Updated: Apr 7, 2021
From Brazilian Carnival, to most of Pride month, to festival glitter, to sorority recruitment, glitter is everywhere. And glitter gets everywhere. This article is about how it’s made, if it’s safe, and what happens to all that glitter dust after the fun of wearing it, crafting with it, and throwing it in the air.
Enjoy this read and, as always, click the numbers in square brackets to check out all the references!
Glitter can be made a few different ways. Usually it's made of several layers of aluminum added to polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which is a type of plastic [i]. Some glitters are made of tiny pieces of aluminum alone or PET plastic alone [ii].
It can be any colour but apparently rainbow glitter and silver glitter sell the best [iii]. Sometimes a shimmery coating is added to the glitter which is often made by adding mica (ground up minerals) to it [iv].
Glitter can be cut into any shape but cosmetic glitters are usually round so it's less likely to cut your skin. “Toss in the air” glitter is usually made into hexagons or octagons to catch light, or is made into specialty shapes like stars and crescents.
Size wise glitter usually ranges from as small as 0.065mm to just over 6mm [v] but can be even bigger! Generally if you are using a make-up product like glitter eyeshadow or glitter mascara the pieces are on the very small end but things like glitter nail polishes might have the larger sizes. If you want to learn about make-up products that have an opal-like shimmer to them click here to read about how that finish comes from fish guts!
Is it safe to use?
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) has been considered safe for a long time and is often used to make cheap one use plastic water bottles. However there has been some new research showing that when PET plastic is exposed to water and heat for longer periods of time it starts to leach phthalates and antimony [vi,vii,viii].
At higher concentrations both of those have been shown to be endocrine disruptors [ix], meaning they interfere with our body’s natural endocrine system which can affect things like development and reproduction.
This research is mainly about water bottles being left out in warm places where the plastic gets hot.
The reason I find it concerning when it comes to glitter is that if you are wearing glitter (cosmetic or otherwise) and you’re outside in the hot sun partying and dancing you are creating a situation where the plastic pieces are hot and wet for hours at a time and stuck to your skin.
Essentially you are creating the perfect situation where the PET could leach endocrine disruptors.
It’s important to mention that toxicity is about dose. So in small amounts exposure to PET is not dangerous but if there are PET-free options why increase your exposure when you don’t have to?
Is there an environmental impact?
Because most glitters are made of a composite aluminium/plastic blend you cannot recycle them. Even if they are 100% aluminum they are impossible to collect and bring to a recycling plant as glitter gets everywhere.
When glitter blows away, or gets washed off in the shower it will inevitably end up in our soil and our water supply.
Plastic or metal/plastic glitters do not biodegrade, meaning they will just continue to float around for 1000s of years (important to note that technically yes they will biodegrade at some point but in a very long time and they can do a lot of damage in the meantime).
Glitter dust is an important source of microplastics in natural water sources [x]. You should care about this because microplastics are major marine pollutants that accumulate in the guts of marine animals [xi]. In some situations the plastics used are biologically active; this means that once the animal eats them the plastic can cause problems for the animal’s development and/or reproduction [xii]. Any plastics with corners or sharp edges can seriously damage small organisms eating them. It would be like a person trying to eat a small picture frame.
Why would small animals eat microplastics you ask? They look a lot like tiny food sources! The reflective surface and small size can mimic the sparkle that some plants and prey animals have.
Basically marine animals are eating huge amounts of these microplastics and they are changing the way those animals grow and reproduce. This will change food chains in the seas and oceans, and will have a direct effect on us. Globally, humans consume on average 22.3 kg of fish per person per year [xiii]. If one of our major sources of food at best is full of plastic and at worst not growing properly anymore we will have a serious problem.
Glitter is also a major microplastic source in soils [xiv]. Research shows that soils that contained microplastics had fewer seeds germinate, the grass that did germinate was shorter than normal, the worms in the soil grew to be much smaller than normal, microbial communities in the soil were damaged (chemically and physically), and the soil had a lower overall pH [xv,xvi,xvii].
Basically microplastics in the soil means plants either don’t grow or are smaller than they should be and the animals in the soil also don’t grow as well as they should.
There has been some evidence showing that certain bacteria could be used to biodegrade microplastics [xviii] but the research isn’t quite strong enough yet. Hopefully they get there!
Ok so plastic glitter is bad, are there better alternatives?
There are a number of companies that make eco-glitters that come in pretty much all colours and finishes as regular PET glitter. Most eco-glitter is made of eucalyptus that gets processed down to cellulose pulp and formed into little pieces [xix]. It then has things added to it like mica or aluminum to give it that sparkle.
LUSH has a different kind of glitter made of mica and agar (a “glue” made of seaweed) [xx].
Price wise they are more expensive but not by much.
Is biodegradable glitter safe?
For our bodies, yes it is I couldn’t find any evidence that cellulose based glitters did anything to us.
For the environment, yes and no. Cellulose is biodegradable so the long term effects are substantially better.
However, a study [xxi] has shown that any kind of glitter (mica, cellulose, or PET) in an aquatic environment will cause plants to grow less than normal and will cause phytoplankton to grow smaller than they should. It looks like the effect is less than PET plastic glitter but it still has a negative effect.
Weird direction my article took
Apparently criminal investigators love glitter!
A lot of scientific research about glitter is on how to identify glitter particles, how to compare and match them, and how to find out who manufactured them. Because glitter gets on everything and never leaves it makes great trace evidence to prove that a suspect had contact with a victim.
I guess keep a glitter bomb on you at all times in case you get kidnapped?
EcoStardust is a U.K. based company that makes cellulose based glitter from sustainably farmed eucalyptus trees. They offer a huge range of glitters in different shapes and sizes so if you want to support a small business and fill your glitter needs this is a great company to check out here!
*No affiliation with the company I just like their stuff
Glitter is an important part of lots of celebrations so I understand that many people would never want to cut it out completely. My advice would be:
-always buy cellulose based or other 100% biodegradable glitters and do your research on them! Check the company’s website and make sure they have been certified to be biodegradable and it is clearly listed because some companies will add a biodegradable coating to be able to write that on the label but the glitter is still PET
-cut down on loose glitter as much as possible and never throw handfuls of it around, especially outside
-if you are using craft glitter for projects or with kids make sure you wipe it all up thoroughly and throw it out in the garbage, never down the drain
-try and focus on only using cosmetic glitters and remove glitter makeup with a wipe and make-up remover, this way the glitter is stuck to the wipe and goes in the garbage and not down the drain when you wash your face
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