When you think of festive parties — or even a particularly glamorous eyeshadow brand — Glitter might also come to mind. Everything from holiday decorations to greeting cards to makeup and nail polish is commonly sprinkled with glitter to add a little extra pizzazz. The downside is that it works everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, stick to unwanted surfaces like skin and clothing, and takes a lot of effort (and patience) to remove.
But glitter isn’t just glitzy and occasionally obnoxious — it’s also bad for the environment. It’s hard to imagine Christmas and New Year celebrations without glitter, but it might be time to rethink our use of glitter.
Glitter is actually a microplastic
Microplastics are roughly defined as small plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size. The small shards can be released directly into the environment or come from larger plastic waste that breaks down into smaller plastic fragments. “There [is] no clear definition of microplastics, but I would certainly consider glitter to be microplastics,” says Joel Baker, a marine pollution expert and environmental scientist at the University of Washington Tacoma. “It’s the right size and contains synthetic polymers.”
Continue reading: The fight against microplastics
Glitter is common made made from a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PET) coated with aluminum to create a reflective surface. Some glitter can also be made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), another plastic material. “Glitter can contain any number of materials that are shiny, highly colored, or iridescent,” says Robert C. Hale, an environmental scientist and professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “It can contain other types of polymers besides PET and even minerals like mica.”
Put simply, glitter is also a microplastic. And because microplastics a Big part of global pollution, it is important to understand how it affects human and environmental health.
Effects of microplastic pollution
Microplastics come in a variety of materials, shapes and sizes, and exhibit varying degrees of weathering, which means it is difficult to determine their overall effect, says Hale. However, research shows that microplastics were present found even in remote places, far from human activity. according to a Paper 2019 Published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, Glitter can be a significant source of microplastics in the environment and become a hazard to various organisms. That NOAA Marine Debris Program also said glitter may contribute to marine debris.
In the sea, microplastics can be confused with fish eggs taken by sea creatures. These tiny particles can get trapped in their stomachs, causing malnutrition and weight loss. They can also lead to reduced feeding rates and lower reproductive rates in some species. However, the magnitude of these impacts typically varies between species and life cycle stages.
Regardless, while the seafood we eat is likely contaminated with microplastics, our dietary exposure to plastic particles is relatively low compared to our inhalation of plastic particles. “Personally, I’m very concerned about human health because we spend more than 90 percent of our lives indoors or in vehicles, which are essentially closed recirculation boxes with huge amounts of plastic inside,” says Hale. “Plastic is in carpets, furniture, paint, insulation and medicines. It carries our food and drink and even our air inside.”
We are constantly surrounded by plastic, even in everyday items like baby bottles, toys, organizers, storage containers and food containers. A Study 2021 Published in Letters on Environmental Science and Technology recently found that the concentration of microplastics in stool samples was significantly higher in infants than in adults, suggesting that babies are generally exposed to higher levels of microplastics.
That said very little is currently known about the health consequences of high and long-term exposure to microplastics. “It’s unlikely that ingesting microplastics would harm a human being because they’re too small to block the gastrointestinal tract but too big to get through cell walls,” says Baker. “Very small nanometer-sized particles can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause problems, but these are orders of magnitude smaller than glitter.”
However, it’s important to consider not only the physical effects of microplastics, but also the effects of their chemical additives, says Hale. Dangerous chemical substances added during plastic manufacturing are found influence human and environmental health. These additives contaminate soil, air, water and food, causing a variety of diseases and affecting the immune and reproductive systems. In addition, microplastics can act and become magnets carrier of toxic environmental pollutants that increase their overall toxicity to the human body when ingested.
Given the environmental impact of glitter (and microplastics in general), many companies have started making biodegradable glitter such as: Meadowbrook inventions and Ronald Britton Ltd. A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge have also found a way to make vegan glitter after discovering cellulose nanocrystals — a natural material found in the cell walls of plants, fruits and vegetables — can bend illuminate and create vivid colors.
However, these alternatives are not entirely environmentally friendly. A Study 2020 published in Journal of Hazardous Materials found that both conventional or non-biodegradable PET glitter and alternative cellulosic or mica glitter can impact aquatic ecosystems. “We probably can’t help but make a contribution [to microplastic pollution], but there are ways to reduce our contributions,” says Hale. “Yes, we can reduce our use of glitter, products containing microbeads, etc. But these are small, albeit avoidable, sources.”
Giving up glitter isn’t a bad idea, but it could be a sparkling scapegoat for larger environmental concerns: Hale and Baker both say most microplastics come from the breakdown of larger plastics we use every day, hence the greenest measure for what we do can do is to stop the unnecessary and excessive use of plastics of all kinds. Opt for reusable alternatives, say no to single-use plastics when you can, and avoid products with plastic packaging.
“The best thing you can do is minimize your use of single-use plastics and properly dispose of the ones you use,” says Baker.