Hello Giggles, by Jessica L. Yarbrough

The Apple News app on my iPhone is a wild and wondrous place. Usually, its curated mix of Vogue articles and BBC videos makes for a well-rounded way to start the day, and every swipe brings a surprise. (Why yes, I would like a palate-cleansing BuzzFeed quiz after that political update, thanks.) But lately, the disparities are getting me down. For every headline about rising pollution levels or the climbing core temperature of the earth, there are two more touting the beauty industry’s biggest look of the moment: glitter makeup. 

“It’s Time To Add Some Glitter To Your Routine,” shouts one. Another declares “Glitter Accents” to be one of the “Best Beauty Trends At New York Fashion Week.” Still more announce the impending arrival of loose glitter makeup products from MAC and Anastasia Beverly Hills and glimmering shadows from Marc Jacobs Beauty. Spreads in Allure and ELLE picture models plastered with high-shine, high fashion sequins and beads in lieu of eyeliner.

Call it the Euphoria effect. The HBO show’s experimental makeup has garnered almost more press than the show itself, sparking something of a sparkle renaissance. 

But I have to ask: Why are we so, uh, euphoric about plastic?

Yup, in case you didn’t know, “glitter” is a nice way of saying “polyethylene terephthalate,” and it’s a microplastic. “Microplastics are very small plastic fragments, less than five millimeters long,” explains Susan Stevens, the founder of Made with Respect. The problem with plastics of this size is that they’re too small to get filtered out in water treatment plants—so when you wash them off your face (or hair, or body), they “end up in our waterways, contributing to the pollution of rivers, lakes, and oceans,” Stevens says. They aren’t biodegradable, so they just pile up, ad infinitum. This is, essentially, the same reason companies are phasing out plastic straws. Beauty brands tend to ignore this bit of information, though, probably because glitter makeup is pretty.

It’s also pretty dangerous.

They may be micro, but these plastics pose a major threat to the environment.

In fact, the United States fully banned microbeads, a category of microplastics, in 2015 in order “to address concerns about microbeads in the water supply,” according to the Food & Drug Administration. (Microplastics have been found in an astounding 114 marine species—including marine species that humans regularly eat—and in tap water samples.) But there’s a loophole: The ban only applies to microplastics “intended to be used to exfoliate or cleanse the body.” Thus, makeup is free to continue its unrelenting reign of glitter litter. 

Here’s where you might be thinking, “But I don’t wash my sparkly stuff down the drain. I use a makeup wipe and toss it in the trash, so I’m good.” Sadly, that’s not doing the planet any favors.

“Glitter will then end up in landfills, where it leaches toxic chemicals into the soil and water for thousands of years,” Stevens says. “Soil contamination can have a number of harmful effects on ecosystems and humans, and if toxic chemicals leach into soil and groundwater, it may not only affect plant life, but may also affect our own health by passing into our food chain.” The long-term effects of consuming microplastics haven’t been studied, but the Made With Respect founder says, “The primary concern with ingesting microplastics is the different carcinogenic chemicals that are used in their manufacturing.” 

I mean…is glitter makeup “cool” enough to justify millennia of carcinogenic seepage?

I’ll answer that: Nope. If not because it damages the earth, then because it damages your skin. “The sharp edges of glitter pieces can cause redness, burning, stinging, and an itchy rash called irritant dermatitis,” Dr. Devika Icecreamwala, a dermatologist with Icecreamwala Dermatology, tells HelloGiggles. “If it gets into the eye, there is a risk of trauma to the cornea, which can lead to an eye infection.” Are you hearing that? Glitter! Is! Not! Even! Safe! For! Your! Face! 

But by far, the most frustrating thing about today’s glitter makeup trend is that we already have another, just-as-good, just-as-sparkly, not-as-irritating option. I’m talking about biodegradable glitter made from plants. “Our unique formula is made from sustainably forested eucalyptus trees and is biodegradable as well as compostable,” Raja Sun, the founder of bio-beauty brand Universal Soul, says of her cellulose glitter. “Biodegradable” means it breaks down into the earth, leaving no evidence of its existence behind; “compostable” means it can be composted rather than thrown away. “It’s also super lightweight and soft on your skin compared to plastic glitter, which we love because it doesn’t feel like you have a layer of gunk on your face,” Sun says. 

If you’re concerned that eco-friendly glitter doesn’t work as well as the eco-killing kind, I have five words for you: Gypsy Sport and Victoria Beckham. The former sent models down the runway at New York Fashion Week wearing head-to-toe biodegradable glitter from Bioglitz, applied using algae-based glue with (literally) out-of-this-world results. The latter debuted a sparkly eyeshadow from her new clean makeup line, Victoria Beckham Beauty, at London Fashion Week. It features natural mica instead of PET plastic, and aesthetically, you’d never know the difference.

Still on the fence about making the switch? Try this fun little exercise. 

Every time you talk about, post about, or read about traditional glitter, replace the word “glitter” with “plastic,” and see how that makes you feel.

That headline from earlier becomes: “Now’s The Time To Add Plastic To Your Routine.” Er, that doesn’t sound right.

Anastasia Beverly Hills’ latest product launch: Norvina Loose Plastic. Not so appealing, huh?

How about “Plastic for fall: Lady Gaga’s makeup artist shows us how to wear it”—would you click on that? Probably not.

“Given our current obsession with plastic glitter, it seems undeniable that if we don’t make better choices from manufacturing to consumption, we may find ourselves in a world contaminated with plastic that we can never get rid of,” Sun muses. “On a brighter note, if beauty brands want to remain chosen by consumers, they now have to make sustainability a priority as more informed, conscious buyers fill the market.” In other words, we have the power to demand better from cosmetics companies—see: Glossier Play agreeing to reformulate its Glitter Gelée with bio-glitter based on customer feedback — and I propose we do just that. 

Beauty brands, editors, and enthusiasts: Can we give up the glitter, already? Stop producing it, promoting it, and purchasing it? As Stevens says, “Every effort that each one of us individually makes, no matter how small, has a lasting impact on our environment.”

What a bright, shiny thought.

September 26, 2019 by Susan Stevens