Microbead-Free Scrubs: Get Smoother Skin Without Killing the Fishies

I haven’t used microbead scrubs since learning how bad they were a few years ago, but it’s surprising just how many products still contain them.

Where America leads, the rest of the world follows, so the Senate’s passing of a bill that bans microbeads in cosmetics last month will mean goodbye to tiny pieces of plastic that scrub our faces and pollute the Earth.

To be honest, I haven’t used microbead scrubs since learning how bad they were a few years ago, but it’s surprising just how many products still contain them. I think we’ll be seeing a huge change in the scrub landscape as companies are forced to reformulate and withdraw products containing the plastics from the market.

There are a few viable alternatives to using plastic microbeads, so all is not lost. A flannel face cloth does a decent job of exfoliating, so you could give that a go with your regular cleanser. You could skip physical scrubbing altogether and look at upgrading your exfoliation situation to a chemical operation (my personal favorite).

If you’re dead set on removing that dead skin with loose particles, though, there are some biodegradable options. Biodegradable plastic alternatives are not without controversy, however, as there are concerns that these may introduce different harmful chemicals to the waterways; the state of California’s legislation banning of microbeads, for example, will ban biodegradable alternatives, too. I don’t know if this is going to make companies switch to even better alternatives, though, or just create a Californian black market trade in scrubs.

Regardless, there are certainly products that use scrub particles that will really, honestly and truly not kill the fish. I mean, don’t hold me to that, but they’re not any form of plastic, at least, and that’s a start.

Body scrubs

I think, historically, body scrubs have been pretty good at not containing microbeads, but you’d be surprised. In case you can’t tell, my go-to brand for body scrubs is The Body Shop.

The Body Shop’s Mango, Glazed Apple and Frosted Plum scrubs use sugar as their primary scrubby ingredient. Of course, you can bypass spending lots of money (if you don’t mind also bypassing their incredible scents) by using regular white sugar as a body scrub, but I find the pre-made scrubs have smaller particles and are a little less abrasive.

The other interesting scrub particle found in some Body Shop scrubs is made of hydrogenated jojoba or castor oil. I’ve found these in the Virgin Mojito and Fuji Green Tea scrubs (yes, I know I have a problem). These little beads look more like the dreaded plastic microbeads, but they’re biodegradable so they get the environmental OK. Their rounded form is a little more regular than sugar crystals, so they’re more of a low-abrasion option.

Scalp scrub

I was really excited when I came across the Kiehl’s Deep Micro-Exfoliating Scalp Treatment in my quest to banish flaky scalp, and even more excited when I discovered it’s plastic-free. Less excited when my stylist told me it’s not a good idea to scrub your scalp because it can make it produce even more flaky skin. Regardless, I still use this scrub sometimes when I’m feeling disobedient.

The Kiehl’s scalp scrub contains yet another scrub particle: crushed apricot kernels and argan shells. These guys get a bit of a bad rap (which I’ll address shortly), but they do a decent job of exfoliating my scalp without causing any irritation.

Face scrubs

The world of plastic-free face scrubs is enormous and varied, their scrubbiness generally deriving from either vegetable or mineral.

Of the scrubs pictured, Arcona Cranberry Gommage, Goodness Every Week Face Scrub and Formula 10.0.6 One Smooth Operator use pumice, a volcanic rock, as exfoliating particles. Not to be outdone, the Arcona scrub also contains diatomaceous earth, jojoba beads and sugar in what I can only assume was an attempt to be as comprehensively scrubby as possible.

One Smooth Operator also contains crushed oats, the Manuka Doctor exfoliator uses crystallised honey, and the Pique scrub (in the pot at the end) uses coffee grounds; these scrub particles are the easiest to DIY. (Likewise, I don’t own any lip scrubs because I always just DIY them with sugar and olive oil.)

The REN Micro Polish Cleanser is a foaming cleanser which also contains scrub particles — in this case, amber powder.

Okay, so let’s talk crushed fruit-pit particles for a minute.

A lot of the internet warns against crushed apricot kernels, and the St Ives Apricot Scrub in particular, because the particles are irregular and jagged, and can cause "microtears" in the surface of the skin. I’m sure I’ve repeated this rhetoric myself.

After a bit of research, though, I can’t find a lot of scientific evidence to back this up. For sure physical scrubbing can cause irritation to sensitive skin, so if this is you, you might want to skip it entirely. If you are going to scrub, though, I can’t find any evidence to suggest that any one scrub particle is worse than others. This study mentions that scrubs with irregular particles will cause more damage, citing fruit pits and aluminum oxide as ones to avoid if you have sensitive skin; but most scrub particles are quite irregular.

Aluminum oxide is used in microdermabrasion, which is considered safe for most skin types. And, interestingly, Environment and Climate Change Canada has found that microscopic views of plastic microbeads suggests that they’re not much better in terms of regularity.

This is not to say that physical scrubs won’t cause irritation; just that if you’re moving away from plastic microbeads, you’re probably safe with any alternative scrub particles, and that "microtears" as a concept doesn’t seem to me to be much more than misinformation erring on the side of caution. (I’m totally open to having my opinion changed on this, by the way, as long as you can give me more than anecdotal evidence.)

  • What is your favorite microbead-free scrub?
  • Anyone know the most environmentally-friendly way to dispose of the microbead-containing scrubs I still have in my possession?