Credit: Pixabay.

Glitter is not all charming and cute. It can actually be despicably hazardous to the environment. In the UK, glitter is a hot topic, risking getting banned along with other cosmetics that contain microbeads — plastic particles less than one millimeter in diameter that are included in many skin-scrubbing products but which also damage wildlife once they go down the drain. For this reason, the UK is considering banning glitter along with face washes, body scrubs and other microbead-containing products.

What are microbeads

Microbead is a loose term that manufacturers use to define several types of plastic polymer beads. Microspheres, microcapsules, or nanospheres better describe the ultra-small plastic particles primarily used in medicine and industry.

These plastic particles contaminate waterways and end up in our oceans, creating microplasticpollution. The majority of microbeads used commercially are made of polyethylene, the same type of plastic used in the manufacture of plastic bags, milk jugs, and water bottles. By one estimate, there are 51 trillion fragments of microplastics litttering the world’s oceans, ultimately ending up in the guts of marine wildlife but also inside us humans. 

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Why non-biodegradable glitter should be banned

Polyethylene-based beads in toothpaste with a diameter of approximately 30 µm. Image credits: Dantor.

The United States has a partial ban on microbeads since 2015. Next year, the UK will enforce a full ban on microbeads and this might also include glitter, or at least it ought to, say scientists.

“When people think about glitter they think of party and dress-up glitter,” said Dr Trisia Farrelly, an environmental anthropologist at Massey University. “But glitter includes cosmetic glitters as well, the more everyday kind that people don’t think about as much.”

Few people are aware that glitter is actually made of plastic, mostly commonly PET, and may also contain aluminum. When PET breaks down in the environment, the released chemicals can disrupt hormones in the bodies of both animals and humans. Studies have previously linked these with the onset of cancers and various neorological disorders.

At this point, it’s not clear whether or not glitter will be included in the impending microbead ban. Some claim glitter should be banned only if it’s incorporated into ‘rinse-off’ cosmetics and personal care products. Other voices claim an outright ban on plastic glitter is necessary to promote biodegradable alternatives. Cosmetics chain Lush has already replaced glitter in its products with synthetic, biodegradable alternatives.