Microplastics, Including Glitter, Endanger the Environment and Human Health and Should be Banned.

by Diane, M.P.H, M.S.

Next year, The United Kingdom will implement a ban on microbeads, a form of micro plastic found in face washes, body scrubs and other products. The US already has a partial ban on microbeads in place.

Glitter, used often in crafts, makeup and clothing, seems harmless, but its environmental impact has led many scientists to call for it to be banned.

Anyone who has used glitter knows that a small amount can easily and quickly spread everywhere and stay everywhere. Glitter’s eternal permanence is why someone started a prank company to ship glitter to people you do not like. It’s seemingly impossible to get rid of on land and can also cause problems in water, scientists say. In fact, a group of daycare centers in the U.K. decided to ban the use of glitter for that reason earlier this month, according to The Guardian.

Most glitters are made from shiny microplastics, pieces of plastic that are less than 5 millimeters in length or about one-fifth of an inch. Some are specifically produced to be this small; others can become that small if they’re broken down once reaching an environment. The small size of its particles makes it a potential ecological hazard, particularly in water bodies, including the ocean.

Microplastics pollute marine environments, leech chemicals into water and pose harm to marine life when ingested. Their size makes them a dangerously appealing food item for many animals.

Not only have marine animals from plankton to whales been documented eating plastic, often with fatal consequences, but microplastics can also end up inside us, when we consume seafood. One study led by Professor Richard Thompson reported that plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish.

Some estimates place the number of microplastics in the world’s ocean at up to 51 trillion fragments in total.

While many microplastics result from plastic debris breaking down into ever-smaller pieces, tiny particles called microbeads are manufactured specifically for addition to cosmetic and health products.

A ban on microbeads will go into effect next year in the UK, after scientists and campaigners made the devastating impact clear.

Glitter used in a wide range of products, like greeting cards, clothing, accessories, cosmetics, lotions, creams, cleansers, nail polish, party decorations, etc., has been an overlooked component in the wider problem of marine plastic pollution. With attention fixed on microbeads, other forms of plastic like glitter are being ignored. No one knows that glitter is made of plastic! We also don’t know exactly what happens when plastics enter our body.

Most cosmetic glitter is made by bonding aluminium with a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which can break down to release chemicals that disrupt hormones in the bodies of animals and humans. PETs attract and absorb persistent organic pollutants and pathogens, adding an extra layer of contamination. When marine organisms at the bottom of the ladder, like molluscs, sea snails, marine worms, and plankton, eat pathogen- or pollutant-carrying particles of glitter, these tiny poison pills concentrate in toxicity, as they move up the food chain, all the way to our dinner plates.

When we eat seafood, we ingest these toxins. When they enter the gut, the toxins and pathogens are very easily taken up. Such chemicals have been linked with the onset of cancers and neurological diseases.

It’s hard to say exactly how much glitter is polluting our oceans—scientists who study these kinds of problems generally look at microplastics as a whole, not at specific types. The impacts of microplastics on human health is still an area of active research, said Sherri Mason, a chemist who researches plastic pollution at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

Mason has had her own personal experience with glitter’s longevity. “When my daughter was eight, she had a New Year’s Eve party. I was finding glitter in our carpet three years later from that one party,” Mason said.

Microplastics are almost everywhere, Mason noted, and though the plastics themselves may cause problems, what they bring with them is also concerning. “Plastics are really good at absorbing chemicals,” she stated, which can bring some potentially dangerous ones into a fish’s body as they eat other organisms that have been contaminated with microplastics. These chemicals may include endocrine disruptors linked with sperm count issues and cancer risk.

Glitter can be found on its own, but is also in some makeup or lotions. Washing your hands to get it off your skin may take care of the problem temporarily, but it can end up back in your home or body, because the particles are often so small that they can’t be filtered by water treatment plants. “You could have glitter in the glass of water you’re drinking right now,” Mason said.

Microplastics have been found in 83 percent of tap water samples from more than a dozen countries, including India, Lebanon, France and Germany, according to an investigation by Orb Media. The U.S., at the bottom of the pile, had plastic fibers appearing in 94 percent of samples.

But microplastics comprise only a fraction of the global plastic pollution problem. The world’s oceans contain massive clusters of marine debris and plastics—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch found in the North Pacific Ocean is the largest such gyre. According to the U.N., more than 8 million tons of plastic makes its way into the ocean each year—equal to a garbage truck of plastic dumped every minute.

Data shows that rapidly developing economies, where population growth and consumption are outpacing waste collection and recycling capacity, are responsible for the largest amounts of plastic wastes entering the oceans, said Nick Mallos. He warned that, without intervention, growing economies would likely exacerbate these “unintended consequences of development spread.” He hopes that, “By raising awareness of the issue of ocean plastic, we can curb the flow through reduced consumption, improved waste management and innovative product and material solutions.”

Biodegradable glitter, by definition, does not pose the same problem, since it is designed to not remain for so long in the environment. One company, Bioglitz, markets plant-based glitter, which, according to a Racked article featuring the company’s founder, doesn’t have the same ingredients as traditional glitter and won’t linger in your home.

Whether the solution may be using eco-friendly glitter or banning it entirely, we must more seriously consider our use of such materials.

Avoiding cosmetic glitter and microbeads is imperative, but change really needs to come from the top down. Consumers cannot always be held responsible for trying to avoid such contaminants. It’s literally impossible to do that. Producers must be more responsible and use safer, non-toxic alternatives.


  1. Gabbatiss, Josh. Glitter Should Be Banned Over Environmental Impact, Scientists Warn. With a microbead ban coming into force in the UK next year, attention is turning to other potential hazards. (Source: www.independent.co.uk/environment/glitter-ban-environment-microbead-impact-mic), 11/16/17.
  2. Joyce, Kathleen. Scientists call for global glitter ban to save environment | Fox News. (Source: www.foxnews.com/…/11/…/scientists-call-for-global-glitter-ban-to-save-environment.ht), 11/29/17.
  3. Ross, Daniel. Why Glitter Must Be Banned – EcoWatch. (Source: https://www.ecowatch.com/glitter-banned-2507482052.html), 11/07/17.
  4. Ross, Daniel. Glitter may be fun for a party, but it’s a nightmare for human and animal health. Why Glitter Must Be Banned | Alternet. (Source: www.alternet.org/environment/why-glitter-must-be-banned), 11/03/17.
  5. Sheridan, Kate. Glitter is an Environmental Scourge That is Wrecking the Oceans. Should it be Banned?  (Source: www.newsweek.com/glitter-environmental-scourge-wrecking-oceans-should-it-be-ba), 11/29/17.

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