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How Exfoliating Hurts the Environment

Joanna Douglas
Senior Editor
June 26, 2014

Photo: Trunk Archive

How many products in your bathroom include microbeads? Because the Great Lakes are currently full of up to 1.7 million plastic particles per square mile, according to Time Magazine. That’s why Illinois just took a big leap, becoming the first state to ban the sale and manufacturing of all products containing the teeny tiny devils. It turns out those little beads, which so effectively exfoliate your skin, cannot be filtered out during sewage treatment, meaning they end up back in our lakes and oceans where fish and other sea creatures gobble them up and die—or worse, suffer from altered DNA that will mean who knows what down the line. 

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What was the point of microbeads in the first place? Sometime in the ‘90s women became obsessed with exfoliating. Where bar soap used to be enough, loofahs now ruled the shower. The harder you scrubbed, the more you glowed, and small plastic beads could remove dead skin and grime without being too rough on delicate skin. Then they threw them into toothpaste for a buffing effect, and lotions for silkier application.

NYC Dermatologist Dr. Francesca Fusco says they’re omnipresent because they’re easy and inexpensive to manufacture. “Over the past decade, I have noticed an increase in concern among my patients as to what they are putting on their face, where it’s derived from, and how it affects the environment,” says Fusco. She adds that there are tons of other ways to exfoliate. There are gritty, natural exfoliants like sugar, salt, or even ground up walnut shells. Fusco recommends First Aid Beauty’s Facial Radiance Polish ($24) which uses shea nutshell powder and willow bark extract and St. Ives Exfoliating Apricot Body Wash ($3.39). Gommage peeling gels like Koh Gen Doh’s Soft Gommage Gel ($45) stimulates circulation and cell regeneration without using any kind of granules.

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And then there’s manual exfoliation. You can use a basic washcloth or, as Fusco recommends, an Asian Konjac sponge like Boscia’s pillowy Konjac Cleansing Sponge ($18). Dry brushing is another excellent technique that revitalizes skin while stimulating the body’s circulation and lymphatic systems. Use light firm strokes with Bernard Jensen Natural Bristles Skin Brush ($10.49), brushing toward the heart for smoother skin and less visible cellulite, as well as improved digestion and kidney function.

Still stumped? Check out Beat the Microbead for an updated list of products that do and don’t use plastic so you know what to reach for next time you’re at the drugstore.