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Is There Plastic in Your Exfoliating Scrub?

Updated on June 17, 2009
Clean And Clear Deep Action Scrub has polyethylene in the list of ingredients - that means it has plastic microbeads in it.
Clean And Clear Deep Action Scrub has polyethylene in the list of ingredients - that means it has plastic microbeads in it.

Plastic has pervaded our culture. It now turns up in the strangest places - like your favorite exfoliating scrub. Many skin care brands now use polyethelene microbeads to exfoliate your skin, rather than other natural sourced ingredients.

Polyethylene is the same substance that single-use shopping bags are made from. Unfortunately, plastic microbeads could be at least as hazardous to wildlife as any plastic bag. These tiny beads don't need to break down in order to be accidentally eaten by any number of creatures.

Another problem is that microbeads are actually designed to be washed down the drain - and out into the environment. Sewage treatment plants are not designed to remove this kind of debris. So not only will our oceans end up with this additional plastic pollution, our lakes and rivers will have these in them too.

Plastic, Plastic, Plastic

Plastic now makes up as much as 90 per cent of the floating debris in our oceans. This is because virtually every kind of garbage eventually ends up in the sea, either because we put it there or environmental forces move it there.

Unfortunately, exfoliating beads are just the latest in a series of new kinds of plastic garbage. While much has been made of the problem that plastic bags pose to our seas, little is yet known of the full impact of "microplastic".

Microplastic is the term applied to plastic pieces of less than one millimeter diameter. Mark Browne knows more about this than most scientists: he is a scientist at the Centre for Ecological Impacts of Coastal Cities at the University of Sydney. He's studied the effects of microplastic in marine environments. A recent study of his found that a whopping 85 per cent of the plastic garbage in one British estuary was microplastic.

Other research shows that microplastic tends to concentrate other dangerous chemicals, such as PCB's and DDT. This could make these tiny plastic pellets even more dangerous to marine wildlife that ingest them.

Some may say there is no danger to the environment from microplastic - but why take a chance?

Floating plastic debris from the North Pacific Gyre.
Floating plastic debris from the North Pacific Gyre.

Avoiding Plastic In Your Exfoliation Scrub

Polyethylene microbeads can be found in a number of major brands of facial or body scrub according to Yahoo Green:

  • Aveeno Skin Brightening Daily Scrub
  • Clean & Clear's line of scrubs
  • Dove Gentle Exfoliating Foaming Facial Cleanser
  • Neutrogena's line of scrubs
  • Noxzema's line of scrubs
  • Olay's line of scrubs
  • Phisoderm Nurturing Facial Polish

Even Aveeno, which talks about using "ingredients derived from nature" has plastic microbeads! While one can argue that even plastic originally comes from the environment as oil, it's a stretch to call any kind of plastic "natural".

Given the challenges of seeing through carefully crafted marketing language, your best bet is to check the label of the product you use or intend to buy. If polyethylene is in the ingredient list, you have a product with plastic in it.

Monique's Famous Sea Salt Scrub
Monique's Famous Sea Salt Scrub

Why Not Make Your Own?

You can completely avoid buying any kind of exfoliation product by making your own. Not only will you save a lot of money, but you'll have a product that you can customize to your own unique needs. Here's a simple recipe for a completely natural facial and body scrub that you can make with simple ingredients you might even have at home.

Make sure to buy a pretty container for your scrub! (We all know that it's half the attraction for many items we buy at the drugstore.) Dollar stores are a great place to look for an inexpensive glass container. However, this is your product - put it in a container that you will enjoy! Ensure that it has a tight fitting lid to protect your scrub from bathroom humidity and the loss of volatile essential oils.

Monique's Famous Sea Salt Scrub

1 cup sea salt
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
15 drops of your favourite essential oil
15 drops Grapefruit Seed Extract
ΒΌ cup pure liquid soap

Mix all the ingredients well and spoon the scrub into a container. Store your scrub in glass to best preserve the essential oils. Keep away from light.

The base of your product is sea salt - buy a good quality one and don't skimp! A quality sea salt will give you more than just exfoliation - it will give your skin a dose of a wide variety of trace minerals. Most mineral rich salt is not pure white: a pure white salt is likely nothing more than straight sodium chloride. However, avoid "wet" sea salts. You want salt that runs freely when poured from the package, and you want it ground fairly fine. Too coarse a salt will result in a scrub which is too harsh for your skin.

Essential oils are not just for fragrance in this scrub! The right essential oils can help to balance oily skin, moisturize dry skin or help with break-outs. Consider lemon for more astringent action. Include carrot for additional vitamin A. Geranium is great for all skin types. A local health food or bulk store is the best place to look for these.

Grapefruit seed extract will help to preserve your product, as well as help to kill bacteria on the skin. You will normally find this in your health food store too.

This scrub has given me better results than most store-bought brands. It will noticeably soften your face. But don't overdo it: most scrubs recommend using them every other day.


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    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 4 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      Thanks for dropping by, Audrey! It's as much a problem today as it was when I first wrote this hub... And the recipe for my own facial scrub is much better than store bought in any case! You can adjust to the kinds of essential oils that you like, and custom design a scrub for your own skin type.

    • profile image

      Audrey 4 years ago

      Wow! Thanks for this article for the eye-opening info as well as the recipe for the homemade scrub!

    • profile image

      Gabrielle 6 years ago

      @yvonne: No matter how you look at it, polyethylene is a plastic, it takes forever to break down because of the chemical structure, look at wiki for the biodegradability of this type of plastic. It is obviously originally made from natural products, but the chemical composition changes completely.

    • profile image

      louisa 8 years ago

      dudes -- whatEVER it is, it ain't natural, and that should be issue enough.

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 8 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      I suspect that the folks at Neutrogena are being a bit disingenuous with you - or they really don't know on their customer service lines what polyethylene microbeads are....

      I have done a lot of checking on a variety of sites before I posted this article. Plastic is really becoming a common ingredient in almost everything!

      As regards polyethylene itself, here is a quote from

      "Another important plastic, polyethylene (sometimes known as "polythene") was discovered in 1933 by Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett at the British industrial giant Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). This material evolved into two forms, low density polyethylene (LDPE) and high density polyethylene (HDPE)."

      So, if the scrub contains polyethylene, it would seem to contain plastic.

    • profile image

      Yvonne 8 years ago

      I am confused by all the talk on several websites, not just this one, saying that polyethylene microbeads found in many facial scrubs are plastic. When I look up polyethylene in the dictionary (Webster New World College Dictionary), it is defined as a thermoplastic resin and when I look up thermoplastic (moldable when heated) and resin (organic substance derived from plants and trees), I do not see anything that leads to the conclusion that polyethylene is itself a plastic ... though I am aware the polyethylene is used to make plastic. When I called Nuetrogena about the polyethylene in their facial scrubs, I was told the it is not plastic.