Scrub that! (Or, The Law of Unintended Consequences)


If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you will see that I have tweeted and RT’d a fair number of links to the Beat the Microbead campaign. As with many things, I have come a little late to this party, but “there’s no zealot like a convert” and I am really moved by the facts. For those who don’t know about the damage microbeads can do, they are the tiny rounded pieces of plastic – most commonly polyethylene (PE), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), nylon, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene (PP) – which give face, foot and body scrubs, polishes and illuminating creams their exfoliating action and are even present in toothpaste (particularly, it seems, the whitening kind) and shaving cream. You will find them on the ingredients lists of many high street (drug store) and high end beauty products. These microplastics are so small that they can pass straight through waste water filtration systems, eventually finding their way into water courses, lakes and of course the oceans. They never biodegrade.

If I’d known then what I know now …

Water is a finite resource. The Earth has what it has and cannot make more. Every drop we pollute is a drop we cannot use. But the microbeads also enter the food chain and eventually find their way back to us. Added to this, many plastics are xeno-oestrogens (xenoestrogens if you are reading this in the US): endocrine disruptors implicated in causing all kinds of health problems, including my own.

There are a lot of familiar names on the UK list*, from Elemis and L’Occitane en Provence through Clinique and Elizabeth Arden to Neutrogena and Aapri. The inclusion of the last is truly ironic, considering that Aapri was pretty much founded on a scrub formulated with pieces of apricot kernel back in the eighties (1985 according to their claim to be “The Original Scrub”). Back then, scrubs were almost always based on natural ingredients, such as oats for the face or pumice for the body, until the beauty industry convinced us that these were too harsh and so marketed “skin-friendly” products based on microplastic beads instead. And those tiny specks of green, blue or orange suspended in a smooth gel certainly did look and feel promising!

My personal view is that this was win/win for the companies, because the plastics were and are probably a lot cheaper and easier to source than the pesky natural products. I am stricken by how willingly, how unthinkingly, I accepted this as progress.

I feel as though these products have been around since at least the nineties. If I’m right then there is a further irony here, in that the late eighties and early nineties were the time of real escalation in the green movement. We were all suddenly aware of the damage our fridge-freezers and aerosols were doing to the ozone layer; Heathcote Williams’s Whale Nation served as the rallying cry for an international whaling ban; we knew that our tuna needed to be dolphin-friendly after seeing the horrific images on the television news; rainforest deforestation figures and recycled paper products were everywhere; and The Body Shop (which became a publicly-listed company in 1984) suddenly seemed to be the most relevant beauty source around. Even thirtysomething‘s Hope and Michael were buying chlorine-free diapers, while Hope (the beautiful Mel Harris) worked part-time for an environmental magazine and advocacy group. It was quite a moment, but then the news cycle moved on and those anxieties was supplanted by others. It sometimes feels as though we have been moving backwards, in everyday ecological terms, ever since.

Making a difference

In addition to their “Red” list, Beat the Microbead publish an “Amber” list of companies and products which have not yet phased out microbeads but are working to do so, and a “Green” list (most recently updated in March) of products containing no microbeads. And things are changing. My awareness of this issue (and, again, I’m not proud of how long it’s taken) springs from the legislation (the Microbead-Free Waters Act) passed in the US at the end of last year. The UK is calling for the EU to ban the use of microbeads in beauty products, and it has just been reported that Environment minister Rory Stewart MP has suggested that the UK may make a unilateral ban even if the EU-wide one fails. Tomorrow afternoon, 9 May, the Environmental Audit Committee will hear evidence on the environmental impact of microplastics. This will be available to watch live or to play back later.

In the meantime, it’s incredibly quick and easy to sign the petition supporting a ban. I went to the Greenpeace page, where just your name, post code and email address will get you added to the UK petition addressed to the Prime Minister. Other organisations involved prominently in the campaign include the Marine Conservation Society, the Environmental Investigation Agency and Fauna & Flora International.

I am stricken by how willingly, how unthinkingly, I accepted this as progress.

I’ll be taking time to check the products I own. I am horrified to find that polyethylene appears as the very first ingredient in my Bobbi Brown Buffing Grains for Face, although of course BB is one of the Estée Lauder companies and I really shouldn’t be surprised, given what I know now. At least my Soap & Glory Breakfast Scrub appears on the “Green” list. I’ll be shopping a lot more carefully in future. I only wish I knew how to dispose of the “bad” products responsibly!

And a lot of this makes me wonder: why do we feel that we need these scrubs, anyway? Isn’t it just another example of our buying into the idealised, unattainable vision of womanhood, “the beauty myth”? Naomi Wolf’s seminal work† of the same title was first published in 1990, when its criticism of the beauty industry seemed to chime with our improving understanding of ecological concerns and rebellion against life’s iniquities. Pre-Aapri (which was too harsh for my skin even in my teens, when I was an oats & clay face pack girl) a cotton face flannel (face cloth in today’s parlance), wood-and-bristle back brush and pumice stone got the job done perfectly well. While I am aware of the environmental impact of mining and transporting pumice, because in ecological terms there is never a “safe” response to the First World demands we place upon our planet, it does at least have the advantage of being naturally-occurring and does not – so far as I know – endanger the fragile endocrine balance of any living thing.

So, please, take a look at the sites, read up on the issues and evidence, check the contents of your own bathroom cabinet, give serious thought to signing the petition and trying to shop responsibly.

Lady Eve copy

© Lipgloss and Wellies, 2016

*Lists for the UK and other countries are available here. Fauna & Flora International have also published a Good Scrub Guide which gives an easy-to-use rundown of face products, plastics and price point.

†The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf (Vintage Publishing, ISBN: 9780099595748)


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