Glitter Is an Environmental Scourge That Is Wrecking the Oceans. Should It Be Banned?

Glitter is sprinkled on a participant during the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival in Sydney on March 4. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Anyone who has touched glitter knows that just a small amount can get everywhere and stay everywhere. (Glitter's eternal permanence is why someone started a prank company to ship glitter to people you do not like.) It's seemingly impossible to get rid of on land—and it can also cause problems in the oceans, scientists say. In fact, a group of daycare centers in the U.K. decided to ban the use of glitter for that reason earlier this month, according to The Guardian.

Glitter is a problem because it is actually very fun and shiny plastic, according to Eric Seleky, communications director at Plastic Soup Foundation, an organization focusing on reducing plastic pollution based in the Netherlands.

"Most glitters are [microplastics]," Seleky told Newsweek. Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are less than 5 millimeters—about one-fifth of an inch. Some are specifically produced to be that small; others can become that small if they're broken down once reaching an environment. "We don't know exactly what it's doing to us when the plastics enter our body," he said.

It's hard to say exactly how much glitter is polluting our oceans—scientists who study these kinds of problems generally look at microplastics as a whole, not at specific types. And the impacts of microplastics on humans is still an area of active research, said Sherri Mason, a chemist who researches plastic pollution at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

(Mason has also had her own personal experience with glitter's longevity, incidentally. "When my daughter was eight, she had a New Year's Eve party. I was finding glitter in our carpet three years later from that one party," Mason said.)

Microplastics are pretty much everywhere, she noted, and though the plastics themselves may cause problems, the stuff they bring with them may also be concerning. "Plastics are really good at absorbing chemicals," Mason noted, which can bring some potentially dangerous ones into a fish's body as they eat other organisms that have been contaminated with microplastics. These chemicals may include endocrine disruptors linked with sperm count issues and cancer risk, she noted.

Glitter can be found on its own, of course, but is also in some makeup or lotions. Washing your hands to get it off your skin may take care of the problem temporarily, but they can wind up back in your home or your body because the particles are often so small that they aren't filtered by water treatment plants. "You could have glitter in the glass of water you're drinking right now," Mason said.

Biodegradable glitter options, by definition, don't have the same problems because they're designed not to linger for quite so long in the environment. One company, called Bioglitz, markets plant-based glitter. That glitter, according to a Racked article featuring the company's founder, has one other benefit: because it doesn't have the same ingredients as traditional glitter, it also won't linger in your home.

Whether the solution may be using eco-friendly glitter or cutting it out entirely, "we need to be thinking more consciously about our use of these materials," Mason said. "You can have a very happy childhood without having glitter."