Thickeners/Emulsifiers , Emollients , Scrub Agents

Form of plastic (synthetic polymer) that has numerous functions in cosmetics products. Rounded polyethylene beads serve as an abrasive agent in many facial scrubs, often 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 moisturizers. In December 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, so are accumulating in waterways, which may have a negative effect on animals that consume them. [1]

Additional research published in December 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, it was not conducted using samples from actual waterways. [2]

Personal care brands, like Johnson & Johnson and Unilever, have announced plans to phase out the ingredient from their product lines throughout 2015. [3,4]

References Cited:

  1. Eriksen M, Mason S, Wilson S, Box C, Zellers A, Edwards W, Farley H, Amato S. Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes. Mar Pollut Bull. 2013;77(1-2):177-82.
  2. Browne M, Niven S, Galloway T, Rowland S, Thompson R. Microplastic moves pollutants and additives to worms; reducing functions linked to health and biodiversity. Curr Biol. 2013;23(23):2388-92.
  3. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, Inc. Our Safety & Care Commitment: Microbeads. [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2015 July]. Available from:
  4. Unilever. Micro-plastics. [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2015 July]. Available from:

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Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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