Homemade exfoliants can reduce plastic waste
Studies show that the Great Lakes are being polluted with teeny, tiny beads of plastic, some floating together as islands, some being ingested by fish.
We ran a story on this page in August, showing preliminary results of research done on lakes Superior, Huron and Erie. The study — a joint project of SUNY Fredonia and the 5 Gyres Institute, showed that Lake Erie had the highest concentration of these tiny plastic particles, probably because three of the other Greats — Superior, Michigan and Huron — flow into Erie.
Results of the research were published last week in Marine Pollution Bulletin, a peer-reviewed journal. Chemistry professor Sherri Mason of SUNY Fredonia said in a summation of the study that it was not surprising to find plastic particles in the lakes, since they are so abundant in ocean waters.
“What was surprising, however, was that some of our samples showed extremely high counts, even relative to oceanic waters, and the size of the particles we found, largely what is classified as ‘micro-plastics.’ ” she said.
What’s surprising to me is that these tiny particles, all perfectly round, are the kind found in personal cleaning products, particularly those labeled “deep clean scrub” or “exfoliating” cleaners. Do so many people use plastic-containing exfoliants that we are polluting our largest freshwater bodies of water? Apparently the particles are too small to be strained out at waste water plants.
5 Gyres, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to reducing plastic pollution, has shared the research with companies that make the scrubs, according to policy director Stiv Wilson. Both Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have since pledged to phase out the use of polyethylene balls in cleansers over the next several years. L’Oreal pledged not to develop any new products using microbeads.
For people trying to reduce the amount of plastic in their lives, finding out about hidden plastic is never fun. I mean, if you use an “exfoliating” cleanser, did you really know you were scrubbing your face with tiny beads of plastic?
There are other “deep clean” cleansers out there that use natural products for scrubbing — ground up apricot shells or cocoa beans. They are expensive, but the plastic-filled ones aren’t cheap either.
Last winter when my daughter was home from school, she kept doing science experiments that moved from the kitchen to the bathroom, and ended up with little glass jars of mystery items on the shelf near the sink.
“What is this stuff?” I’d ask her.
“Oh, that’s my brown-sugar face scrub,” she’d say. “Want to try some?”
I didn’t. I’m more the hot water-and-washcloth type. But now I see what she was up to: natural facial care products, homemade, inexpensive and nonpolluting. Brilliant!
Homemade scrubs are easy to make. You can use salt, white sugar or brown sugar for your exfoliant: All scrub away dirt and dead skin. Sugar is more gentle than salt, and brown sugar softer than white sugar, so the salt scrubs are typically used on feet and knees, and the sugar scrubs on faces. Brown sugar scrubs are good even for sensitive skin.
For a basic brown sugar scrub, use six parts brown sugar to one part olive oil — for example, 2 tablespoons brown sugar and one teaspoon olive oil. You can make a little more and put it in a jar in the bathroom, like my daughter did, to confound your housemates.
A longer-lasting scrub can be made with coconut oil, which you’d probably have to buy rather than just finding it in your kitchen cupboard. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, so you need to melt it in a microwave first. The typical ratio is 1⁄2 cup melted coconut oil to 3⁄4 cup brown sugar. Mix together and store in a jar with a tight-fitting lid.
Those same recipes can be made with white sugar or sea salt instead of brown sugar, for a coarser mix. And you can add a drop or two of your favorite essential oil for fragrance.
Make a few bottles, tie ribbons on them and you’re all set with presents for the holidays. Your friends and family members will have homemade, natural beauty products, and you’ll be doing your part to keep plastics out of our waters.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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