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Environment

Environmentalists call for glitter ban and biodegradable options start to appear on the market

The microplastic used in several cosmetic products can take hundreds of years to decompose, contribute to ocean pollution and harm marine life.

Carnival in Brazil is synonymous with little clothing and a lot of sparkle. Glitter is everywhere in the sambadromes and street parades during this time of the year. While all the shimmer may look pretty, glitter is essentially a microplastic made up of bits of a polymer known as Mylar and painted in metallic and iridescent colors to reflect light at different angles.

Glitter manufactured by All Pigments

Glitter manufactured by All Pigments

Invented in 1934 by American machinist Henry Ruschmann, who later founded Meadowbrook Inventions, glitter has quickly spread across the world, finding various applications in industries ranging from food to textiles. It has gained special popularity in the cosmetic industry, where it can be used in makeup, nail polishes, soaps, body lotions and hair products, says Ricieri Brostoline, director of specialty chemical manufacturer All Pigments. The São Paulo-based company sells 10% of its glitter production to the cosmetic industry.

The problem that has been discussed by environmentalists around the world is that when glitter is washed off the skin and hair, it goes down the drainpipe. Being such small particles – usually smaller than 0.1 millimeter in width –, they pass through water filtration systems and end up in the seas.

It is estimated that about eight million tons of plastic debris are being washed into the oceans each year, including approximately 200,000 tons of microplastics, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Taking hundreds of years to decompose, glitter not only causes water pollution, but also poses a threat to marine life, which mistake it for food. "Microplastics can disrupt the marine food chain as well as accumulate various toxic substances such as heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants, further damaging the marine environment. Small marine animals feed on contaminated plastic and, when eaten by larger animals, the contaminants spread throughout the food chain,” says biologist Edris Queiroz, director of the Institute of Marine Biology.

Concerned about the widespread use of glitter in cosmetics, environmentalists are calling for a ban on the product. “Carnival is one of the busiest times of the years for glitter sales as there is a greater demand from customers,” says Brostoline. “But do we really need glitter? Are a few hours of fun worth the lives of thousands of marine species?” asks Queiroz, who supports the cause.

Marcela Goulart, Marketing and Development Manager at Mohda Cosméticos

Marcela Goulart, Marketing and Development Manager at Mohda Cosméticos

The Brazilian beauty industry, however, appears to be committed to keep the sparkle sparkling and companies have been launching sustainable options to replace hazardous microbeads. Pura Bioglitter opened its doors in Rio about a year ago launching an organic replacement for glitter made of algae and minerals. Shock, also based in Rio, created a 25 SPF biodegradable glitter gel. “The industry must adapt and develop products that are more eco-friendly and less harmful to the environment,” says Brostoline.

Nail polish manufacturer Mohda Cosméticos has glitter in about 15% of its products. Marketing and development manager Marcela Goulart says sales of glitter nail polish have been growing since the second half of 2017. “Nude colors were big for over a year, but customers seem to be over them now and started migrating towards the shimmering shades.” Goulart states that the company cares about the environment and emphasizes that the glitter used in the products cannot be washed off with water, which prevents the microplastics from entering the ocean.

Renata Martins

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