All That Glitters Isn’t Gold: The Truth About Glitter In Makeup

Nothing signals a celebration quite like confetti. Glitter rain sprinkling down from the sky inspires nostalgia and hopefulness at once. Like fireworks you can actually feel, glitter confetti brings out the whimsy in all of us.

As New Year’s Eve approaches and I’m planning my party outfit and makeup look, I’m reminded of this past Halloween, which is perhaps the only other holiday when it’s completely acceptable for professional adults to cover themselves with glitter makeup (Burning Man and Coachella aren’t national holidays yet, so I don’t include them here.) It was just days before the frightful night and I was speaking at Well Summit 2019. The panel discussion focused on cosmetic ingredients and their impact on the environment. The topic of glitter in makeup came up and once it did, it consumed the conversation. What immediately struck me was that 1. Women, and some men, of all ages, races and backgrounds hold a special place in their hearts for all that glitters; and 2. The idea that glitter is bad for the environment is spirit-crushing.

In this day and age when we must consider the environmental consequences of every decision we make, glitter symbolizes a sacrifice of even the most innocent pleasures in the name of environmental stewardship.

But here’s the flip side: glitter in makeup is trending. Brands like Lemonhead LA and EcoStardust are favorites among celebs, influencers and party-goers, and these brand founders are experiencing both a boost in sales and a PR backlash at the same time.

So, let’s get to the bottom of it. Is glitter really that bad for the environment?

First, we must understand what glitter is made of. Most glitter in makeup is made with metal – usually aluminum – that’s been tinted and covered with plastic and cut to the varying size and shape to obtain the desired effect. Glitter in makeup is generally smaller with smoother edges than craft glitter, which is chunkier and less refined.

Knowing this, it makes perfect sense that if you supported a ban on microbeads, you would also be supportive of a ban on glitter in makeup and in general, which is similar, and even more problematic to marine life because of its jagged edges that can lacerate the fish from the inside out when consumed. What’s more, fish are more likely to want to consume glitter due to its uncanny resemblance to iridescent plankton. And of course, if we look at the food chain loop, we begin to see that we, too, consume these small bits of shiny microplastic every time we eat contaminated fish. 

The good news is that there is innovation in the field of glitter manufacturing called bio-glitter. Bio-glitter is pieces of tinted metal covered with shiny plant cellulose as opposed to plastic. It claims to be mostly or completely biodegradable, under the right conditions, which aren’t totally clear. So while bio-glitter sounds cool, we have yet to discover a plant-based alternative to metallic glitter that has zero impact on the environment. Net-Net, bio-glitter is better, but it’s not perfect.

So, when the occasion calls for glitter (and let’s face it, there’s really no substitute), and you’re an eco-conscious consumer who wants to enjoy life without ruining the planet, what do you do?   

First, get educated. Conventional, everyday makeup contains tons of problematic pieces of plastic and metal-based glitter. On the ingredient list, it won’t say “glitter”, but it will likely be listed as one of the following: 

  • Polyethylene terephthalate (most common)
  • Polyurethane-11
  • Polyurethane -33
  • Nylon-12
  • PVP

Other non-biodegrading microplastic ingredients to look for in your products if you want to avoid plastic in your makeup and personal care products altogether are:

  • PEG’s (all of them) and there are a lot of them. PEG stands for Polyethylene Glycol – aka liquid plastic
  • Polyacrylamide
  • Polyacrylate 
  • Acrylates Copolymer
  • Acrylates Crosspolymer
  • Styrene Copolymer 
  • Tetrafluoroethylene 
  • Vinyl Acetate Copolymer 
  • Dimethicone/Bis-Isobutyl PPG-20 Crosspolymer
  • Methacrylate/Glycol Dimethacrylate Crosspolymer
  • Polyhydroxystearic acid
  • Polypropylene glycol (PPG)
  • Polyquaternium-10
  • Polysorbate 20
  • Polysorbate 80
  • PVM/MA Copolymer (Poly(methyl vinyl ether-alt-maleic anhydride)
  • VP/Eicosene Copolymer

Then, it’s a choice. Choose consciously, to either avoid glitter in makeup altogether or look for products that feature bio-glitter, made of plant cellulose, derived predominantly from sustainably farmed, eucalyptus trees.

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