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It May Be Time to Reconsider All That Glitter in Your Beauty Products

Particularly if you're concerned about your own skin health — or the environment. (Or both!)
Photo: Imaxtree

Photo: Imaxtree

Nothing illustrates Western society's decline into self/selfie-obsession like slathering on a face mask full of shimmering flecks of pollution-causing plastic and smiling for the front-facing camera.

Okay, maybe I'm being a tad bit harsh. But the point remains: Can we stop it with the glitter face masks, already? They're not good for your skin (more on that later). They're not good for the environment. The only thing they're kind of good for is an Instagram post... but seeing as it's increasingly ill-advised to advertise the fact that you contribute to gratuitous glitter waste on social media, I'm going to say that last one is also categorically not good.

On the other hand... if you're applying a glitter mask and not taking pictures of it, what, I politely ask, are you doing with your life?

It's written right there in the product descriptions: "Be patient and take lots of selfies," GlamGlow directs users of its #GlitterMask GravityMud Firming Treatment, a mixture of man-made "mud" and star-shaped polyethylene terephthalate plastic. "Treat yo'self with this totally IG-worthy mask," Wet 'n' Wild advises of the ironically-named Detox It Purifying Glitter Mask, which lists only the fact that the ingredients are cruelty-free, gluten free and vegan in the "benefits" section of the product listing. Maybe because there are no other discernible benefits.

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"Glitter [in skin care] is primarily used for aesthetics," Kelly Dobos, a cosmetic chemist with Sun Chemicals, tells Fashionista. "Many brands are looking to create an Instagrammable experience for users to share, and glitters create a unique look." Dermatologists agree: When asked if there are any advantages to including glitter in skin-care formulations, "not that I'm aware of" was the unanimous answer from the healthcare professionals Fashionista spoke to for this story, including Dr. Joshua Zeichner of Zeichner Dermatology in Manhattan. "The only benefit of using glitter in face masks is to improve the aesthetic appearance of the mask itself," he says.

To state the obvious: There are zero good reasons to "improve the aesthetic appearance" of a 20-minute mask meant to be used in the privacy of your own bathroom.

Replace the above with "a pretty makeup product meant to be worn all night," though, and the line starts to blur. I get it. I've seen how big glitter has been on the runways, season after season, and I'm not immune to the sparkling allure of a shiny beauty look. But that appeal becomes a lot duller when we consider what we now know about the environmental effects of microplastics. And yet, brands are still widely formulating with them.

Earlier this month, Glossier Play introduced four "dialed up beauty extras," including Glitter Gelée Multigrade Paillettes, a glitzy eye gel packed with polyethylene terephthalate particles. Though the launch was much-anticipated, the brand quickly realized that all that glitters is not #goals; at least, not anymore. The customer backlash against Glitter Gelée was fast and fierce — and really, to be expected. Glossier's customer base is largely made up of millennials who count sustainability as a core value. Almost immediately, it announced a plan to phase out the paillettes.

Beauty brands without Glossier's level of visibility or conscious consumer base are still flying under the radar, though, just in time for festival season. I received a PR blast the other day that exclaimed "a water bottle and glitter are festival packing essentials!" Glitter has become the cosmetic equivalent of cut-offs and a flower crown, another way to convey that you're young and carefree at Coachella. But being "carefree" in that way isn't cute anymore. With all that we know about plastic, pollution and the planet's future, companies and consumers need to care.

Of course, there will always be those who just don't care, for whom sustainability isn't really a priority. And to them I ask: Do you care about your face?

If the problems with these shiny plastic products started at useless and ended at environmentally irresponsible, that would be one thing. But the plastic present in glitter masks can also actively damage skin — the exact opposite of what a mask is intended to do. "Glitter as a skin-care ingredient causes irritation, especially in those with sensitive skin," says Dr. Sejal Shah of SmarterSkin Dermatology. "The material can be abrasive, feeling rough on the skin," Dobos adds.

Granted, not all commonly used skin-care ingredients are beneficial for the long-term health of skin or good for the environment (hello, phthalates and silicones), but it's almost impossible to think of another skin-care product that blatantly disregards both like glitter masks do.

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"Glitter is essentially a flattened microbead, a material banned in the U.S. in 2015 for its detrimental effects to our environment," says Rebecca Richards, the founder of eco-friendly glitter company BioGlitz. "Glitter was able to fly under the radar of this ban and it is still used today in countless products." Like the outlawed microbeads, glitter is considered a microplastic, which poses a very real threat to environment.

"Microplastics are less than five millimeters long," explains Susan Stevens, the CEO and founder of Made with Respect. When these particles get rinsed down the drain, they end up in the sewer system. "They are too small to be filtered out in water treatment plants, and in most cases, end up in our waterways, contributing to the pollution of rivers, lakes and oceans." Once introduced to the water supply, microplastics are consumed by marine life and subsequently end up in our food chain.

"It's also good to keep in mind sewer systems are never closed systems,” says Jeroen Dagevos of the U.K.'s Plastic Soup Foundation, explaining that treatment plants are prone to overflowing in heavy rains — and from there, untreated water enters the environment directly. “Furthermore, the microplastics that are caught in the sewer treatment plant usually end up as sludge. This material is used in many countries as a fertilizer in the agricultural sector. In those cases, all microplastics enter the environment."

But wait, you might be thinking, most glitter masks are intended to be peeled off and thrown away, not rinsed off. And yes, you're right, glitter face masks are trash. (Pun fully intended.) Both GlamGlow, who did not respond to Fashionista's request for comment, and Wet 'n' Wild have designed their star-spangled products to be peeled off after drying and thrown into the garbage — taking with them precious skin cells and peach fuzz, and most likely leaving behind a little surface irritation and an inflamed hair follicle or two, according to Dr. Shah. But besides that, there are two important environmental points to be made here.

For one, some of that mask is inevitably ending up down the drain — whether you wash your hands after application, or miss a spot in the peeling process and resort to rinsing, or get a glitter flake caught in your baby hairs and unknowingly shampoo it out.

The likelihood of a situation like this is even higher when it comes to color cosmetics (we all know removing that stuff requires a lot of scrubbing). Apparently, this is something that Glossier thought of before launching Glitter Gelée: "To remove, use a cotton pad and Milky Oil," the brand's site instructs in a statement of (no doubt well-intentioned) pseudo-sustainability. "Avoid washing off with water to prevent getting glitter into the waterways."

Given that Glossier is a mega-successful startup — a unicorn, as they say — recently valued at more than $1 billion, one could venture that the company does not seem to be lacking the financial resources to invest in exploring more environmentally friendly options. (Glossier declined to provide a statement for this story.)

What many brands (and consumers) may not realize is that just because these shimmering microplastics end up in a landfill instead of a sewer system doesn't mean they stay there. "Glitter cannot be recycled, so if you throw it into a trash bin, it will most likely end up in landfill, contaminating the soil and water," Stevens says. "Once the mask itself starts to decompose in the landfill, the glitter may be washed away by rainfall and eventually end up in the water system."

"The main issue with plastic is that it is non-biodegradable," she continues. "Waste that ends up in landfill can take up to 500 years to decompose, whilst potentially leaking pollutants into the soil and water." Stevens estimates that if the current rate of plastic waste continues (somewhere between eight and 12 million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year, and there's an estimated 165 million tons already there), plastic particles will outnumber the fish in the ocean by the year 2050. "There is already too much — we really can't afford the luxury of adding more on top of the waste currently polluting our oceans," she says. 

If you absolutely cannot live a life devoid of glitter, look for an eco-friendly alternative, of which there are many: "Our Glitz is produced from plant cellulose derived from non-GMO, Forest Stewardship Council Certified, sustainable sources," Richards says. "When BioGlitz enters our environment and reacts with sunlight, moisture and oxygen, it will begin the biodegradation process." In other words, it breaks down without contaminating the surrounding soil or water.

You can also cross-check the beauty brands you're thinking of buying from with the Look for the Zero initiative from Beat the Microbead, "which guarantees 100 percent plastic-free cosmetics," Dagevos says. "In our view this is the only way forward — plastics in cosmetics are a design error and should be banned."

The European Chemical Agency recently came to a similar conclusion, stating that glitter particles pose a risk to the environment and even possibly to human health when they advised the European Commission (the legislative leg of the European Union) to outlaw all microplastics from cosmetics. And seeing as the EU has historically been ahead of the curve when it comes to banning harmful ingredients in skin-care and makeup, that carries some weight.

There sadly isn't much we can do about microplastics that have already entered the soil and water supply, but Stevens maintains that there are ways to prevent the problem from getting any worse. "We, as business owners, entrepreneurs and consumers can make a positive, impactful and lasting difference on the health of our planet by reducing the amount of plastic we produce, use and consume," she says. The least we can do? Give up the glorified garbage masks and get our Instagram likes another way.

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