Glitter has been adding a little magic into our lives since prehistoric times. But, we’ve since graduated from materials like crushed shimmery rocks to, for example, laser-cut plastics. Thousands of years of innovation later, the FDA still hasn’t determined whether or not they approve of glitter in general.
The FDA has, for many years, been pretty vague and dodgy about glitter regulation. Blogger Phyrra went on an investigation about it and got a somewhat lengthy, very vague response from the FDA a few years back.
In essence, the FDA isn’t ready to make a decision about glitter materials, other than the colorants/additives they contain. These color additives are subject to the same regulations they’ve always been. So, a glitter being used in an eyeshadow must contain only color additives approved by the FDA for use around the eyes at the approved use level. Same goes for glitters in lip, face, and body products. Until the FDA figures the whole glitter thing out, they’re letting it fly. Whether or not they will ultimately approve glitter substrates -- which we get into below -- is still unknown.
However, there is a lot we do know about the sparkly world of glitter.
First and foremost, we know what makes up cosmetic glitter. Cosmetic glitter materials fall into the following major categories:
Plastic glitters are produced by combining plastic, color additive(s), and refractive ingredients, such as aluminum, titanium dioxide, iron oxide, or bismuth oxychloride. This combination is made into thin, flat sheets that are then cut into tiny shapes, like squares, rectangles, hexagons, etc.
While the FDA is still making up its mind about glitter, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Panel published a review on the subject in 2013. The CIR panel is an independent panel not associated with the FDA. They do regular reviews of ingredients used in cosmetics and make recommendations. The CIR concluded that, to date, PET (plastic) is safe to use in cosmetics and that there have been few reports of adverse effects such as corneal damage.
You’ll see this on ingredient lists as Borosilicate, which is a natural ingredient derived from glass. Transparent borosilicate flakes are coated with the same sort of highly refractive ingredients as discussed with plastic glitter.
Glass is inherently biodegradable. It will break down into basic sand.
Production of bioplastic glitter involves a similar process to that of plastic glitter. But, instead of a fossil-fuel plastic film, a cellulose or starch bioplastic film is used. Some manufacturers even use FSC-certified wood to create this film. Bioplastic glitter is said to have the same capabilities and properties as fossil-fuel plastic glitter.
Although debated, the manufacturing of bioplastics (and therefore, bioplastic-based glitter) is said to be more environmentally friendly than the manufacturing of fossil-fuel plastics. Bioplastic is also just as safe to use in cosmetics. But, it’s really from the disposal of bio plastic glitter, when washed down the drain, that bio plastic glitter gets its great reputation from. Certain bioplastics can degrade or biodegrade -- degrade, meaning decomposition and assimilation into the environment, and biodegrade, meaning broken down to carbon dioxide, water, and biomass. It’s important to note that bioplastics and biodegradable plastics often are the same things, but not always. So, even if your glitter is made from bioplastic, this does not necessarily mean it is biodegradable. Luckily, all of the bio glitter we have researched are both bioplastic and biodegradable. But, the environmental impact of both bioplastic and biodegradable plastic are debated.
You really don’t see this type anymore, but in ancient times, crushed beetle shell was used as glitter. Pearl powder has been used to create sparkly effects, too, but its small particle size makes it more of a shimmer ingredient than a glitter.
If you want to avoid using plastic glitter, synthetic mica (Fluorphlogopite) is a good option. It’s considered a bulking agent (used to thicken a formula), rather than a color additive, and there are no restrictions for use by the FDA.
Synthetic micas are superior to naturally-derived micas in that they have greater purity, are brighter, and have higher color intensity and reflectivity.
While a natural mica averages at 60 microns, a synthetic mica averages at 150 microns. This is compared to a typical PET glitter, which is 200 microns. In other words, synthetic mica is much larger in diameter than natural mica, making synthetic mica more suitable as a glitter.
Environment Canada Domestic Substance List has determined that synthetic mica is not suspected to be a potentially toxic or harmful to the environment, humans, or animals, nor is it suspected to be bioaccumulative.
Metals are naturally-occurring substances. For cosmetic use, most are ground into powder form. Aluminum, copper, and bronze powders are all FDA-approved color additives. These ingredients can add shimmer, but do not necessarily give a true glitter effect due to their tiny particle size. But, these metals are be used to make glitter. They are the reflective materials used in both plastic and bioplastic glitter production.
The sourcing of metal materials can be harmful to the environment. Concerns include physical disturbances to the landscape, as well as soil, water, and air contamination. But, the portion of these metals used by the beauty and glitter industries is small in comparison to other industrial uses. Metal contamination of water sources is also a concern. But, there has been no evidence that cosmetics (or glitter) is a major source of metal contaminants in water when washed down the drain.
So, what’s the difference between glitter in makeup and glitter for crafting?
A major distinction between a cosmetic glitter and a craft glitter is how they are cut. Craft glitter, in general, has sharper edges, whereas cosmetic glitter has smoother edges. The smoothest edge would come from laser cutting. Laser cut glitter is super smooth and has a multicolor reflection.
Plus, since craft glitter isn’t subject to regulation, it can contain whatever color additives the company wants, including those not approved for use on the body.
When discussing particle sizes, particularly regarding glitter, the measurement of microns is used. The most common sizes of glitter used in cosmetic formulations is .008”, or 203.2 microns, and below. Micro glitter is .004”, or 101.6 microns. No mica or glitter-type product over 150 microns may be used on the face in the USA. This is because these larger micron sizes of glitters could potentially scratch the cornea of your eye.
Glitter is fun but complicated. When it comes to safety, as long as you’re not using craft glitter on your body, you’ll be ok. When it comes to the environmental, borosilicate (glass), synthetic mica, and bioplastic probably have the least impact. Similar to microbeads, plastic-based glitters can be considered micro plastics. Therefore, there is great potential for environmental disruption with these types of glitters. However, there has not been a specific study to the impact of glitter, as a type of micro plastic, on the environment. We figure this will come down the pipe eventually, as it did with microbeads, long after many had raised concerns about them.
Please practice safe glitter.
EC (Environment Canada). 2008. Domestic Substances List Categorization. Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) Environmental Registry.