What is Plastic Doing in My Shampoo?

Many of us have grown up with shampoo being sold in plastic bottles, but many of us may not be aware that this isn’t where the plastic stops.

Many of the products we use daily contain plastics which are commonly referred to as ‘microbeads’. We can find microplastics in shampoo, scrubs, cleansing balms, moisturisers, makeup and even hair spray.

You might be asking, “how do they appear on the ingredient list and why are they used?”

Well, hopefully we can help shine some light on this for you.


How to Read the Shampoo Ingredients List

Most of us will rarely scan an ingredient list of our cosmetic products, unless we are sensitive or allergic to something. In other instances, the long scientific names can make us zone out. Hopefully, we can inspire you to take an extra minute to study the list to better make sustainable decisions for your bathroom purchases. The below are common ingredients you might see on the back of your products. It’s time we said ‘no!’ to them.


Common microplastics ingredients in cosmetics – The Red List*

  • Polyethylene (PE)
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  • Nylon (PA)
  • Polypropylene (PP)
  • Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)

Alongside these common microbead ingredients, there are a lot of other nasties, such as resins, waxes and silicones that are formulated to cosmetically coat your hair shaft. They all promise to create beautiful, luxurious and hydrated hair full of volume and shine.


Further synthetic ingredients in cosmetics – The Orange List*

  • Polyethilene Glycol (PEG), mostly found abbreviated with other numbers like PEG-4 or PEG-80 etc.
  • Polypropylene glycols (PPG)
  • Dimethicone
  • Cyclomethicone
  • Acrylates
  • Copolymers
  • Methylchloroisothiazolinone
  • Methylisothiazolinone
  • Paraffin Waxes

A part from the microplastics in shampoo, the plastic most commonly found in hair sprays is Polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP). It is at its most dangerous point when applied to the hair and heated up with styling tools. This effectively melts the plastic for us to breath in and can cause damage to the lungs in sensitive individuals.

*For further information on microplastics and microbeads in cosmetics, please refer to the Guide to Microplastics on the “Beat the Microbead” website, a campaign by the Plastic Soup Foundation. Based on the restriction proposal by the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) and the reports by the United Nations Environmental Program, they came up with a list of more than 500 microplastic ingredients that are widely used in cosmetics & personal care products and split them according to the severity in which they affect the environment in a Red, Orange, Green or Zero microplastics list. They even launched an app that you can use to scan the cosmetic products you’re using to see if they contain microbeads.


What Impact do Microbeads Have on the Environment?

When we use products like this, especially in the shower, we fast track these microplastics down the drain and straight into our sewer system. Our sewage treatments plants have not been designed to filter these beads from wastewater and eventually, they make it to our rivers and oceans. These do not degrade or decompose, and they are incredibly hard, if not impossible, to remove. Over 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are believed to be spread throughout the world’s oceans.

From there, sea animals ingest them before some inevitably end up on our plates. You might have heard the worrying statistics that we eat as much as a credit card worth of plastic a week and up to 50,000 particles in a year.


What can Microbeads be Substituted with?

Plastic microbeads in cosmetic products can be substituted with natural abrasive ingredients, such as pumice, salt, crushed seed kernels like walnut, apricot kernels, bamboo powder etc. You can easiliy make a DIY body scrub and face wash at home with sugar or used coffee grounds and coconut oil.


What is the USA doing about Microbeads?

The United States of America passed a single Federal law in 2015, therefore applied nationwide, called the “Microbead-Free Waters Act” which prohibits the manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of rinse-off cosmetics containing plastic microbeads and intended to exfoliate or cleanse the body or any part of the body. This law also applies to products that are both cosmetics and non-prescription (also called “over-the-counter” or “OTC”) drugs, such as toothpastes. This new law took effect netween 2017 and 2019, therefore there shouldn’t be any products on the US market, at least in these categories.


What is the UK doing about Microbeads? 

The UK banned microbeads in personal care products from the 1st of January 2018. By June of the same year it was against the law for retailers across England and Scotland to sell rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products that contain plastic microbeads – the tiny pieces of plastic often added to products such as face scrubs, soaps, toothpaste and shower gels. Researchers had found that just one shower alone was thought to send 100,000 microbeads down the drain and into the ocean, causing serious harm to marine life.


What is Australia doing about Microbeads? 

The Australian Government promised to ban microbeads if the industry didn’t stop using them by July 2018 through a voluntary industry phase-out of plastic microbeads found in rinse-off personal care, cosmetic, and cleaning products. Whilst there are environmental protection laws, there is very little legislation on individual environmental issues, such as microbeads and other plastics. This voluntary phase-out has been led by Accord Australasia through their BeadRecede campaign, and was overseen by the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and the NSW Environment Protection Authority. In 2019 they included this committment in the National Waste Policy Action Plan.

Last but not least, a 2000 reasearch study commissioned by the Australian Government analysed approximately 8,100 unique products in online stores and marketplaces and  found that 99.3% were free of microbeads and other non-soluble non-plastic polymers. They found microbeads in facial scrubs, facial cleansers, and face masks (the 0.7%). They didn’t find any microbeads in cleaning products or in oral hygiene products, such as mouthwash and toothpaste.

Please note though that the list refers only to “The Red List” mentioned above. Most products did include ingredients mentioned in the “The Orange List”


What can I do to Avoid Microplastics?

The first step in improving our consumption is to examine it and our spending habits. Become an informed consumer and take the time to research and read what is in the product you are buying.

Money matters; speak with it. Do not support brands which use microplastics in their products.

Make the move away from shampoo and conditioner packaged in plastic and consider supporting:

  • Microplastic free solid shampoo and conditioner bars or
  • Microplastic free shampoo and conditioner that comes in refillable packaging.


Related: 12 Plastic Free Shampoo Brands you can Feel Good About Using?


Solid Shampoo and Conditioner Bars

These solid-form cleansers and moisturisers do everything a liquid shampoo and conditioner can do – cleanse, add volume and sheen, protect, add moisture – but require no plastic packaging and sometimes no packaging at all! You can also be assured that they are travel friendly with no chance of spilling into your bag and can be taken in your carry-on luggage as a ‘solid’. As they have been formulated to be an eco-friendly shampoo and conditioners, they do not contain microplastics.

There are many options when it comes to plastic free shampoo brands. From big name brands to local handmade options, there is something for everyone.

This post contains affiliate links, which means we may receive a small commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. This helps us continue the hard work we put into researching products and solutions.

Discover solid shampoo and conditioner bars on:


Refillable Shampoo and Conditioners

Refillable shampoo and conditioners are eco-friendly, natural cosmetics that have been designed for the circular economy as they are closed-loop and avoid waste. Consumers buy these natual, silicone free high-quality products, then when they are finished with the content, they send back the containers (often for free) to the manufacturer to be cleaned, sanitized and refilled with new products. Some brands sell the “forever bottle” and then work with refill plastic pouches that are sent back to be refilled again, creating zero-waste. Other utilize only aluminum bottles that are 100% recyclable at the end of their lifetime. Here are a few examples:




The most important thing we can do, beyond shopping smarter, is using our voice.

Lobbying and campaigning for change is one of the most effective ways we can have a say in the quality of life we live and the impact we can have on our environment. Let brands know you would like to see them phase out microplastics in shampoo, conditioners and all cosmetics. Whether it is through their customer service or commenting on their social media, speak up.

If you are in Australia, you can further your support by signing up to the Marine Conservation Society’s call to end microbreads. By signing this, you will be able to send an email directly to Environment Minister & Assistant Environment Minister to remind them of what they owe.

In conclusion, it’s time for all countries around the world to deliver on their promises and duty, to take another step to helping heal our oceans. We don’t want microplastics in shampoo and other cosmetics, neither inside nor outside as plastic packaging.


H Summers / I’m Plastic Free team


Browse our blog to discover more articles related to plastic-free beauty.

Browse our directory of plastic pollutions solutions.


  • Juliet Buckle
    January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

    Thank you for the info

      January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

      You’re more than welcome Juliet. We hope it was helpful.

  • Monica Martinez
    November 1, 2022 at 11:30 pm

    Thank you for this informative, depressing article. We all need to WAKE up and start working hard to change this

    • Simona Paganetto
      November 2, 2022 at 10:30 am

      Hi Monica, yes I totally agree, and that’s the reason I founded I’m Plastic Free, to raise awareness about these topics many don’t seem to want to talk about… but together we can all make a difference! Cheers, Simona

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