Humans love shiny stuff (FYI, magpies actually don’t.) Various cave paintings created during the Upper Paleolithic era (approx. 40,000 to 10,000 BCE) have been shown to contain added flecks of mica and pyrite. The ancient Egyptians used minerals and crushed up beetle shells to give themselves a bit of sparkle. Glitter, in a sense, has even appeared in warfare, with U.K. fighter planes using “chaff” (small pieces of aluminum, metallic glass fibre, or plastic) as a type of radar-confusing countermeasure during WWII.
The glitter we know and love, though, first appeared in 1934, reportedly created by machinist Henry Ruschmann, who found a way to chop up plastic or Mylar sheets as a replacement for the difficult to find German glass glitter, which has been around since the 19th century (it’s also referred to as “diamantine.”) The process isn’t much different today: layers of plastic, dye and reflective materials are combined and hacked into tiny sparkly bits. Then, in the 1960s, cosmetic glitter came into fashion, thanks in part to artists like Iggy Pop (who also coated his body in peanut butter on occasion but, thankfully, that didn’t catch on) and David Bowie. By the time disco fashions were in full thrust, glitter was popping up in more and more beauty products. As a ‘90s kid, I—like many others—basically slathered myself in gloppy body glitter every single day because… it seemed like a good idea at the time? The trend dipped a bit in the mid- to late-2000s/early-2010s, but has recently returned to the forefront of cosmetic trends.
Critical side note: There is a big difference between cosmetic and craft glitter. Cosmetic glitter is much finer and rounded in shape and is made with non-toxic materials. Craft glitter is not. KEEP CRAFT GLITTER OFF YOUR FACE.
Glitter has been catching the eyes of more than just trendy makeup lovers lately, though. The internet has been aflutter since last month, when British scientists said glitter should be considered a microplastic. A quick rundown: microplastics are plastics that are less than 5 mm in diameter, used in a number of consumer products (such as the microbeads found in some body or face washes) and take basically forever to degrade.
They’re so harmful to the environment that recently, several countries—including the UK—have even moved to ban them. According to Tony Bova, CEO and co-founder of Grow Bioplastics and a PhD student in Energy Science and Engineering at the University of Tennessee, microplastics are a big problem for marine life. “Many other toxic chemicals that are present in these environments will stick to the surface of these plastic particles. Normally, these compounds are at concentrations that are low enough to have minimal effects on human health, but by sticking to the plastics, they get concentrated and then consumed by those small organisms,” he explains. “By the time those organisms are eaten and moved up the food chain, we can find large amounts of these toxic chemicals in places like fish from the ocean, as the plastics accumulate in their systems.”
There isn’t a definitive answer yet as to what the outcome will be concerning the health of both humans and wildlife after ingesting them—and believe me, you have ingested them—but, uh, I’m not holding out hope that it’ll be good news.
Where does cosmetic glitter factor into all this? Well, if you’ve ever used it, you know that glitter basically never goes away (fun fact: I accidentally sprayed my bedroom wall with glitter hairspray in 2001 and sometimes I can still see flecks of it). That means if it gets into the water system, there’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to filter it out. On the upside, a number of companies are moving towards creating more environmentally-friendly glitter, such as ones made with plant cellulose or compostable film—Bova’s company uses plant-derived lignin in their plastics—but most conventional glitters are still plastic or PET-based.
While the exact long-term effects of microplastics aren’t known yet, the news probably won’t be great—so, a shift away from conventional glitter to more environmentally-friendly options is likely the best course of action for those of us who want to keep on looking like sentient disco balls.
Becauses who wouldn’t want to get their shine on? Glitter can be a form of protest, something you can dip your entire body into if you’re so inclined, and apparently something you can eat (this is suspect to me). The sparkly stuff can make everything a lot more fun, we just have to put a little more thought into which products we throw our money behind.
So, if you’re looking to shop glittery beauty prods that ~ won’t ~ ravage the environment, peep these biodegradable glitter cosmetics picks from some of our fave ethical beauty brands, so you can shine bright like a diamond sans guilt: