At Home Spa: Exfoliating is Killing the Environment—Here's What You Can Do Instead

Our skin does a lot of work for us, especially in these dry winter months. In fact, we shed about 1.6 pounds of dead cells per year—and we thank it by speeding up the process with exfoliators. We’ve all heard that exfoliating is a healthy cleansing habit for both your body and your mind (I don’t know, I find the thought of sanding away my acne relaxing), and countless skincare products exist out there to help us in this endeavor. However, while our skin may look great, our water is a different story.

They may be small, but microbeads are a huge problem. [Image: EcoJustice] 

They may be small, but microbeads are a huge problem. [Image: EcoJustice

There's Something in the Water

While conducting a completely different experiment, researcher Marcus Erikson and a team of other scientists discovered thousands of tiny plastic beads floating in the waters of the Great Lakes area. They concluded the particles were from exfoliating scrubs and toothpastes and can potentially harm humans if we consume fish that have ingested them. 

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t give a second thought to what happened to those little plastic beads in my scrubs after they disappeared down the drain. Large corporations didn’t really think this one through either, with plastic so pervasive in our oceans already that scientists believe 99% of sea birds will have eaten some sort of potentially fatal plastic by 2050. 

Even when large plastics degrade to the size of the microbeads found in cosmetic scrubs, they’re still a problem for our environment. Multiple studies have voiced concerns that these tiny pieces are likely to be consumed by fish since they resemble eggs, and this process is already happening on a global scale. It’s an especially urgent issue since plastic tends to absorb toxic chemicals like mercury and DDT, which not only contaminates fish and ruins their ecosystems, but also taints a human food source.

It's common for fish to eat microbeads, which spells disaster for the rest of the ecosystem. [Image: EarthTouchNews]

It's common for fish to eat microbeads, which spells disaster for the rest of the ecosystem. [Image: EarthTouchNews]

These alarming findings were so profound that several cosmetic giants have phased out plastics in their products, including L’Oreal, The Body Shop, Johnson & Johnson. Certain states have already restricted the use of microbeads, and the Microbead Free Waters Act was recently signed by Obama at the end of December. 

What Can We Do?

While more and more natural exfoliating products stock the shelves, you can take your own steps to #banthebead, as the natural beauty company Lush says in a campaign launched earlier this year. Many resources are available for people who seek products made with natural exfoliators, but creating your own cosmetic projects is fun and also makes a lovely, fish-friendly gift! 

You can even make your own scrub with simple items around the house, and recipes are highly customizable based on your skin’s preferences. Just remember that every scrub needs two basic components: a base and an exfoliant. Simply mix together one of each to create a paste, and you'll have your own natural body scrub!

Many natural ingredients exist that are healthy for your face and the environment. [Image: MilkAndHoney]

Many natural ingredients exist that are healthy for your face and the environment. [Image: MilkAndHoney]

Bases

Your base will most likely be oil. Different oils have varying chances of clogging pores, so you may need to do some experimenting to find one your skin agrees with. The ultimate convenience is to simply use olive oil, but you can also try picking up jojoba, grapeseed, calendula, almond, etc. at your local health-food store. For maximum benefits and potency, look for organic, cold-pressed or first-pressed, unrefined, or extra virgin oils. Oils are especially good for your skin during the winter, but you can also try honey as a base, which has anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal properties.

Exfoliants

One of the few alluring traits of microbeads is in their name—they're tiny. The smaller the exfoliant, the better it is for your skin. Larger materials like ground nuts or even sugar crystals (a popular exfoliant) can potentially scratch your face with jagged edges, so try sticking to something soft, like oatmeal. If you want to splurge, try ordering some jojoba beads, which are round, biodegradable, and fantastic for your face! There is some debate over how harmful or beneficial classic materials like sugar and sea salt are for the face, so it's up to you to listen to your skin as you try different recipes.

Honey and oatmeal are delicious, and also make a very gentle, classic exfoliating mask. [Image: YourBeautyAdvisor]

Honey and oatmeal are delicious, and also make a very gentle, classic exfoliating mask. [Image: YourBeautyAdvisor]

Don't stop the pampering there! Here are some other fantastic face mask recipes that also help gently exfoliate your skin. Your winter face and the environment will thank you.

Enjoy this article? Check out more in the series:

At Home Spa: Face Masks