Almost all glitter is made out of plastic. And when glitter goes into the garbage or gets washed off your face and sent down the drain, it has the same impact as all microplastics—it collects in rivers and bodies of water and eventually makes its way out into the ocean. Once plastic hits the ocean it’s consumed by sea life (and eventually by humans) and presents a massive pollution problem around the globe.
So several companies have popped up to help manufacture alternatives to plastic glitter. One company, Blue Sun International, led by a chemical engineer who previously worked studying carbon emissions and volatile compounds for Mercedes-Benz, is doing it by using the cell walls of eucalyptus.
“The sooner people realize the better, microplastic is extremely harmful,” says Victor Alvarez, founder of Blue Sun. Regular “old-school” glitter, he says, is usually made out of polylactic acid, a plastic polyester, that is pressed into sheets, coated with aluminum and pigmentation, and the cut into tiny pieces. The end result is much cheaper to produce then a biodegradable alternative but it’s a relatively hard substance with sharp edges that has consequences for the environment. Worse, he says, many of the “compostable” and eco-friendly glitters on the market are subject to greenwashing—meaning their marketing bills them as biodegradable when, in fact, often times they are “mixed with plastic glitter,” he says.
U.K.-based company Bioglitter developed the two plastic-alternative glitters that biodegrade quickly, which is now sold exclusively by Today glitter. Using eucalyptus, broken down into a cellulose (which is the contents of cell walls and fiber), Bioglitter nad Alvarez have brought to market a plastic-alternative which biodegrades up to 96 percent in just 30 days in a natural environment."
“We basically transform it in a way that it can behave as a plastic without being a plastic,” he says. “The challenge is that plastic is a petrochemical derivative. If you want to get a natural product to behave like that it’s a challenge because the chemical structure is different. The cellulose behaves like plastic but cellulose isn’t automatically biodegradable.”
The resulting product, Today Glitter, recently became available for purchase in the United States. And, Alvarez says, because it is not made with plastic it’s ideal for cosmetics. Analysis revealed that the plant-based product turns out to be 30 to 40 percent softer than traditional glitters, making it much more skin-friendly. “We analyzed the particles and how much they can bend and you can see right away the bio-glitter bends,” he says.
The good news is that many consumers are waking up to the fact that they don’t want to use traditional plastic any longer. But Alvarez says it can be very difficult to find biodegradable alternatives that actually live up to their marketing hype. In fact, the company has even produced an eBook to assist consumers in spotting sneaky language that hides the fact that products aren’t all the claim to be (“compostable,” for example, he says is a red flag word—it means the glitter needs to be taken to a recycler and won’t degrade naturally).
“Our goal is to create this awareness that people do good when they’re selling bio-glitter. If you want to buy an organic glitter, how would you feel if you find out it’s only 20 percent organic? We want to make sure it's easy to find it,” he says.
The good news is it seems major cosmetics manufacturers are taking up the consumer’s call for better, safer, glitter. According to Alvarez, Blue Sun is currently in conversation with some of the world’s leading cosmetics manufacturers to replace their plastic glitter with their biodegradable alternative. “If you go to Sephora many of the brands there are already testing. We have a few launches scheduled. The big guys that you know are testing these products. It’s not a matter of if it’s gonna come in the market, it’s a matter of when.”