Plastic microbeads can no longer be used in cosmetics and personal care products in the UK, after a long-promised ban came into effect in 2018. The ban initially barred the manufacture of such products and a ban on sales followed some months later. Thousands of tonnes of plastic microbeads from products such as exfoliating face scrubs and toothpastes washed into the sea every year, where they harmed wildlife and can ultimately be eaten by people. The UK government first pledged to ban plastic microbeads in September 2016, following a US ban in 2015.

These tiny pieces of plastic in personal beauty products, that end up in the oceans and are swallowed by marine life, were initially targeted when more than 357,000 people signed a petition calling for a UK ban. Microbeads are present in products such as facial scrubs and makeup. Some are visible to the naked eye, but others are as tiny as one micrometre. Conservationists have consistently warned that they can affect fish growth and persist in the guts of mussels and fish that mistake them for food.

The huge problem of plastic pollution choking the oceans has gained a high profile with revelations that there are five trillion pieces of plastic floating in the world’s seas and that the debris has reached the most remote parts of the oceans; microbeads are a small but significant part of this and which campaigners argued was the easiest to prevent.

He said it would not increase costs to consumers, but did mean some health and beauty products would disappear from shelves, as manufacturers work to overcome “supply, quality and reliability and microbiological purity issues”.

Marine life doesn’t distinguish between plastic from a face wash and plastic from a washing detergent, so it makes no sense to consider a much wider range of plastic products. Pressure is now mounting for action on plastic bottles – a million are bought every minute around the world and they make up a third of the plastic litter in the seas. The UK’s environmental audit committee (EAC) of MPs has previously called for a deposit return scheme, which has successfully increased recycling rates in other countries.

The US ban, which was approved by Barack Obama, covered cosmetic products with plastic microbeads, including toothpaste, soap and body washes.

One cleansing product can contain hundreds of thousands of the microbeads, which end up in the oceans after being washed down sinks. Yet natural alternatives that biodegrade and pose no harm to marine life exist, including jojoba beads, apricot kernels, ground nutshells and salt.

Consumers looking to avoid microbeads in the meantime should avoid products containing polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and nylon, campaigners say.

So far, no conclusive scientific evidence has proved the microplastics pose any threat to human health when passed up the food chain by fish. “No studies were identified that address the potential human health effects of microplastics ingested by humans through the food chain,” a review of their safety by the European Food and Safety Agency found.