Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that can be found in consumer products such as cosmetics, or toothpaste.
The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015f amended the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act to prohibit microbeads, which are a type of microplastics that are intentionally added to products such as rinse-off cosmetics. The reason is that microplastics can end up in waterways and harm fish and other marine life.
In this guide, we explain what microplastics are, which products may contain them, and how the FDA and various state regulations restrict some types of microplastics from being used in products.
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What are microplastics?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes microplastics as plastic particles that have a size ranging from 1 nm to 5 mm that negatively affect the environment and human health.
Additionally, it states that microbeads are intentionally produced microplastics used in cosmetics (e.g. face scrub).
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides a similar definition, as it claims that microbeads are a type of microplastic added as exfoliants to beauty products (e.g., cleansers, toothpaste).
The Microbead-Free Waters Act and the FDA website define plastic microbeads as parts that:
- Have a maximum of 5 mm
- Are intended for cleansing or exfoliating the body
The FDA acknowledges that microbeads often end up in waterways, polluting lakes, seas, and oceans, where aquatic life and seafaring wildlife may mistake them for food.
What products may contain microplastics?
The FDA, in its FAQ concerning the Microbead-Free Waters Act, lists the following examples of rinse-ff cosmetics that are covered by the act, as they could contain microplastics:
- Acne scrubs
- Anti-bacterial soap
- Anti-dandruff shampoo
Additionally, the EPA explains that microplastics may even come from everyday plastic products when they break up into smaller parts. Here are some examples of these products:
- Food wrapping
- Synthetic fabrics
Are microplastics banned in the US?
The Microbead-Free Waters Act prohibits the manufacturing, packaging, distributing, and selling of rinse-off cosmetic products (including those sold over-the-counter, that is, sold as nonprescription drugs) that contain intentionally added plastic microbeads. According to the FDA, toothpaste is included in the definition.
Several US states have also enacted legislation that restricts (e.g., 1 ppm by weight) or bans microbeads in some types of cosmetics and personal care products.
Cosmetics: Microbead-Free Waters Act
This Act amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act to prohibit the manufacture and distribution of rinse-off cosmetics containing intentionally added microbeads.
The Act defines “plastic microbead” as solid plastic particles that are less than five millimetres in size and are intended to be used to exfoliate or cleanse the human body.
The US Congress passed this Act because microbeads may negatively affect marine life and because several states had previously enacted similar laws. Thus, it decided to enact a nationally applicable federal law.
According to the FDA, the Act disallows state or local authorities from enforcing laws restricting the manufacture or delivery of microbead-containing rinse-off cosmetics unless those laws have the same requirements as the Act.
Finally, the FDA explains that the Microbead-Free Waters Act does not intend to address consumer safety, as there is no evidence that microbeads hurt human health.
EPA Expert Workshop
During our research, we couldn’t find any information concerning EPA regulations that cover microplastics. However, the EPA is conducting research on microplastic pollution and held a Microplastics Expert Workshop to discuss:
a. Microplastics analysis methods.
b. Research into where microplastics originate, how they are transported, and what happens to them.
c. Creating standardized toxicity tests for assessing the ecological impact of microplastics.
d. Creating methods to assess how microplastics negatively affect human health.
Microplastics State Regulations
In this section, we list some examples of state regulations that restrict microbeads in personal care products or mandate the adoption of strategies to handle microplastics. Note that additional regulations concerning microplastics may exist.
California AB 888 — Waste management: Plastic microbeads
This bill bans the sale and promotion of rinse-off exfoliating or cleansing personal care products that contain microbeads unless they contain less than 1 ppm by weight of plastic microbeads.
California: SB 1263 — Ocean Protection Council: Statewide Microplastics Strategy
This bill mandates the Ocean Protection Council to:
- Adopt a Statewide Microplastics Strategy
- Submit it to the state legislature
- Report its application and results
- Recommend changes to policy and additional research by the end of 2025
The Statewide Microplastics Strategy outlines the following two-track approach:
1. Chapter 2A: Solutions – This first track provides actionable solutions while further microplastic research is carried out.
2. Chapter 2B: Science to Inform Future Action – This second track involves prioritizing further microplastic research to advance and clarify future solutions.
Connecticut Public Act 15-5 Sec. 50 — Microbead Ban
This bill prohibits the manufacture, importation, sale, and use of personal care products that contain deliberately-added microbeads.
The ban specifies that “personal care products” are meant for the following purposes, concerning the human body:
- Promote its attractiveness
- Change its appearance
Illinois SB 2727 — EPA – Cosmetic Product – Microbead
This bill amends the state’s Environmental Protection Act to prohibit the manufacture or sale of personal care products that contain synthetic plastic microbeads, including over-the-counter drugs.
Wisconsin SB 15 — Manufacture and acceptance for sale of products containing microbeads.
This bill prohibits the production or manufacture of personal care products (sold as over-the-counter drugs) that contain synthetic plastic microbeads.
The ban exempts prescription drugs.
Colorado HB 15-1144: Prohibit Plastic Microbeads Personal Care Products
This bill bans the production, manufacture, and sale of personal care products that contain synthetic plastic microbeads, including over-the-counter drugs.
Importers and manufacturers of cosmetics and other products for which microbeads are restricted need to ensure their products do not contain regulated substances above the accepted limits. As such, they must have their products lab-tested to prove compliance with national regulations such as the Microbead-Free Waters Act or state regulations.
When their products pass lab testing, they receive a test report that proves their products comply with relevant requirements, such as not containing microbeads.
California’s State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) published a set of documents that provide acceptable methods for analyzing microplastics. These methods include the use of:
- Raman spectroscopy
- Infrared spectroscopy
Here are a few companies that offer to test for or analyze microplastics: