Getting rid of plastic beads from cosmetics is good for the environment, but that doesn’t mean we have to go without scrubs. There are plenty of very interesting and highly biodegradable alternatives. Here are a few that are being used.
Sugar – this is an obvious one. Sugar is safe just so long as you don’t eat too much of it. It also has the rather splendid property of being water soluble and very easily biodegradable. All in all, it is the ideal green scrub material. It does have a few drawbacks from a practical point of view. Having a product that is good enough to eat sounds good, but one that is positively attractive to insects and small mammals raises other issues. There are also some limitations on what particle sizes are available at a reasonable price as well. There is also the problem that you can’t use it in water based formulations because it dissolves.
Salt is another obvious one, and is clearly safe and green without being an actual foodstuff. There are also a fairly wide range of particle sizes to allow you to come up with the right kind of scrub for the application you have in mind. It is rather hard, which makes it a bit abrasive for some manufacturing plant. Sea salts in general, and Dead Sea salt in particular are popular and can be produced in a sustainable way.
Rice is a very suitable scrub material and specific grades are milled to the best size for use in cosmetic scrubs. (Remytec S-750 is an example.) Rice is a good option, sharing a lot of the advantages of sugar but can be used with water without issues.
Candelilla Wax comes from a shrub that grows in Mexico making it clearly natural. It is extracted from the leaves by boiling them in dilute sulfuric acid. It can be made into a very effective scrub.
Jojoba Wax is made by hydrogenating jojoba oil. Hydrogenation is a pretty invasive technique so it is questionable whether the result is still meaningfully natural is a matter of opinion but there is no doubt that jojoba wax beads are biodegradable and don’t pose the same risk of polythene beads.
A similar option is to blend natural waxes to create beads that have the same properties as the plastic ones. Food company Kemin has got into this application with XfoliPearl, a blend of candellila and hydrogenated castor oil.
This is far from an exhaustive list and there are plenty of other biodegradable exfoliants out there. I think we’ll get along just fine without polythene.
Thanks to John Darbyshire of Adina Chemicals for letting me pick his brains for this article.