You might be shocked to learn that something as innocent and innocuous as the everyday act of washing your face could be causing fish and other sea creatures to die.
How? Face and body scrubs, as well as many other toiletries and cosmetics, can contain tiny plastic beads known as microbeads.
They’re added to toothpaste, soap, shampoo and shaving gel for their abrasive qualities, in order to exfoliate dead skin cells and polish our tooth enamel.
Too small to be caught in water-treatment filters and non-biodegradable, they’re flushed out to sea, where they can be mistaken for food by fish. Trillions of these particles are now found in our oceans, where they end up in all types of sea life, from plankton to whales.
The particles can build up in the digestive system and kill fish before they reach reproductive age.
The beads can pick up toxins too, which they can pass up the food chain to the fish we eat.
In the UK over 300,000 people signed a petition* calling for manufacturers to stop using microbeads, and in August 2016, UK MPs demanded a worldwide ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetics to be imposed as soon as possible.
Several multinational companies including Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble have pledged to phase out microbeads, and 25 UK companies including Sainsbury’s, Wilko, Waitrose, Tesco, Boots, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer have already done so.
What’s the alternative?
Natural alternatives abound – such as salt, sugar, ground coffee and oats – and it’s simple to make homemade scrubs with these store cupboard staples.
For a one-off treatment, add a few spoonfuls of salt or sugar to your usual face or body wash. Caster sugar is gentler than granulated on your face.
Treat yourself to a bigger batch of moisturising body scrub. Start with a clean jar. Sweet almond or olive oil gives a more liquid consistency; coconut more solid. Add enough sugar or salt to give a grainy paste, not too sloppy, not too stiff. Then add a couple of drops of essential oil. Rose smells divine, or try peppermint for a little tingle. Stir, scoop out and start smoothing!
But if bathroom DIY doesn’t appeal, there are several microbead-free shopping suggestions to help you make a start on your pollution-free beauty product collection.
Salty or sweet
A self-heating scrub, Bliss Hot Salt Scrub (£30.50, 400g) has rosemary and eucalyptus to ease muscles as it smooths skin.
Zingy, zesty Lush Ocean Salt Face and Body Scrub (£14.95, 450g) mingles limes with sea salt, plus avocado butter to soften. In bar form, Lush Sugar Scrub Shower Scrub (£2.95, 100g) contains – you guessed! – sugar, with ginger and fennel.
One of my personal fragrant favourites, Ren Moroccan Rose Otto Sugar Body Polish (£32, 330g) has sugar and rose essential oil, in an almond and olive oil base, to use on dry skin then rinse off.
Dr Organic Rose Otto Face Scrub (£7.59, 125ml) is really rosy, with rosehips, rosewater and rose oil! Exfoliating extras are ground lava, corncob and fruit seed.
Make it minty
Elemis Spa@ Home Devils Mint Body Scrub buffs you with devil’s apron seaweed particles, with peppermint to boost circulation (£28, 150ml).
Subtly minty, Korres Mint Tea Body Scrub (£12, 150ml) has ground bamboo and jojoba beads to remove dead cells and improve microcirculation.
Tote the oats
Oats are anti-inflammatory and moisturising; their soothing effects on dry, sensitive and eczema-prone skin are documented. For a face scrub, use pinhead oatmeal (or grind a handful of your usual oats) and mix with half the quantity each of honey and sweet almond oil. Smooth on to your face in circular motions, leave for a few minutes, then rinse and pat dry.
The All Natural Soap Company’s Oatmeal Soother (£4.50, 115g) blends oats with coconut milk and honey for a gentle, creamy lather.
As well as oats, Soap & Glory’s Oat, Sugar & Shea Breakfast Scrub (£8, 300ml) includes salt and powdered cocoa beans, with moisturising shea butter and sweet almond oil.
For your face, Superdrug Vitamin E Facial Scrub (100ml, £2.99) uses oatmeal to gently rub away dead skin cells.
Ground coffee is used in anti-cellulite scrubs and is reputed to dilate blood vessels, and tone and tighten skin, even if only temporarily. Make your own by adding a handful of coffee grounds (used or fresh) to oil or bodywash, as above, or try Grounded Coffee Scrub (£11.25, 200g) which also contains coconut oil, salt, sugar and almond oil.
And don’t overlook the loofah, flannel or body brush for gentle removal of dull, dead skin.
Start checking the labels of your usual brands. Polyethylene and polypropylene are the ingredients to avoid – they’re the main plastics that microbeads are made from, as well as oxidised polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon.
Save yourself squinting in the supermarket by downloading the Good Scrub Guide, a list of all kinds of microbead-free products.
Alternatively, download the Beat the Microbead app to check products by scanning their barcodes:
*Greenpeace joint campaign in collaboration with Beat the Microbead, Environmental Investigation Agency, Fauna & Flora International and Marine Conservation Agency