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Your Face Scrub Is a Serious Pollutant

That fancy exfoliating wash cream you just dropped a bundle on? It may be full of "microbeads" and mucking up some major waterways.

Environ-Organization Aims at Tiny Plastic | The Footprint |

In 2012, advocacy group 5 Gyres, which draws attention to the epidemic of ocean trash and the impact photo-degraded plastic is having on ocean ecosystems, turned its attention to the Great Lakes. Suddenly, the group's workload skyrocketed.

“We found high concentrations of micro-plastics, more than most ocean samples collected worldwide," said 5 Gyres' executive director Marcus Eriksen. "These were of similar size, shape, texture and composition to plastic microbeads found in many consumer products used as exfoliants…"

Thus began the group's campaign to pressure cosmetics companies to jettison these tiny beads from their products, such as facial scrubs and other types of soaps and toothpaste. The campaign saw some victories, but they were small, says 5 Gyres director of communications Stiv Wilson: "The only firm commitment we got was from Unilever, which said it would cut microbeads out by 2015. Some other companies still have not given a firm deadline. Procter & Gamble said it would eliminate them by end of 2017, but it's all based on when they can find alternatives. Johnson & Johnson has never given a timeline. Long story short, these timelines became a moving target."

So last fall 5 Gyres started working with its legal staff to draft a bill seeking to prohibit the sale of beauty and cosmetic products that contain microbeads smaller than 5 millimeters, such as the polyethylene and polypropylene beads found in many popular face-wash products. Sewage systems cannot capture or filter these small beads of plastic out of wastewater, so they are eventually flushed out into waterways.

In early February, within 72 hours, both New York's attorney general Eric Schneiderman and California assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced versions of this bill to their respective state legislatures. Wilson, who is one of just 5 full-time 5 Gyres staffers, was clearly quite pleased with the outcome. "We had been hoping it would happen, but you can't make really strong requests of senators and attorneys general offices," he said.

The California version of the bill only bans the sale of products containing microbeads, while New York would ban their manufacture, as well. Aside from forcing consumer brands to rid their products of microbeads sooner rather than later, the passage of both bills would effectively force the companies to completely change their formulas, because converting to non-plastic abrasives in one part of their manufacturing would not make sense. "One in every seven Americans lives in California," says Wilson. "If these bills pass, makers of personal-care products will have no choice but to phase microbeads out."

Other states are moving with bills as well, including Illinois, whose Senate passed a bill recently with no opposition, but Wilson says that the timeline, which would phase the plastic out by 2018, is too slow.

Wilson says consumer products are not the only source of microbeads in waterways, but they are the most troubling in terms of their numbers and impact on fish life. "In the Great Lakes we were finding [microplastic] sandblasting mediums, but those are negatively buoyant so not on surface," says Wilson.

Questions are piling up around what these tiny bits of plastic, which look an awful lot like fish eggs and therefore a compelling meal to many larger fish, are doing to fisheries in the Great Lakes and elsewhere. In this L.A. Times story, Marcus Eriksen does a quick survey of the Los Angeles River, with a 2-foot-wide net placed in the flow for 10 minutes, and finds dozens of bits of plastic.

"The bigger picture is to improve [product] design—not use single-use plastics in throw-away, single-use applications like microbeads," he says.

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Whoa. The world needs more Eco friendly face scrubs!

Here is some information to help consumers make better choices, and steer the market:

Choose natural facial scrubs and exfoliants

A facial scrub, unlike your run-of-the-mill cleansers, contains exfoliating ingredients that remove dead and dull skin cells, resulting in a brighter complexion. (They can also unclog pores and moisturize the skin.) Many popular conventional scrubs use "microbeads" as the main exfoliating agents. These beads are actually finely ground granules of polyethylene, the extremely common plastic used to make shampoo bottles, shopping bags, and much more. Natural facial scrubs use non-synthetic exfoliants like ground nuts, seeds, fruit, and salt instead. These clean, green exfoliating machines help you achieve healthy and radiant skin without the eco-downsides.

