Glitter Or Litter? Turns Out Sparkly Makeup Is More Impactful Than You Think

By Ashleigh Cometti
Glitter makeup is the stuff of Mardi Gras dreams: high-shine, high sparkle, but sadly, high impact. Photo / Getty Images

It’s fun and it’s festive, but for something so tiny, turns out glitter’s footprint is bigger than we could’ve ever imagined.

The current discourse around glitter in environmental circles is resoundingly negative, with many scientists revealing its lifespan continues long after you’ve washed it off.

To dive into the subject further, Ashleigh Cometti tapped Dr Olga Pantos, a senior scientist and co-lead at AIM2  Aotearoa Impacts and Mitigation of Microplastics Project.

The project serves to quantify the levels and types of microplastics in the environment, of which glitter remains one of the worst offenders, Dr Pantos says.

“We’re seeing huge amounts, all different colours and sizes in material that is going out into the environment,” she says.

“Whilst we do not yet understand the full implications of its presence on the environment, we can be sure that it shouldn’t be there, so why are we risking the health of our environment for something unnecessary?”

Makeup or microplastic?

Typically, conventional glitter is made using polyethylene terephthalate (or PET), a thin coloured layer of aluminium and another very thin layer of plastic like copolymer styrene acrylate, Dr Pantos says.

“The main polymer may also be acrylic, polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or a plastic epoxy resin mixture,” she says.

What gives glitter its shine is a combination of the aluminium layer and the way in which it is cut, helping to achieve its light-reflective, glittery properties.

The shape of these microplastics is particularly devastating for marine life. Glitter’s sharp or pointy edges means it is more difficult to pass through a fish or animal’s digestive tracts, not to mention it can cause intestinal tears.

Beyond glitter, Dr Pantos says there are multiple other tiny plastic particles used in cosmetics. Plastic polymers or co-polymers are frequently used in beauty products as gelling, thickening or stabilising agents. It’s not just in skincare or cosmetics either, as they can often crop up in haircare, too.

Gauging glitter’s impact

“It’s still not fully understood what impacts glitter has on the health of the environment or humans,” Dr Pantos says.

She adds that this can be chalked up to a handful of factors that may influence the impact a microplastic particle can have, including its size, shape, polymer type, chemical additives (like those adding during production to give glitter the desired property like its colour) and how long they’ve been in circulation. Not to mention which environment or organism they are interacting with.

A 2021 study published by the National Library of Medicine* examined the ecological impacts of both conventional and biodegradable glitter on freshwater habitats. Primary findings revealed that both forms had adverse effects on the chlorophyll content which duckweed and phytoplankton need in order to thrive, along with the increase in invasive species like mud snails which are typically found in polluted waters.

Dr Pantos adds the study used very high concentrations of glitter, so scientists are still continuing to establish if impacts are still evident at lower concentrations.

Along a similar vein is mica, which lends makeup shimmer and shine, and can be utilised in skincare to give the illusion of a more radiant complexion. While it’s considered a “safe” alternative to microplastic glitter, Dr Pantos says it was one of the particles tested in the above study, and still had a negative impact on microalgae and aquatic plants.

Natural mica has also been in the spotlight for its significant social costs (particularly in the field of human rights) due to the way in which it is mined. The U.S Department of Labour claims that approximately 10,000 children as young as four years old are working in mica mines in Madagascar, one of the world’s largest mica exporters.

It is almost impossible to ascertain if the mica you are using has been responsibly and ethically sourced, so it pays to do your research to establish if the brand you’re supporting is committed to only using child labour-free mica.

“Synthetic mica that is made in the lab is a better alternative to natural mica for those reasons,” Dr Pantos says.

Microbeads first, glitter next?

Since June 7, 2018, it has been illegal to manufacture or sell products containing microbeads in Aotearoa.

The ban caused massive disruption and upheaval in the skincare industry, as a number of cleansers, exfoliators and toothpastes were pulled from shelves in a bid to curb the amount of plastic winding up in our waterways.

Dr Pantos believes legislation is coming for glitter next.

“Glitter is a clear example of a primary microplastic and should therefore also be banned. I believe the reason they weren’t is that the ban was only on microplastics used in things that were designed to be washed off  as in cleaning products,” she says.

“Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove microplastics and so it is not captured during the treatment. Therefore, glitter is getting through, and is released out into the environment  whether in the liquid effluent or biosolids that’s applied to land or released into the ocean.”

Is biodegradable glitter any better?

Not necessarily, says Dr Pantos, explaining some still contain conventional plastic, while others claim to be biodegradable but only under conditions they are unlikely to experience.

“Even the biodegradable alternatives are not biodegraded as they pass through the system as they do not experience the required conditions to achieve complete degradation before being released into the environment where they will not be in the required conditions,” Dr Pantos says.

Share this article: