This guide explores the problem with conventional plastic-based glitter and how plant-based glitter is better for your health and the environment.
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All that glitters isn’t good for the environment or our health. Luminescent pigments used to highlight your cheekbones or gloss your nails are plastic. But, as companies and brands become aware of microplastics (tiny pieces of plastic), researchers are looking to plants to give us a beautiful glow. Cellulose, a material derived from the cell walls in plants, fruits, and vegetables, shines as brightly as plastic but doesn’t harm the environment or our health.
Interested in learning more about these eco-luminescent flecks? Here’s a quick look into the difference between the glitter of old and the potential for eco-friendly glitter to add a healthy sparkle to our lives.
The Problem With Plastic Glitter
Everything we make leaves a mark on our planet- from the extraction of raw resources to disposal. Glitter is a cheaply-made microplastic usually made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Greenpeace labels PVC as “the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics.” In a report from 2009, the organization stated that PVC is “one of the biggest contributors to the flood of toxic substances saturating our planet and its inhabitants. PVC contaminates humans and the environment throughout its life cycle during its production, use, and disposal.” PVC is made from chlorine, a chemical element, linked to serious health threats like infertility and environmental concerns such as the depletion of the ozone layer. Another reason for PVC’s bad reputation is that it releases dioxin, a toxic substance, during production and disposal if it is incinerated. And, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, “There is no safe level of dioxin exposure.”
Conventional… everyday glitter [is] not produced sustainably. They get into the soil, and the ocean and contribute to an overall level of pollution.Professor Silvia Vignolini from Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry
These common types of plastic are made through energy-intensive processes where water sources can be contaminated with pollutants and pose further toxicity risks since they do not break down in landfills. Yet, despite their impact on the environment and your health, these thermoplastics are widely used across industries such as beauty, health care, and food packaging.
How we dispose of glitter poses other environmental and health risks. As stated before, it’s a microplastic. While some items like plastic-based polyester clothing will break down into microplastics upon disposal, glitter is already so small that it is one. It infiltrates our soil, water, food sources and in some cases the air. One study has even found microplastics in rain. As microplastic glitter poses a risk because it will stay in our environment forever. Some scientists want to ban glitter. Just as microbeads were banned in the past for their toxic accumulation in our environment, glitter poses the same harmful threat.
What Is Eco Glitter?
It’s worth noting that eco-glitter comes in different forms. Brands are turning away from plastic to recyclable glass and aluminum foil or natural resources like mica. One of the most recent materials has been plant-based cellulose.
Glass and aluminum aren’t widely used for glitter. One reason is the cost. All you have to do is a quick search to see that these types of glitter are widely more expensive. Also, while these materials are recyclable, there still remains little evidence to suggest that they’re the most eco-friendly option since the particles are so small they’re unlikely to break down naturally. Some research suggests that these types of glitter still pollute rivers just like microplastics.
Mica is used as an all-natural eco glitter. Yet, it must be mined, and that has exposed human labor issues. To ensure that mica is ethically-sourced, the Responsible Mica Initiative oversees the mica supply chain across more than 35 countries. They enforce fair and just labor conditions.
Bio (biodegradable) glitter is made from plant-based sources. It is usually derived from cellulose, the building blocks of plant cell walls, and can degrade within 30 days. Yet, despite its good nature, there are still questions about its impact on the environment since it is coated with a thin layer of plastic or aluminum. In one study, the biodiversity of freshwater was disrupted with an abundance of mud snails and a reducntion in the chlorophyll content of plants 36 days after bio glitter was added to the water.
Fortunately, the next wave of eco-glitters is already here. In November 2022 researchers from Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry presented their research about a completely biodegradable, plastic-free, and non-toxic glitter product. “We believe this product could revolutionize the cosmetics industry by providing a fully sustainable, biodegradable, and vegan pigment and glitter,” said Professor Silvia Vignolini. But, the product won’t be ready for commercial use for several years.
So, what is the most eco-glitter product available to consumers? For now, the answer remains eco glitter made from mica and those that are plant-based. These are the most natural solutions available on the market today. They’re not perfect. They are a step in the right direction. As always, the best way we can be sustainable consumers is to make the best possible purchase that we can make.