A form of plastic (synthetic polymer) that has numerous functions in cosmetic products. Rounded polyethylene beads serve as an abrasive agent in many facial scrubs, used instead of overly abrasive alternatives like walnut shells and ground fruit pits. Also used as a stabilizer, binding agent, thickener, and film-forming agent.
In December of 2013, research published in the peer-reviewed journal, Marine Pollution Bulletin demonstrated that although polyurethane beads are non-toxic to humans, they are not filtered during sewage treatment and are accumulating in waterways and have the potential to negatively affect marine wildlife who mistakenly consume them (Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2013).
Additional research published in December of 2013 demonstrated that polyurethane beads have the potential to absorb pollutants while in waterways. This research was conducted to establish the potential of absorption, however, and was not conducted using samples from actual waterways (Cell, 2013).
Personal care brands, like Johnson & Johnson and Unilever, have announced plans to phase out the ingredient from their product lines throughout 2015.