What to look for when choosing natural facial scrubs and exfoliants

Once you've found a facial scrub with natural exfoliants, look for the following attributes:

  1. Avoid antibacterial agents: A recent study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that triclosan—the main antibacterial agent in soaps—can be linked to cancer in lab animals, may disrupt hormone function in humans, and is a non-biodegradable toxic agent that pollutes ecosystems and threatens wildlife when it is discharged into the water stream.
  1. Look for plant-based ingredients: Conventional scrubs are made from petroleum-derived chemicals that persist in the environment, creating pollution and threatening human health. Scrubs that use plant-based ingredients and essential oils for fragrance replace these dangerous ingredients with ones that are healthy for you and the earth. In particular, try to avoid ingredients like parabens and phthalates, and seek out soaps labeled as biodegradable.
  1. Go organic: Because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spends only a tiny portion of its budget investigating the chemical composition and toxins in skin care products, soaps can tout their use of organic ingredients and still have up to 30 percent synthetic materials, even the ones labeled "organic" or "made with organic ingredients." The only way to be sure that the product you are purchasing is, in fact, organic USDA Organicis too look for the USDA Organic Seal on the label. This seal guarantees that every ingredient is organically produced as defined by the National Organics Standards Board, which bans the use of harmful pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetic engineering.
  1. Look for body scrubs that do not contain animal fats or employ animal testing: While you're contemplating green attributes, you may also wish to join the cruelty-free movement. Just keep in mind: a company may claim that they don’t employ animal testing for their products, but without third-party verification, it’s hard to know whether these statements are in fact completely true. Leaping BunnySo stick to those products certified as cruelty-free by looking for products with the Leaping Bunny Logo or the Certified Vegan Logo. You can rest assured that no bunnies (or monkeys or cats for that matter) were harmed in the making of these non-animal-tested products.


Below, we've highlighted some of the cleanest and greenest facial scrubs and exfoliants out there, ranging from increasingly easy-to-find natural brands to prestige selections. Looking for something less heavy duty? Try out a natural face wash and why not follow up with a soothing, chem-free mask?

Aubrey Organics Men's Stock Shave Systems

Aubrey Organics Men's Stock Shave Systems natural shave creamWith Men's Stock Shave Systems from Aubrey Organics, men can indulge in a simple, cruelty-free three step shaving system—face scrub, shaving cream, and aftershave or after shave balm—available in three sweet-smelling scents.

  • Burt's Bees Citrus Facial Scrub

  • Burt's Bees Citrus Facial ScrubAfter using this invigorating, orange oil-based scrub from Burt's Bees, you'll be left abuzz with a pampered, squeaky clean visage. Along with dirt-busting essential oils, the scrub contains ground almonds, pecans, oats, and rose petals to provide gentle yet thorough exfoliation.

  • JASON Apricot Scrubble Wash & Scrub

    JASON Apricot Scrubble Wash &amp; Scrub Wash time becomes a thrilling, guilt-free affair when you use this gently exfoliating scrub from JASON, a vanguard in the natural personal care scene since 1959. The scrub contains natural apricot kernels, aloe vera gel, and jojoba, and can also be used as a mask and a pre-shave conditioner.

  • Kiehl's Pineapple Papaya Facial Scrub

  • Kiehl's Pineapple and Papaya Facial ScrubFruit-o-phile? Treat hungry pores to this unique, cruelty-free scrub from coveted skin and body care line Kiehl's. Appropriate for all skin types, the scrub contains real fruit enzymes that naturally exfoliate the skin, leaving it clean and kissable.

  • Kimberly Sayer Invigorating Lemon Scrub

    Kimberly Sayer Invigorating Lemon ScrubKimberly Sayer—British entrepreneur, aesthetician, and daughter of organic farmers—offers a line of natural skin and body care products ranging from a Slimming Contouring Gel to an Aromatic Night Repair Cream. Her Invigorating Lemon Scrub contains Asian lemon tree oil, organic jojoba beads, and more.

