Is Your Glitter Makeup Bad for the Planet?

Is Your Glitter Makeup Bad for the Planet?

As restrictions begin to ease around the world and the re-opening of nightclubs and re-launching of events beckons in many countries, our makeup routines have had a much-awaited switch-up. Gone are the days of lounging around bare-faced in pyjamas – we’re ready to face the world again, and when we say “face”, we often mean one full of makeup. In this time of low-key home-dwelling, many of us have quietly missed getting dressed up, constructing a look, getting ready for something. We’re ready to find the joy in the high-octane hair and makeup, turning up the glamour factor to the max. And what does that better than glitter?

Playful and at the same time rebellious, glitter takes any makeup look from uneventful to extra. It’s a must-have for festivals, a festive touch at parties, a synonym for all things fun. Whether you sparkle a little or a lot, chances are that glitter has at some stage been a part of your makeup routine.

This is why it’s entirely deflating to discover that glitter is, in fact, a huge villain to the environment. Perhaps more so than many other makeup products. Last year, scientists in the UK called for a total ban on glitter after finding direct links between the sparkly stuff and ocean pollution. Dr Dannielle Green, senior lecturer in biology at Anglia Ruskin University, told BBC News: “Glitter is a type of microplastic, it can have the same effects as other microplastics and it shouldn’t be released in large quantities into the environment.”

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Photo: cottonbro.

The damage Dr Green is referring to is akin to that of microplastics contained in synthetic clothing: when it is washed, tiny particles of plastic are released into the waterways. Glitter reacts in a similar way when washed off your face after a dazzling night out. Why are microplastics bad news? There are several alarming reasons. If you love animals and/or are vegan, you should be aware that microplastics severely harm marine life. These particles can be ingested by all forms of marine life – including organisms as small as zooplankton – blocking the animals’ gastrointestinal tract and tricking them into thinking they don’t need to eat, which leads to starvation. Toxic chemicals also sometimes cling to the plastic surfaces and when marine animals ingest them, they are exposed to toxins. Nicholas Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas programme, has said to Bustle that “studies show that plastic can impact reproduction and feeding behaviour in fish and transport toxic chemicals, among other effects…”

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Those who eat fish should also be vary of microplastics. Many times, when fish end up eating the particles, they end up passing them on to the humans who eat seafood. The impacts of this are still being researched – but scientists’ concerns include endocrine disruptors – chemicals that interfere with hormone function. And microplastics really are taking over the planet: one study found that they can become airborne and literally rain down from the sky. While a rain of glitter sounds like a fairy-tale scenario, the reality is the stuff of nightmares.

To combat the problem, many companies use glitter that naturally biodegrades. Efforts to minimise plastic pollution are championed by small brands such as Wild Glitter and Eco Glitter Fun, have created biodegradable glitter options. “Unlike traditional plastic glitter, the glitter core is based on a special modified regenerated cellulose technology unique to Bioglitter derived from ethically and sustainably sourced raw materials,” says Wild Glitter founder Olivia Moon on the brand’s About page.


But are these efforts enough? A recent study found that biodegradable glitter and traditional glitter caused similar levels of environmental damage. The companies in the studies used either cellulose-based glitter that was then coated with plastic, or mica, a silicate mineral. The researchers found that the effects of these more “eco-friendly” glitters was almost identical to those of conventional product.

However, we must keep in mind that glitter, harmful as it may be, represents much less than 1% of all microplastics that are polluting our planet – and even then, part of it comes from holiday wrapping, cards and packaging, rather than cosmetics. The study finding similarities between eco-glitter and conventional glitter looked at large quantities of the product, such as when it’s released during events. They were less concerned about cosmetics.

If wearing glitter, it could be beneficial to use a wipe to remove it and throw it away, rather than washing it at the bathroom sink which inevitably ends up in waterways. But in a time when plastic pollution is at an all-time high, we should all consider giving up, or at least limiting, our penchant for the sparkle. Pretty as it is, it’s hardly a necessity.

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Cover image by cottonbro.

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