The Environmental Ominousness of Polyethylene Cleansers

If you have ever read “polyethylene” on your facewash ingredients, you may have found it curious. As the most commonly used plastic (the same plastic that is used to make plastic bags and water bottles), it seems like an odd thing to add to a cleanser.

Polyethylene, usually added in the form of “microbeads”, is a method of exfoliation. Biodegradable physical exfoliators are traditionally pretty expensive. Many, such as the infamous Saint Ives Apricot Scrub, are simply too rough for delicate facial skin. Plastic is an easy fix. It’s cheap as fuck and can easily be made into even balls with no sharp edges, which is much better for your skin.

As nice as this may be for your complexion, environmental researchers have recently begun to examine the potential impacts of polyethylene microbeads on the ecosystem. The problem is that polyethylene beads are specifically designed to get through sewer systems, and, in that respect, they’re designed a bit too well. They easily make it through waste treatment plants. Subsequently, they pass into natural water systems. Once they are released into an ecosystem, it can be absurdly difficult to remove them. What’s more, polyethylene does not typically biodegrade, meaning that once it’s in the water, it just hangs out as a pollutant.  Consequentially, microtrash levels are at an all-time high. For example, in the Great Lakes, it all adds up to a record-breaking 450,000 bits per square kilometer.

It’s worth noting that there are a few news sources on this that are conflating different lines of evidence. For example, Mother Jones cited a study demonstrating that mussels who were exposed to more plastic nanoparticles ate less than their counterparts in pollutant-free water. However, this study specifically dealt with particles that were a thirty millionth of a millimeter in diameter, much smaller than the beads in commercial products, which may be closer to half a millimeter. These particles are released when plastic debris breaks in the water. This is obviously bad, but it’s only tangentially related to your exfoliation routine. As of right now, the environmental impact of plastic beads stemming from face washes is still unclear, although we can probably safely assume their prevalence in our bodies of water is not a good thing. (Additionally, Mother Jones’ quippy end-of article suggestion that we all just use soap and washcloths instead demonstrates a misunderstanding of the effort that is expended to adapt face washes to human skin. There is no reason to forgo face washes in general; just skip the ones that list “polyethylene” as an ingredient.) I was also irked by the Guardian’s unfounded claim that “plastic fragments are more plentiful than plankton”, which I assume they intended to be a figure of speech, but which simply comes across as a false claim.

A few companies like Unilever, Johnson&Johnson, and Procter&Gamble are all already in the process of phasing out microbeads. Researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science are also in the process of developing microbeads made of polyhydroxyalkanoates, naturally-forming linear polyesters that serve as an effective form of biodegradable plastic. In the meantime, I will be avoiding cosmetic products that list polyethylene as an ingredient. This is a relatively small change given the potential environmental benefits.

Still, I would caution you against thinking that avoiding polyethylene-containing facial products is the end of the story. Most of the plastic microparticles floating in our oceans, rivers, and lakes are pieces of larger plastics. Discontinuing the use of polyethylene-containing products is a good start, but it only addresses a single piece of the puzzle. In order to help reduce environmental pollution by microplastics, we need to be more cognizant of our plastic use in general, and this can’t stop with what we put on our faces!


1. Ungh, of course I just checked all my scrubs and of course, they all have polyethelene. Sorry, fish. Any recommendations for gentle exfoliators (i.e. less nuclear than walnut shells) that don’t have it? (I guess there’s always washcloths.)

2.  Aaand in answering my own question news, I found a list of polyethylene-free scrubs here: but no discussion of how harsh they are. Time to hit the health-food store, I guess.

3. In addition to what is on that list: I’ve been using the Suki Exfoliate Foaming Cleanser and I like it.

4. I use the REN Jojoba Microbead exfoliator. It’s gentle and as the name says, it uses jojoba beads to gently exfoliate. X

5. Okay, I fucking HATE microbead scrubs because *they don’t do squat* on my face. After years of an increasingly expensive search, I’ve settled on my favorite one. It’s salt and oil. Really finely milled, almost powdery, cheap-as-chips table salt. (NOT sea salt or rock salt; jesus wept no!) You mix it with olive oil or coconut oil – less salt/more oil if you want a gentle scrub, more salt/less oil if you want to remove a dermal layer – and smack it onto your face and go to town. If you’ve used too much salt, you can use a teeny bit of water and it’ll dissolve away enough salt instantly to make your scrub just a tad softer. The salt does a really even, not-too-harsh resurfacing without drying your face out (because it’s in oil, not in solution in water) and the oil keeps your face all lubed up so it doesn’t shrivel up while you’re scrubbing. Then you rinse off the salt, SALT DISSOLVES AND GOES DOWN THE DRAIN WITHOUT KILLING ANYONE OR CLOGGING YOUR DRAIN, and you towel off or soap off the oil and carry on with your face cleaning business. Scrubs that are so ill-designed as microbeads piss me right the fuck off because they are not scrubs. They’re just cream cleansers with stupid 3D polka dots.

I clearly have too much rage as pertains to scrubs. Sorry.

6. My current scrub is sugar-based!

7. I love these types of posts! Maybe if you need inspiration in the future (and if this isn’t too out of left field:) maybe write a post about the efficacy of heat protectant sprays? I can’t tell if this actually protects my hair or if I’m just buying placebo water in a spray bottle…

8. I always love suggestions!

9. Agreed! These ingredient posts are so wonderful! Sometimes I feel like you should be getting paid for all of this brilliance. Seriously, if you put some ads in your sidebar, I doubt we’d care.

More future post ideas: I’d love to see that post on heat sprays and make-up setting sprays too (but the setting sprays idea might be more fitting for next summer). Also, the next time you’re in sephora, maybe have them make you a sample of glamglow’s clearing mask? (Mix some water in there if it dries out before you get it home and apply it with a brush if you can.) I personally think it lives up to the hype, but would love to hear your thoughts with a quick ingredient analysis. Thanks for being awesome.

10. Setting sprays are on my “mega-comparison” to-do list, but I don’t know how many I have access to!

11. Well, my HG scrub is now on my don’t use list. I am not good about reading ingredients – most stuff doesn’t consistently irritate my skin and so I just don’t pay attention. FWIW, Clinique’s 7-day scrub contains polyethylene. I have a tube I haven’t even opened and I am tempted to return it.

I am going to try sugar and oil or salt and oil – I use that on my body and it works well.