  • Korres scrubs and masks

    Korres Thyme Honey MaskThese natural, gently cleansing facial scrubs and masks from coveted Greek natural beauty line Korres are free of mineral oil, silicone, propylene glycol, and ethanolamine. So what do they contain? Treat your face to yogurt, almond meal, olive stones, wild rose oil, thyme honey, and argil.

  • LUSH Ocean Salt scrub

    LUSH Ocean SaltDoes your epidermis fancy margaritas? LUSH, the UK-based purveyor of natural handmade goodies for body and bath, offers a facial scrub that's, well, good enough to drink. Ocean Salt is comprised of natural and/or organic and safe synthetic ingredients that include vodka, lime extract, grapefruit essence, and plenty of exfoliating sea salts.

  • Pangea Organics Facial Scrub

    Pangea Organics Facial ScrubFrom Pangea Organics—purveyor of "Ecocentric Bodycare"—comes this supercharged yet gentle facial scrub that combines exfoilating adzuki bean, nutrient-rich cranberry, and cell regenerating Egyptian geranium.

  • Queen Helene scrubs and masques

    Queen Helene scrubs and masquesGreen beauty queens on a budget look no further: Queen Helene's line of facial masks and scrubs are affordable, luxurious, and follow original all-natural, synthetic-free recipes established by the company in the 1930s.

Before you buy

Keep in mind that if you choose natural scrubs and exfoliants concocted with green ingredients in lieu of an easy-to-find variety, you'll likely be confronted with a higher price tag as chemicals generally come cheaper than botanical, organic-certified ingredients. For example, a 2 ounce container of Burt's Bees Citrus Facial Scrub will set you back $8.09 while 6.7 fluid ounces of L'Oreal Pure Zone Pore Unclogging Scrub Cleanser cost $7.00.

Choosing natural scrubs and exfoliants helps you go green because...

  • Like other conventional skincare and cosmetic products, scrubs and exfoliants may contain petroleum-derived components. Petroleum is a non-sustainable resource with various eco-repercussions.
  • They rely on ingredients found in nature, not health- and eco-unfriendly chemicals, to keep skin clean, radiant, and healthy without stripping it or causing additional derma-woes.
  • Many makers of natural scrubs and exfoliants also follow green business practices, such as using recycled packaging and harnessing renewable energy sources like wind power.

Like other beauty, hair, and skincare products such as lipstick, deodorant, and shampoo, many popular facial scrubs may contain mineral oil, a petroleum-based substance. The production of the petrochemicals used in skincare products pollutes the environment by releasing hazardous chemicals into the air and water. Mineral oil-based scrubs support the hazards of the petroleum industry, which include about 2.6 million gallons of oil spilled every month during transportation and about 71 million pounds of toxins released into the air and water during refinement.[1]

Petroleum also comes into play in the form of the plastic "microbeads" found in many popular body and facial scrubs. In addition to the environmental impact generated by the creation of these petro-based plastic granules, their use can result in additional eco-havoc. When washed off of one's face or body and down the drain, these tiny plastic "beads" enter water systems, where they can be fatal to aquatic wildlife. These plastic bits have also helped form the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre—or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a Texas-sized stretch of ocean between California and Hawaii filled with plastic refuse of all varities and other garbage. Author Alan Weisman describes this mammoth floating trash heap in detail in his book The World Without Us.

Supplementary preservatives in many skin and body care products include BHA, which has a negative impact on aquatic ecosystems and bioaccumulates in the tissues of organisms, and parabens, known endocrine disrupters that are not only detrimental to human health, but also destructive to animal hormones and development. (Studies have found higher levels of parabens in tumors from human breast tissue, but, because the potential damage to the endocrine system has yet to be proven, the controversy surrounding the toxicity of parabens is still being debated.) Additionally, the potent synthetic antimicrobial agent triclosan, used in some body scrubs and other personal care products, has been found in 55 percent of streams examined in 2002 at levels high enough to disrupt the natural life cycle of frogs.[2] Another common synthetic to look out for in body scrubs is diethanolamine (DEA), a foaming detergent. While DEA is infrequently used in skin and hair care products because it is a known carcinogen, the more commonly used chemicals TEA and MEA are often contaminated with diethanolamine. Lauryl/laureth sulfates are common skin irritants that can dry out the skin and hair with longterm use.


