Microbeads and other microplastics are used in a variety of cosmetic and personal care products such as scrubs, soaps, lotions, and toothpastes. They are added to these products primarily for exfoliation purposes. These plastic particles enter the environment when consumers rinse them down the drain. The plastic can then subsequently be released into freshwater and marine systems. Scientists believe that microplastics are likely to have environmental and human health impacts. Studies have shown that microplastics can be ingested by marine animals leading to physical harm and toxic effects on reproduction. There is also evidence to suggest that microplastics are entering the human food chain.
A number of companies are voluntarily phasing out microbeads. The voluntary measures taken by industry could reduce cosmetic microbead use by almost 50% by 2020. In the USA, a ban on microbeads in cosmetic and personal care products will be phased in by 2018. There have been calls for a similar ban in the United Kingdom and European Union to address what is perceived to be an unnecessary source of pollution. Companies that are phasing out microplastic beads can replace them with biodegradable exfoliants such as jojoba beads, crushed apricot pits, sea salt, and coffee grounds.