Why does Maine want to ban those tiny microbeads in your soap?


Does your face wash or body scrub promise to exfoliate your skin? That dewy glow might come at the expense of the environment.

Maine is among 20 states considering legislation to ban “microbeads,” those tiny plastic beads used in hundreds of personal care products, from soap to toothpaste. While they work well to slough off dead skin, microbeads can escape the filters in many water treatment systems after we wash them down the drain, eventually winding up in lakes, rivers and oceans.

The beads, measuring fewer than 5 millimeters in size, threaten fish and wildlife, including critters that mistake them for food.

Source: 5Gyres

“They are about the same size as fish eggs, which means that, essentially, they look like food. To any organism that lives in the water, they are food,” Sherri Mason, chemistry professor at the State University of New York, Fredonia told NPR.

Aquatic life eat the microbeads, which can bind to toxic substances in the water, potentially passing the chemicals on to humans and animals that in turn eat them, scientists say.

New York and Illinois have banned microbeads, amid growing concern about their appearance in the Great Lakes. Mason’s team found, on average, 17,000 pieces of tiny plastic particles per square kilometer in Lake Michigan.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection hasn’t tested the state’s waters for microbeads, but assumes the non-biodegradable particles are present, according to spokesman Karl Wilkins.

Maine took a step closer to a ban last week. The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee unanimously supported a bill to phase out the use of microbeads in personal care products, beginning in 2018. The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton, also proposes to ban the manufacture of microbeads in over-the-counter drugs, beginning in 2019.

Some manufacturers — including L’Oreal, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble — are voluntarily dropping microbeads from their products, in favor of alternatives such as sand and apricot seeds. An industry trade group actually backed the Illinois legislation banning microbeads, due to the environmental concerns.

How can you tell if your favorite products contain microbeads?

  • Some products advertise microbeads on the packaging.
  • Check the label for “polyethylene” or “polystyrene.”
  • The organization Beat the Microbead maintains a list of products that contain the beads and has an app that scans a product’s bar code to tell you if it contains them.
Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.