Are my bath habits destroying marine ecology?

What happens to those plastic microbeads after they slough off dead skin? See more green science pictures.
Marili Forastieri/Riser/Getty Images

Here's a statement we never thought we­'d hear: Smooth, glowing skin might be devastating ocean life all over the world.

Before th­ere was the miracle of the $200 microdermabrasion procedure, most people who wanted rejuvenated skin bought a $10 tube of exfoliating facial scrub. Both are variations on the same skin care technique: removing dead surface layers of skin.

To exfoliate is to peel off the top layer of skin cells with the purpose of revealing the fresher, smoother skin underneath. It's an effective technique, although experts are somewhat divided on the overall benefits of the scrub version. By definition it contains rough particles (perhaps sea salt or crushed-up almond shells), and there's some evidence that in addition to peeling off dead skin cells, it can also scratch the skin underneath. Perhaps this explains the general trend toward synthetic "microscrubbers" instead of the natural stuff like sea salt.

The synthetic exfoliants have their benefits. Tiny plastic beads aren't rough like crushed-up shells. "Microbeads" can be perfectly round and smooth, which would most likely result in less skin scratching. A rather large problem has surfaced, though, with the widespread use of plastic in exfoliating scrubs.

In this article, we'll find out what's going on with scrubs -- what's in them, why they're making it into the ocean despite filtering mechanisms and what they're doing to marine ecology. It ain't a pretty picture.