Lather, Rinse, Repeat? Microplastic Pollution in the Great Lakes

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on


In summer 2012, researchers measured plastic levels in the Great Lakes.  Dr. Sherri A. Mason, a chemistry professor at SUNY College Fredonia, and her colleagues had a good idea of how many plastic bottles, plastic bags, and other large materials they might find, but were shocked at the levels of microplastics. Microplastics are tiny pieces of free-floating plastic that usually result from degradation of larger plastic items.

The researchers recorded approximately 450,000 bits of microplastic per square kilometer, twice as much as previously documented. Many of the microplastics were multicolored, perfectly spherical, and less than a millimeter in diameter—characteristics not typical of degraded plastics. With further investigation, the researchers determined that popular exfoliating facial scrubs were the source of the high microplastic levels. Manufacturers add microbeads to more than 200 different consumer products, including facial cleansers, soaps, sunscreen, and toothpaste.  A single 4.2-ounce tube of a leading facial cleanser contains 356,000 microbeads, for instance, and Americans consume some 573,000 pounds of health products that contain microbeads each year.

Microbeads are designed to pass through household drains and pipes, but their small size means that filters used to protect lakes, rivers, and oceans from pollution cannot catch them. Microbeads look like fish eggs, a food source for many aquatic creatures—just one of the ways microbeads negatively impact the environment.

5 Gyres and other groups that address plastics pollution have launched a campaign to pressure manufacturers to remove microbeads from their products. So far companies including Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, and the Body Shop have pledged to do so, though they say it will take years to find a safe and effective alternative to microbeads. Outside the US, the anti-microbead movement is now targeting other markets, including Asia.


Susan Freinkel, “Don’t Lather, Don’t Rinse, Don’t Repeat,” OnEarth (Natural Resources Defense Counsel), August 27, 2013,

Christine Davis Mantai, “SUNY Fredonia leads the first ever survey of Plastic Pollution in the Great Lakes,” SUNY Fredonia Statement (alumni magazine), August 24, 2012,

Student Researchers: Andrew Kuehn (College of Marin)

Facility Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)