Small beads of plastic – microbeads – are used in health and beauty products as abrasive or exfoliating particles. Because of their small size, they can pass through the filters used in waste water treatment and enter the environment. Because they are made of plastic, it takes a long time for them to break down.
Once they are in the environment, microbeads can be consumed by aquatic life when they mistake them for food. Microbeads can also be consumed when a predator eats an animal that has eaten microbeads.
When microbeads are consumed, they can clog up the stomach of the animal. This can reduce the space left for actual food and lead to starvation. The chemicals that are added to microbeads, as well as the chemicals that they might attach to in the environment, can also impact animals that have consumed microbeads.
Some research has found that the impacts of microbeads in the environment are small when compared to other issues. However, they are easily avoidable and a range of biodegradable alternatives are available.