The Dirt on Scrubs

Choose the cleanest and greenest exfoliants for your face.
By Lindsey Galloway

Exfoliating layers of dead skin goes beyond hygiene—it feels like you’re brushing off past sins to reveal a new you, and a fresh beginning. Unfortunately, your personal sense of purification could be taking a toll on the environment.
Turns out you send a lot more than dead skin down the drain when you rinse off those little scrubbing granules. More and more body and facial scrubs contain petroleum-based polyethylene beads instead of natural exfoliants (like ground seeds, nut shells, and sugar). Because of their chemical makeup, polyethylene beads can stick around for centuries, absorbing toxic chemicals and pesticides like DDT and PCBs and harming the marine creatures that eat them.

While conventional skincare experts argue that the beads’ uniform edges make them gentler than uneven natural particles, plastic doesn’t do your skin any favors. “When you use anything synthetic on your face, like plastic beads, your body reacts by fighting off those foreign chemicals, which can cause inflammation,” says Kym Thompson, founder of Kym With A Y, an organic spa in Stockton, California.
That doesn’t mean you have to swear off scrubs forever. The natural world provides plenty of safe exfoliants. They’ll do the job—and they’ll keep you from worrying about washing plastics, or your conscience, down the drain.

Choose your potion
You have two options when it comes to removing dead skin. Chemical exfoliants, usually labeled “peels,” use fruit enzymes or acids to dissolve the cellular glue that grips old cells. While safe for most skin types, these peels can cause increased photosensitivity. Physical exfoliants (often called scrubs), which is where you’ll find the polyethylene beads, work by rubbing the skin with slightly abrasive particles like ground shells, salt, or seeds.
“These are very good at buffering down the skin so it’s super smooth all over,” says Thompson. “But depending on your skin type, you may only want to use them once or twice a week, as they can be more intense than a fruit or lactic acid peel.”

In fact, you should always choose the ingredients in your scrub—and how often you scrub—based on your skin’s imbalances and tendencies. The art of exfoliating lies in the ability to monitor how your skin reacts to changing ingredients and frequency of use. While these guidelines can get you started, no hard-and-fast rules apply, so adjust your routine as needed to strike (or scrub) the perfect balance.

Sensitive/rosacea skin
Since scrubs can induce redness, start with the most finely ground ingredients, like rice bran powder or adzuki beans. Depending on how you skin reacts, you may need to stick to peels, since the fruit acids they contain tend to be gentler on your pores’ edges.
Frequency: No more than once a week

Oily skin
“Oily skin is actually a little more resilient than other skin types,” explains Julie Gabriel, author of Clear Skin: Organic Plan for Acne (iUniverse, inc., 2007), “so it benefits from harsher scrubs like fine sea salt or sugar.” If you have inflamed acne however, steer clear of scrubs until your skin calms down; use salicylic acid (willow bark) cleanser instead. It’s a gentler way of exfoliating.
Frequency: Two to three times a week

Dry skin
A buildup of dry skin can limit how much moisturizers and serums penetrate. If you find your most potent potions don’t hydrate like they should, try exfoliating more often. Mild scrubs like oatmeal or almond meal soaked in green tea or water can help calm skin as well as moisturize. Those looking for a more intense exfoliation can try ground seaweed, cranberry seeds, or walnut shells.
Frequency: One to two times a week

Nose to the Grindstone
When using a scrub, start at the center of your face and work outward toward the ears and down the throat. Massage the granules following this pattern for 30 to 60 seconds and then rinse off with cool water. This method helps stimulate lymphatic drainage and encourage new cell growth. “While some may prefer to stay away from the eye area, rubbing a scrub gently at the corners can help smooth down fine lines,” says Thompson. No matter what your skin type, remember to moisturize immediately after exfoliating because scrubs can dry out the skin.

Ay, There’s the Scrub
For Sensitive Skin
Lotus Moon Adzuki Bean & Rose Petal Polishing Powder
A finely ground blend of adzuki beans and rice bran gently exfoliates without over-abrading sensitive skin. This simple formula (its four ingredients ensure a lesser chance for an allergic reaction) can be used directly on a moist face or mixed with a liquid cleanser. ($22, 4 oz;

For Oily Skin
Tea Naturals Face Scrub and Mask
This thick paste, infused with red, green, and white tea, makes a versatile treatment. Use it as a quick exfoliant or a 10-minute mask. Kaolin clay helps absorb oil and rounded jojoba beads don’t tear at the edges of your pores. ($11.95, 2.25 oz;

For Dry Skin
Pangea Facial Scrub
Fine organic cranberry seeds and crushed adzuki beans work gently with shea butter and almond oil to smooth and soften skin. ($33, 3.8 oz;

For All Skin Types
NaturOli Walnut Scrub
Crushed walnut shells rub off dull, dry layers of skin, while a base of olive oil and aloe vera helps keep skin hydrated. ($33, 6.7 oz;
Stem Organics Facial Exfoliant
Bamboo grows quickly, making it one of the most sustainable exfoliant choices. Along with Australian Kakadu Plum, which is high in vitamin C, bamboo brightens and soothes the skin. ($39, 0.5 oz;