Glitter is an environmental disaster. So scientists invented an ecological version

Normally, glittery microplastics pollute the oceans and slowly enter the food chain. Scientists redesign the sparkly decoration and produce the above eco-friendly sequins.

Benjamin Droguet / University of Cambridge

We have a love-hate relationship with glitter. It’s undeniably bright, cute, and festive. But dip your hand in a jar of iridescent plastic particles, and you will spend the next year finding stains in surprising places.

These places can range from your hair and clothing to oceans and lakes, where microplastics, or tiny, non-biodegradable pieces like glitter, become an environmental hazard.

Nonetheless, glitter continues to grace art studio shelves, appear in cosmetics, and feature in holiday wrapping paper. That’s why scientists at the University of Cambridge have invented an eco-friendly alternative inspired by fresh fruit and nature’s scintillating structures: butterfly wings, peacock feathers and ranunculus.

The sparkling invention is even vegan, unlike other sparkling cosmetics that contain glycerin, which is derived from animal fats.

“It will be just as boring, but it won’t harm the planet and is safe for your little ones,” said Silvia Vignolini, professor in Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied chemistry department. in a report. She is the main author of a article on sustainable glitter published Thursday in the journal Nature Materials.


The glitter is vegan.

Benjamin Droguet / University of Cambridge

Instead of making glitter from toxic plastic, his team created thin, shimmering films from cellulose, a material found in the cell walls of plants, vegetables and fruits. They put cellulose in the form of nanocrystals, which dictate the color of the film thanks to a phenomenon called structural staining.

A shimmering film of nanocrystals will soon become beautiful and shiny dots.

Benjamin Droguet

With structural coloring, the angle of the nanocrystals forces light to diffuse in a particular way, emitting a certain color. The same thing happens with butterfly wings and other beautiful features in nature, which is why some glittering insects seem to change color when exposed to different types of lighting.

The traditional minerals used to produce the color typically need to be heated to 800 degrees Celsius (1,472 degrees Fahrenheit), said Benjamin Droguet, a researcher in the Cambridge Department of Chemistry and first author of the article. As you can imagine, this heating process consumes a ton of energy and indirectly harms the planet through the use of fossil fuels.

“Conventional pigments, like your everyday glitter, are not produced sustainably,” Vignolini said. “They penetrate the soil, the ocean and contribute to an overall level of pollution. Consumers are starting to realize that while glitter is fun, it also has real environmental damage.”

Once the team’s opalescent film is crushed, the resulting non-toxic and shiny grains are identical to plastic and dangerous glitter. They might even have a head start. Unlike normal glitter, the bright color won’t fade even after a century, researchers say.


A close up of the team’s gold glitter.

Benjamin Droguet / University of Cambridge

The generation mechanism can also be easily extended, they say, ensuring that industrial equipment can replace toxic flakes with the biodegradable form for commercial use.

Besides the pigment issues, microplastics like the familiar flakes are also dangerous for the environment. They are not biodegradable, so they end up clogging the pipes, injure marine animals and even get into the human body.

A layer of the team’s never-before-seen glitter on a wooden board.

Benjamin Droguet / University of Cambridge

While glitter all alone does not contain a significant portion of microplastics in the ocean, its limited quantity allowed it to escape scrutiny even though it is part of the bigger problem. Recently, makeup companies have tried to reduce their use of glitter to avoid negative ecological consequences, but unfortunately, experts in the cosmetics industry have struggled to achieve consensus on cosmetics that respect the environment, but glitter.

“We believe this product could revolutionize the cosmetics industry by providing fully sustainable, biodegradable and vegan pigment and glitter,” Vignolini said.

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