After discovering that 170 types of seafood contained traces of microplastics, Greenpeace East Asia decided to put 30 of the world’s biggest cosmetic and personal care brands to the test.

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Microbeads might be best known to you as the coloured beads in your shower gel and facial scrubs, but more recently they’ve gained notoriety for wreaking havoc on our ecosystems and marine life.

The tiny pieces of plastic are added to everyday cosmetic products as an exfoliating agent, or for colour and texture. They’re tiny enough to travel down your plughole and right through water filtration systems and into our rivers, lakes and oceans.

A single tube of face wash can contain up to 360,000 of these tiny plastic spheres. That means that once we have finished washing our faces or brushing our teeth, we unwittingly release thousands of pieces of plastic into our environment, where they go on to ‘gently exfoliate’ the digestive tracts of seabirds and even enter the food chain.

They can also act as agents to absorb and release toxic chemicals around the sea and into the marine life that ingests them. 

How do the companies stack up?

Greenpeace East Asia decided to put 30 of the world’s top companies to the test and rank them according to the strength of their commitment to getting rid of microbeads once and for all.

Check out how they rank.

While most of the brands claim to have their plastic pollution problem under control, not one of them succeeded in meeting Greenpeace’s environmental standards, meaning that they still have the potential to allow this contamination into our waterways.

Even the top scoring brands in the rank, like Beiersdorf, which has allegedly fulfilled all its commitments to its microbead ban pledge, have only taken action to remove one type of plastic-polythene- from its products, which gives a free rein to other polluting plastics.

The harmful effects of microbeads are now well known and we’re gathering more and more evidence that they’re bad news. Many of the world’s biggest brands have made pledges to rein in these toxic terrors, but they’re still not that simple for consumers to avoid.

Firstly, while some companies proudly tout the presence of ‘skin-polishing’ microbeads in their product descriptions, others contain microbeads that can be barely seen with the naked eye and only appear in the ingredients list as polyethylene, polypropylene or polystyrene.

Secondly, many brands have made promises to do the right thing and ban the beads, but each brand has its own, narrow or confusing definition of what constitutes a microbead. These definitions can vary from function of the product, role of the microbead and can even the shape of the microbead, creating loopholes that could allow the inclusion of microbeads that don’t fit into these limited definitions.

What’s the solution?

So how to get these pesky microbeads out of our products and out of our oceans? The solution is simple. Our governments need to step in and enforce a total ban on the sale and production of all solid microplastic ingredients in all personal care products.

The good news is, it’s already happening. The US announced a ban on microbeads in January of this year, while campaigns to do the same are building momentum all around the world.

In the meantime, you can vote with your wallet and choose brands that don’t add to this pointless pollution. Check out Flora and Fauna International’s Good Scrub Guide or download the Beat the Microbead app and send a clear message to manufacturers that microbeads are unwanted and unnecessary.

Taehyun Park is an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia

*Greenpeace East Asia consulted Fauna & Flora International on expected good practice with respect to corporate commitments to ending microplastic ingredient use.