban microbeads from use in the U.S. The Microbead-Free Waters Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2015, prohibits the manufacture of rinse-off products containing microbeads, effective July 1, 2017.

Microbeads are defined as any intentionally added, 5 mm or less, solid plastic particle used to exfoliate or cleanse in rinse-off personal care products or toothpaste. Historically, they were used in rinse-off cleansing products because of their safe and effective exfoliating properties that helped to remove dry, dead cells from the surface of the skin, as well as unclog pores. Microbeads were emitted to freshwater and marine environments from consumer products disposed of down the drain.

Our members take their role as environmental stewards very seriously. As a result, they voluntarily committed to replace solid plastic microbeads, even before bans were legally implemented. Alternative materials used as replacements include beeswax; rice bran wax; jojoba waxes; starches derived from corn, tapioca and carnauba; seaweed; silica; clay; and other natural compounds.

Science & Safety

Plastic microbeads are a type of primary microplastic, defined as any type of tiny, solid plastic particle or fiber found as litter in oceans and other waterways. Primary microplastic is intentionally added to certain consumer, pharmaceutical and agricultural products. Microplastics – referred to as secondary microplastic – most often start as larger pieces of plastic debris, such as plastic packaging, cigarette filters, car tires or synthetic fabric that breaks down into tiny pieces over time.

According to a 2016 report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the use of microplastics in personal care and cosmetics products is not a significant source of environmental pollution, “especially compared with other sources of primary and secondary microplastics,” such as plastic packaging, cigarette filters, car tires or synthetic fabric that break down into tiny pieces over time. These conclusions, along with the findings of other studies, show that microbeads in personal care and cosmetics products make up a mere 0.03-1.5 percent of all marine plastic debris.

Additionally, a 2020 study by Holmes et al. demonstrated that only a small fraction of microbeads disposed of down the drain are emitted to freshwater and marine environments in the U.S., because wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) efficiently remove these materials. A 2018 review of microplastic environmental safety data by Burns and Boxall also concluded that microplastic emissions from all sources pose a negligible environmental risk.

Global Science Plastic and Polymer Task Force (GSPPTF)

PCPC’s task force works to define and distinguish microbeads, microplastic, waxes and polymers in cosmetics; apply an environmental risk assessment approach; and identify a strategy that expeditiously drives a science-based approach to protect the use of materials that are respectful to the environment. Led by our Chief Scientist Alex Kowcz and Senior Environmental Scientist Dr. Iain Davies, members are required to have appropriate technical expertise in the subject matter.