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Microbeads- what? why? how?

Microbeads- what? why? how?

What are Microbeads?

These are tiny granules (1 mm to 0.1 µm) that vary in shape, density, chemical composition, formation and function. [1]

They are found in;

  • Scrubs
  • Toothpastes
  • Shower gels
  • Cleansers
  • Cleaning products
  • Printer toners
  • Plastic blasting
  • Anti-slip applications
  • Anti-block applications
  • Medical applications

Industrial applications such as;

  • Oil and gas exploration
  • Textile printing
  • Automotive molding

Microbeads or microplastics?

“Microplastics” are plastic matter found in water and soil, that are less than 5 mm in size. This may take different shapes [2]. This includes microbeads. In other words all those plastics and polythene dumped in to the sea and oceans that undergoes weathering and tattering eventually become microplastics. Yet, microbeads are anthropogenic. They are man-made and released to the environment as micro particles.

This article will focus on microbeads.

Why is it considered a pollutant?

As of any pollutant in water even these tiny plastic pieces contaminates the environment. Most of these products are washed down the sink. These then flows through drainage systems and ends up in water bodies like lakes, rivers and the ocean.

In water bodies they separate into layers according to the density. Light weighted or low density microbeads/ microfibers  float on the surface where as high density ones mix with sediments and the rest, in the middle of the water body according to their weight.

These particles are mainly non-degradable. As of any plastic, it retains in the environment for a long long time. What’s worse is that they even adsorb other chemical pollutants into their tiny bodies. Like Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), that are already present in water. So, may it be a human, fish, bird or any animal that ingest these tiny particles ingest another bunch of chemicals too [1].

Human ingestion

A study by  Tanaka and Takada on “Microplastic fragments and microbeads in digestive tracts of planktivorous fish from urban coastal waters” proves that these beads, fibers and even plastic fragments can be accumulated in fish. The fish they have used in this study is, Japanese anchovy (Engraulis japonicus), a fish that feeds and hangs around in surface and subsurface levels of the oceans. The results says that 77% of the samples contained plastics. Out of that 7.3% were microbeads and  5.3% were filaments. The rest composed of other plastics such as polythene and foams [3].

Another study on Blue fin tuna (Sinhala: Balaya) shows that gut content had particles of microplastics that came from its pray, myctophid fish [4]. On the same phenomenon, any predative fish can be contaminated with microbeads.

What would your chance of eating one of these fish be?

Anyhow, no research was found on direct connection between microbeads ingestion and  ingestion of other chemical pollutants adsorbed into these microbeads, which is highly possible.

This also reveals the fact that microbeads are present in ocean waters. Which means even your salt can contain these particles!!!! How about keeping a microscope in the kitchen???

Sea food fried rice, sea food pizza, pasta, spegeti, noodles, almost anything made out of seafood are  delicacies among many people. Prawns, squids, octopuses can easily get these particles ingested through their pray animals. Bivalves such as oysters, clams, mussels, .. etc are filter feeders that filters the water to obtain their meal. Thus they can easily ingest and accumulate Microbeads in their gut.

How to prevent?

Well, it’s easy. Cut the source..stop using these ex-foliating items such as Scrubs, Shower gels, Cleansers.., etc. That will cut a greater portion of the contamination. How much you may ask,

According to; Napper and Thompson [5] microbeads incorporated in personal care products as ex-foliants varied somewhere around 137,000 to 2,800,000 per 150ml bottle. It is also reported that some products that are used on a daily basis could release about 94,500 microbead particles per application, to household waste water [5].

Even if we stop dumping microbeads to water bodies today, microbeads already in the water and sediments of rivers, lakes, seas and oceans today, will remain there for another 100 years or so.

How can you identify whether your product contains microbeads? 

I found one in a facial scrub..

All the beads in products are NOT microbeads. There are other degradable chemicals too. To identify correctly, read the “Ingredients” section and look for names; polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethlyl methacrylate (PMMA) or nylon [6].

It’s simple and also allows you to be a contributor towards a healthy environment, until laws are set and implemented.

It is essential to take measures to bring up rules and regulations to reduce and eventually ban microbeads in products.

In addition, the efficiency of water purification systems should be enhanced to remove microbeads and microfibers from household water supply systems.


  1. Microbeads – A Science Summary, https://www.ec.gc.ca/ese-ees/ADDA4C5F-F397-48D5-AD17-63F989EBD0E5/Microbeads_Science%20Summary_EN.pdf (Acessed January 2017).
  2. What are microplastics?, NOAA,  http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html  (Acessed January 2017).
  3. Tanaka, K., Takada, H., Microplastic fragments and microbeads in digestive tracts of planktivorous fish from urban coastal waters, Scientific Reports, 2016; doi:10.1038/srep34351. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5043373/ (Accessed January 2017).
  4. Young, J.W., Lamb, T.D. Le D, Bradford, R.W., Whitelaw, A.W., Feeding ecology and interannual variations in diet of southern bluefin tuna, Thunnus maccoyii, in relation to coastal and oceanic waters off eastern Tasmania, Australia. Environmental Biology of Fishes, 1997, 50: 275–291.
  5. Napper, I. E. Thompson, R. C., Characterisation, Quantity and Sorptive Properties of Microplastics Extracted From Cosmetics. Marine Pollution Bulletin (in press), 2015.
  6. Plastic Microbeads:  Ban The Bead!, http://storyofstuff.org/plastic-microbeads-ban-the-bead/ (Accessed January 2017)


  1. Ecologically relevant data are policy-relevant data (Microplastics reduce fish hatching success and survival) https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55b29de4e4b088f33db802c6/t/575897eac6fc08df251b2c54/1465423853163/Rochman+Science+2016.pdf (Accessed January 2017).
  2. Reisser, J., Shaw, J., Wilcox, C., Hardesty, B.D., Proietti, M., Thums, M., et al., Marine Plastic Pollution in Waters around Australia: Characteristics, Concentrations, and Pathways, PLoS ONE, 2013 8(11): e80466. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080466. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0080466 (Accessed January 2017).
  3. Katsnelson, A., Microplastics present pollution puzzle, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 5547–5549, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1504135112. http://www.pnas.org/content/112/18/5547.full (Accessed January 2017).

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