What Do We Know Today About Microbeads and Microplastics in the Ocean?
Plastic microbeads visible in toothpaste on a toothbrush.
Microbeads are tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic added to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. They can pass through wastewater treatment processes and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes, posing a potential threat to aquatic life. (NOAA)
Tiny bits of microplastics litter a sandy patch of beach.
Microplastics, which include microbeads, are less than 5 millimeters long (roughly the size of a sesame seed). Most microplastic in the ocean actually ends up there after breaking down from bigger pieces of plastic on beaches. (NOAA)

JANUARY 21, 2015 -- Almost four years ago, NOAA communications coordinator Vicki Loe was surprised to find out about the presence of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products, such as exfoliating face cleansers and some types of toothpaste.

The problem with these tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic is that once they are washed down the drain, they escape being filtered by wastewater treatment processes, allowing them to enter the ocean and Great Lakes where they could absorb toxic chemicals in the environment and be ingested by animal life.

Microbeads are actually not a recent problem; according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), plastic microbeads first appeared in personal care products about fifty years ago, with plastics increasingly replacing natural ingredients with the same purpose in these products.

But even in 2012, this issue was still relatively unknown, with an abundance of products containing plastic microbeads on the market and not a lot of awareness on the part of consumers.

Microbeads, Macro-attention

For several years, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has been working with researchers that are investigating issues relating to microbeads in our marine environment. In recent years, the issue has received a fair amount of attention in the media and elsewhere.

As a result of increasing overall awareness of the problem, many companies that use microbeads in their products have been phasing them out voluntarily. On December 28, 2015, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 [PDF], banning plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.

The law was met with a lot of support, including from the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group who commented during the act's approval process, which said:

"Solid, plastic microbeads are used in personal care cleansing products because of their safe and effective exfoliating properties. Research by independent scientists and nongovernmental organizations show that microbeads from all types of industrial uses are miniscule contributors to marine plastic debris; cosmetic microbeads are a tiny fraction of that. At the same time, our member companies take very seriously their role as environmental stewards of their products. As a result, companies have voluntarily committed to replace solid plastic microbeads. We look forward to this important bipartisan legislation making its way to President Obama's desk and being signed into law."

Under the Microscope

After Loe originally learned about microbeads in cosmetic products, she discussed the issue with Dr. Joel Baker, Port of Tacoma Chair in Environmental Science at the University of Washington Tacoma and the Science Director of the Center for Urban Waters.

At the time, he was leading a project for the NOAA Marine Debris Program focused on detecting microplastics in the marine environment. Microplastics, which include microbeads, are minute pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long, or about the size of a sesame seed. More recently, he has conducted a study, "Quantification of Marine Microplastics in the Surface Waters of the Gulf of Alaska," that examined the quantity and distribution of microplastics at specific locations in Alaskan waters over time.

Following the signing of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, Loe checked back in with Dr. Baker to get his thoughts on the issue now.

Four years ago, he had told her, "While we don’t yet understand the impacts of microplastics to aquatic organisms, we do know that releasing persistent materials into the ocean will result in ever-increasing concentrations of marine debris."

Speaking to him now, while Dr. Baker sees the attention given to microbeads in health and beauty products over the last few years as a good way to raise awareness about plastics in the ocean, he cautions that there still is not enough known about the damage that these extremely small particles cause. He further points out that while certainly not insignificant, they represent a very small percentage of total microplastic debris in the ocean.

We need more research to be able to measure accurately the presence of smaller microplastics, including microbeads, in the ocean. While Dr. Baker and his colleagues have developed a manual on laboratory methods for extracting microplastics from water samples, the methods do not yet detect the smallest particles such as the microbeads that exist in some health and beauty products.

Breaking Down the Issues

In addition, Dr. Baker pointed out that microbeads are not the largest source of marine plastic or even microplastics.

"Most plastic in the ocean is from beach plastics that break down and improper disposal of trash," he said. Cosmetic microbeads are much smaller, and are considered primary microplastics [PDF], as opposed to secondary microplastics, which are the result of larger pieces of plastic breaking down into smaller pieces.

While Dr. Baker found encouraging the news that we'll be stopping one of the many ways plastic reaches the ocean, he emphasized there are plenty more that will require a lot of effort. He suggested that more attention needs to be paid to the abundance of plastic bags that end up in the ocean, which he feels represents a larger part of the plastic marine debris problem.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program strives to learn more about the impacts of marine microplastics.

In addition to Dr. Baker's work, the program currently is supporting microplastic research projects that include, but aren't limited to, measuring microplastics in the marine environment; the presence of microplastics in different geographical regions, such as the coastal mid-Atlantic region and national park beaches; examining juvenile fishes to determine if they are ingesting microplastic; and the effects of microplastics in aquatic food chains.

For more information on these issues, you also can refer to a UNEP 2014 update on plastic debris in the ocean [PDF].