The fragrances in body scrubs and other skin and body care products pose risks as well. Fragrances are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which add to air pollution, are persistent in the environment, and contaminate waterways and aquatic wildlife. An estimated 5.72 million Americans have skin allergies to fragrance, while around 72 percent of those suffering from asthma claim that their condition can be triggered by synthetic fragrance.[3] Body scrubs with artificial fragrances can also contain phthalates, widely used industrial chemicals that are estrogenic or anti-androgenic. Studies conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health reveal a link between monoethyl phthalate, a chemical used to preserve scent in perfumes and colognes, and sperm damage. Click here for a breakdown of the leading chemicals found in fragrance products and their related health effects.


In a recent study that shook the natural products industry, 100 “natural” and “organic” soaps, shampoos, dish liquids, lotions, and body washes were tested and nearly half contained 1,4-Dioxane, a carcinogenic chemical. This toxin has been found in conventional personal care products, but this study commissioned by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) was the first to test green products.


In scientific studies, 1,4-Dioxane has caused cancer in animals; scientists have not yet confirmed the long-term effects on humans. The FDA says current levels do not pose a hazard to consumers but they have advised manufacturers to lower amounts in cosmetics as much as possible. None of the products tested that were Certified Organic by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) contained 1,4-Dioxane. In response to this study, some of the affected companies have said they will work toward removing 1,4-Dioxane from their products.Organic labeling

The personal care industry is in turmoil trying to agree upon a set of standards for organic labeling of personal care products. While the USDA maintains clearcut standards for organic food, the same can’t be said for body care products. Some companies use the USDA certified organic food standard, which requires 95 percent of the ingredients to be organic. Others use the less stringent California state standard for organic cosmetic products, which requires at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients. And still others label their products organic without meeting any external criterion. Fortunately, the guidelines for labeling a soap as "100% Organic" are strict. Products carrying this label maus contain all organic ingredients.

To clear up this confusion, a nonprofit standard-setting group called NSF International has released a draft set of rules for organic personal care products and a group of 30 cosmetic companies recently devised their own set of specifications called Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards (OASIS). How it all washes out remains to be seen.

Glossary 1,4-dioxane: A petroleum-derived contaminant classified as a probable human carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

  • BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole): A chemical preservative used in cosmetics and certain foods to prevent fats and oils from becoming rancid.
  • DEA: Diethanolamine (also related to the additives TEA and MEA). Suspected carcinogen, used as an emulsifier or foaming agent.
  • parabens: This family of synthetic preservatives (which includes methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, and butyl-parabens) can possibly disrupt the endocrine system.
  • phthalates: Additives commonly used in plastics and other materials, mainly to make them soft and flexible, that may damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system, particularly the developing testes, according to animal studies.
  • triclosan: An antibacterial agent that may form dioxin and chloroform in the right circumstances, both probable carcinogens.
  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air and may cause immediate and long-term health problems.

What about St Ives apricot-shell scrub?

It looks pretty good.

Fresh Skin Apricot Scrub

Product  Benefits

- 100% Natural Exfoliants

- Sulfate Free  

- Paraben Free

- Oil Free

- Dermatologist Tested 

- Hypoallergenic

Key Ingredients

Apricot, Corn Kernel Meal, Walnut

California Becomes Latest State to Ban Plastic Microbeads

Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed legislation on Thursday that bans plastic microbeads, giving his state one of the country’s strongest laws against the tiny abrasives used in exfoliators and other products.

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