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Are you polishing your skin with plastic?

Face and body scrubs

Are you polishing your skin with plastic? You are if your favorite facial scrub contains particles made from polyethelene. It’s a common exfoliating ingredient in such popular products as Olay Regenerist Advanced Anti-Aging Regeneration Cream Cleanser, the new Neutrogena Rapid Clear Foaming Scrub, and even Bliss Lemon + Sage Body Scrub. Polyethelene beads are made from polymers of ethylene oxide (say that three times fast)—the same synthetic stuff used to make plastic grocery bags.

What is it doing in your skin care? The beads are supposed to be a boon for skin because they’re perfectly spherical—unlike walnut shells and apricot pits which can be coarse, some say, and tear at tender facial skin, or worse, irritate, infect, or spread a case of the pimples, particularly the red bumpy kind. (They’re better off used in body scrubs.)

At best, polyethelene beads probably create a bit of friction as they roll over your face. New York City dermatologist Dennis Gross, M.D., who’s not a fan of most scrubs, says that of all possible materials, at least these have a smooth surface.

woman by the water
Does your face polish pollute the oceans? It likely does if it contains polyethelene beads.

At worst, these teeny plastic pellets roll down your drain and wind up in rivers and seas. Microplastics—particles of less than 1 milimeter—are on ecologist’s Most Wanted list of environmental pollutants right now. They’re tiny enough to squeeze out of a beauty product tube—and to escape sewage filtering systems. That’s not good for something that doesn’t exactly biodegrade and may carry toxic fossil fuel byproducts. Studies of the effects of microplastics on marine wildlife suggest equally scary things, namely that fish, not known for their eyesight, can’t distinguish a polyethelene bead from a grain of sand or a microorganism that it might consume for dinner.

Do we really need a perfectly shaped facial scrub that badly?

Fortunately, some companies say that the quest for the perfectly round skin-polishing bead has already been discovered—in nature. It’s jojoba, says Tina Touhy, a spokesperson for Aveda, which uses the botanical bead-like spheres in the deep-cleansing Tourmaline Charged Exfoliating Cleanser. Jojoba also gets marquee billing in REN Jojoba Microbead Invigorating Facial Polish, which contains a pick-me-up of peppermint, and it’s paired with oats in Naturopathica Oat Facial Polish, a gentle non-drying scrub that’s particularly good for sensitive skin. These are scrubs with polish. —Melisse Gelula

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