Glitter, Pollution, & Violent Threats: Inside The Beauty Industry’s Latest Controversy

Is glitter as bad as everyone says?

Squiggly Line
If glitter has inexplicably become a thing you are into again, then chances are you're familiar with Lemonhead LA. Founder Megan Dugan's concoctions of high-shine sparkle blended into a sophisticated, non-sticky gel formulation are 2019 trend catnip. The glitter tears making headlines from HBO’s Euphoria? That’s her product. As is the sparkle from Beyoncé’s well-documented Coachella performance makeup, Priyanka Chopra’s iconic look at the MET Gala, and countless red-carpet looks seen on Margot Robbie, Lady Gaga, and Dua Lipa. It’s nostalgic, fun, and, for $28 a pot, more accessible than most celebrity trends. 
It’s the kind of attention that any small indie brand owner would love. But often, particularly after posting a celeb shot, Dugan’s Instagram DMs are flooded with something uglier: allegations, derogatory comments, and threats. One time, a DMer told her to kill herself, another tried intimidating her with violence if she attended a certain L.A. beauty event. “Anything happy or that shows my success triggers it,” Dugan, 33, says from her company’s small office in North Hollywood, California. In moments like these, she’ll retreat from social media for a few days, leaving her burgeoning brand’s 132,000 followers hanging.
Her brand isn’t the obvious choice for digital harassment: It’s cruelty-free, made in the U.S., gender-neutral, works on all complexions, and it doesn’t appear that she ripped anyone off when launching it back in 2015 — it’s glitter’s environmental impact that’s courting controversy. 
Fear over glitter, the feel-good sparkle we’ve been conditioned to love since kindergarten, seems to have come out of nowhere, but it speaks to a list of concerns that have gained traction as climate change and ocean pollution have become larger international issues. See, glitter is often made from plastic, and environmentalists say it can easily find its way into the ocean where it’s ingested by marine life, an idea that got little reaction just a few years ago. 
Too Faced got some bad press when the brand launched face masks with glitter in them in 2017, but it was nothing compared to earlier this year when cult millennial makeup brand Glossier was met with massive social media backlash after releasing pots of glitter. Like plastic bags and straws, glitter has emerged as a top target by environmentalists, and in its wake, many music festivals have banned glitter, popular stores are cutting it from holiday displays and packaging, and there’s a growing movement to make it illegal in the same way microbeads were banned all over the world. 

In 2019, everything we use, be it out of necessity or recreation, is being viewed through a new lens of sustainability. Earlier this year, stories came out explaining that clothing made with synthetic fabrics — so basically anything that’s not cotton, silk, or other natural materials — are shedding microplastics in the wash that end up in the ocean, just one more ingredient in the growing plastic soup that is our sea.
The stress and anxiety of it can be debilitating for consumers hearing it for the first time, especially when there is often a socio-economic barrier to making choices deemed better for the environment. Organic is more expensive. A polyester dress is far more affordable compared to silk. And glitter? Gen Z uses it as a form of expression, it’s a linchpin in the aesthetic at LGBTQ+ celebrations, and makeup artists revel in being able to flex their artistry in a striking way.

“I’m making glitter...I’m not the bad guy.”

Megan Dugan, Founder of Lemonhead L.A.
It’s enough to put an environmental stress lump in your gut and leave anyone feeling like they are forced to choose between the things we’ve grown to love and the future of our planet. 
Still, Lemonhead LA’s Insta DMs are increasingly hostile. But is glitter really the worst thing the beauty industry is creating? Dugan says that glitter has simply become a scapegoat for the beauty industry’s massive pollution problem. “I’m making glitter,” she says. “I’m not the bad guy.” So do we really need to swap glitter for the dull, Portland-inspired garb that defined environmental looks and fashion of yore — or is there a middle ground?

All That Glitters...

First things first: What the heck is cosmetic glitter? And better yet, why do we like it so much? Unlike craft glitter — cosmetic glitter’s rougher, sharper cousin — the version in makeup is traditionally made from thin, sandwiched layers of pigment, aluminum, and a kind of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (a.k.a. PET) that are cut optimally into tiny particles to best reflect light, says cosmetic chemist Ni'Kita Wilson. It’s the reflection that makes it so sparkly, and it’s the sparkles that draw us in. It’s something that recent studies claim might be appealing because it tricks us into thinking we’re gazing at shimmering water, something we’re hardwired to seek. 

"Glitter looks like shimmery plankton. Most fish are attracted to shimmery objects that catch the light."

Jonathan Whitney, Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow at Pearl Harbor’s NOAA labs
This is also what makes it so potentially damaging. The sparkly stuff gets washed down the drain and into the oceans where fish find it, too. They easily mistake it for prey, says Jonathan Whitney, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at Pearl Harbor’s NOAA labs. Dr. Whitney previously studied a similar phenomenon with microbeads — the tiny spherical beads used in body wash, toothpaste, and various other products — which were banned from sale last year. Dr. Whitney's team had found microbeads in the bellies of dead baby fish off the coast of Hawaii, but now he says glitter is even more dangerous.
“Both are too small to be filtered by water treatment plants, so both end up in our waterways and are likely to be eaten by marine animals,” he says. “Beads look just like eggs, and glitter looks like shimmery plankton. Most fish are attracted to shimmery objects that catch the light.” But it gets worse. “Microbeads, being smooth and spherical, actually have a better chance of being [pooped out] without severe damage to animals,” he says. “Glitter, on the other hand, has sharp edges that pose more of a hazard at tearing and perforating guts.”
Plus, those tiny fish work their way up the food chain to us, just one reason why it’s believed that we’re all eating plastic every year. 

