Australian Government: 

Why is it important to stop microbeads polluting the environment?

Microbeads are small, solid, manufactured plastic particles that are less than 5mm and don’t degrade or dissolve in water. They may be added to a range of products, including rinse-off cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products. Microbeads are used as ingredients in these products for a variety of purposes. This includes as an abrasive or exfoliant, a bulking agent, for controlled timed release of active ingredients, and to prolong shelf life. They are also a relatively cheap ingredient.

Microbeads are not captured by most wastewater treatment systems. If they are washed down drains after use, they can end up in rivers, lakes and oceans.

Once in the water, microbeads can have a damaging effect on marine life, the environment and human health. This is due to their composition, ability to adsorb toxins and potential to transfer up the marine food chain. These tiny plastics persist in the environment as they are almost impossible to remove. The best way to reduce their impact is to prevent them from entering the environment.

What is Australia doing about microbeads?

The Department of the Environment and Energy is working with industry and state and territory governments to ensure a voluntary phase-out of microbeads from personal care and cosmetic products. The phase-out focusses on microbeads in rinse-off products, which would be reasonably capable of entering the marine environment through normal use.

Microbeads in the Australian personal care and cosmetics market

Image of plastic microbeads from bottle

In late 2017, the Department commissioned an independent assessment of personal care and cosmetic products sold in supermarkets and pharmacies. The assessment found that of approximately 4400 supermarket, pharmacy and cosmetic store products inspected, 94 per cent were microbead-free. No shampoos, conditioners, body washes or hand cleaners were found to contain microbeads, indicating that the phase-out in these products may be successful.

The Department conducted an assessment of progress toward the voluntary phase-out and found that industry is on track to successfully phase out microbeads.

The Australian Government is committed to eliminating remaining microbeads from the Australian market and will examine options to broaden the phase-out to other products. We will be working with the state governments and Accord Australasia, the national industry association representing manufacturers and suppliers, to finalise monitoring and compliance protocol to support the continued success of the phase-out. As part of this process, we will commission a further independent assessment of microbeads in the retail market in late 2018, as well as research on microbeads entering the marine environment.

How do I know if microbeads are in my products?

Microbeads may be found in some products. These include toothpaste, sunscreen, facial scrubs, body wash, cosmetics such as foundation and blush, and other care products.

If you are concerned about microbeads in your products, look for the following ingredients.

Common microbead ingredients
Polyethylene (PE) Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) Nylon (PA)
Polypropylene (PP) Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)

Monitoring and Assurance Protocol

At a 2016 Meeting of Environment Ministers, ministers agreed to support a voluntary industry phase-out of plastic microbeads found in ‘rinse-off’ personal care, cosmetics and some cleaning products by July 2018. The voluntary phase out was led by Accord and overseen by the Commonwealth Department of Environment and Energy and the NSW Environment Protection Authority. To support the ongoing success of the voluntary phase out the Commonwealth issued Accord with a monitoring and assurance protocol in December 2018.

Voluntary industry phase-out of solid plastic microbeads from ‘rinse-off’ personal care, cosmetic and cleaning products – Monitoring and Assurance protocol (PDF – 401.15 KB)
Voluntary industry phase-out of solid plastic microbeads from ‘rinse-off’ personal care, cosmetic and cleaning products – Monitoring and Assurance protocol (DOCX – 24.84 KB)

Further information

  • BeadRecede – the initiative launched by Accord Australasia, the peak industry association for cosmetics, hygiene and specialty products
  • New South Wales EPA – more information and research about microbeads

Contact us

Do you want to know more about microbeads in a product? Email us at wastepolicy@environment.gov.au.