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How Marketing Banned Microbeads

Hal Conick

A Chicago-based nonprofit used media, marketing and social networking to push for a microbead ban. But with a small staff and big issues, how can the Alliance for the Great Lakes use the ban’s blueprint for future victories? 

“Don’t just clean; deep clean and invigorate your skin,” actress Hayden Panettiere exclaims in a 2007 Neutrogena ad, a light blue cream with tiny dark-blue dots splattering across the screen as she splashes water over her face. These dots are “icy blue microbeads,” the ad says, solid plastic particles that were used in soap, toothpaste and facial scrubs starting in the late 1990s. Nearly every large distributor of cosmetic goods—including L’Oreal, Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Neutrogena parent company Johnson & Johnson—laced consumer products with microbeads.

As consumers slathered their faces and teeth with microbead-filled creams and pastes, experts estimated 8 trillion of the microbeads—ranging in size from 10 micrometers to 1 millimeter in diameter—separated from the goop and traveled down the drain with the water each day, according to a 2015 opinion published in Environmental Science and Technology. Eight trillion microbeads is a “conservative” estimate, researchers from Oregon State University and University of California, Davis wrote, but it’s still enough microbeads to cover more than 300 tennis courts daily.

Circling down the drain of a consumer’s home, these trillions of microbeads are sucked into sewer systems before flowing into wastewater treatment plants. Wastewater plants are efficient at filtering out most debris, but anything smaller than 1.5 millimeters can float past the gates of most systems​, along the surface of the water, above the sludge and detritus and into nearby bodies of water—bays, rivers, oceans and, according to what Dr. Sherri Mason found in 2012, the Great Lakes. 

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Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at hconick@ama.org or on Twitter at @HalConick.