Bio Is Better…Right?

Remember Glossier’s internet backlash after launching its Glitter Gelée? To make amends, the brand publicly responded by assuring consumers that the brand would reformulate with biodegradable glitter. Glossier declined to comment for this story outside of assuring us that the reformulation is in the works. But here’s the catch: While there are more environmentally-friendly alternatives coming down the pike, they don’t yet offer the same finish or sparkle, and how much better they are for the environment is debatable. 

"Compostable and biodegradable isn’t the solution. Finding something shiny that is natural is the key to solving this issue."

Sarah-Jeanne Royer, PhD., postdoctoral research fellow at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego
Biodegradable glitter is still new — only one major manufacturer has released anything close. “We recognized that plastic glitter was going to be an issue back in 2010, back before anyone was talking about this,” says Stephen Cotton, commercial director of Ronald Britton, one of the largest pigment and glitter manufacturers in the U.K.

The company’s team of chemists got to work formulating a glitter made from plants, and in 2014, it released the first rendition of Bioglitter, a less-environmentally hazardous sparkle. It wasn’t perfect: Most of the plastic, but not all, was replaced by plant-derived cellulose. However, creating something with all the attributes of traditional glitter was still out of reach. Five years later and Bioglitter is still a work in progress; there are limited colors and shapes, and the reflective finish of traditional glitter has yet to be accurately mimicked. It’s pretty close, but like luxurious silk and its finest synthetic alternative, you can tell it’s not the same. 
While not perfect, there’s already a huge market for biodegradable glitter. Brands like Projekt Glitter and Today Glitter have popped up to offer loose glitter and they’re starting to experiment with gels, too, but the Bioglitter tends to come across matte once mixed into a sticky base. Cotton admits it’s not a fair fight just yet, but says that iridescent glitter should roll out later this year and he hopes to have a holographic offering in 2020. 
As of right now, Cotton reports that Sparkle, the most shimmery line from Ronald Britton, degrades up to 87% in fresh water in 28 days, but he says that the company has yet to test degradability in ocean water, so the actual impact is still relatively unknown. “We’re not going to save the planet,” he says — and he doesn’t feel like they need to, they’re just trying to do a little better by the environment. 
But Dr. Whitney points out that, although he fully supports any company developing alternatives to products with plastic, the long-term impacts aren’t readily known — especially with biodegradable glitter that still includes metals, like Bioglitter’s Sparkle line. 
“Sharp, metallicized pieces of cellulose could be just as destructive to a baby fish gut as sharp metallicized pieces of plastic,” Dr. Whitney says. “However, the cellulose should break down much faster, and therefore would not be a hazard for as long.” This isn’t to dull Bioglitter’s impact: The few weeks that it survives is just a fraction of the hundreds of years that plastic glitter is believed to need to degrade in the natural environment. 
Of course, Bioglitter isn’t the first, or last, to claim its products are better for the environment, so Sarah-Jeanne Royer, PhD., a postdoctoral research fellow at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, says that being skeptical is best. For example, she points to both studies and anecdotes shared within the scientific community where biodegradable products survive in natural environments for years without breaking down. “If the environment is not suited for degradation, it won’t break down,” she says, noting that truly dissolving into water or earth requires a suitable blend of pressure, UV rays, and bacteria. “Compostable and biodegradable isn’t the solution,” she says. “Finding something shiny that is natural is the key to solving this issue.” 
It’s a point that Dugan says she simply can’t get across to commenters. “You try explaining UV degradation in an Instagram comment!” she says. 
Biodegradability, microplastics, and the long-term ramifications of it all are tough to comprehend, especially since the scientific community is just starting this kind of long-term research. Sometimes it feels like there is bad news every day. After all, who thought about their plastic straw consumption a decade ago? Today we’re learning that just about everything we do is killing the planet, and it’s hard to know what’s what. 
Maybe trolling glitter companies is just a projection of the environmental stress lump we’re all suffering from — or maybe not. Either way, feeling like you’re being forced to give up the fun things in your life for the environment is a relatively new thing. It’s hard and there’s a learning curve, but it’s also fertile ground for making sure every choice we make is thought out. Did all your glitter make it into the trash and not down the drain? Do you need that new product wrapped, shipped, and carried in various forms of plastic? Are you even going to use the new product you’re considering purchasing? And if so, is there an alternative that could be better for the planet? These are questions that we all must ask ourselves. 
Back in L.A., Dugan tells me that, although she doesn’t feel like she’s doing anything wrong, she has a shelf of 30 Bioglitters on deck for special orders and new product formulations. She’s thinking about selling them loose with a separate adhesive to avoid any colors bleeding into her gel formulation, she just hasn’t cracked the code yet.
She assures me that she’s not planning to sell them because she thinks she’s doing something wrong, but she believes that people deserve an option — as long as they are willing to sacrifice the full-on sparkle of her PET-laced formula. “We’re just not there yet,” she says. And until then, she hopes the trolls realize that what their asking for is more complicated than it seems.

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