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Losing Its Sparkle: The Dark Side of Glitter

These days, no Instagram post or fashion show is complete without a liberal sprinkling of glitter. But questions surround its environmental impact – and role in child slavery. Is it time to stop?

Last year was the best of times and the worst of times for glitter. New York magazine’s fashion title, the Cut, declared: “In 2017, there’s no such thing as too much twinkle.” The managers of one London pub agreed, adding glitter to its Christmas dinner gravy and declaring it the “perfect way to spread festive cheer”. Teen Vogue gave tips on how to be the “new extra-glittery you” for New Year’s Eve, from transforming your hair with sparkly roots to “disco ball” eyelids. At London fashion week, designer Ashish Gupta sent one model down the catwalk in a top that read: “More glitter, less Twitter,” a pointed jab at Donald Trump.

In the digital realm, a glitter tongue trend swept Instagram sparking concerns about people swallowing it,while artist Sara Shakeel went viral for Photoshop collages in which she embellished stretch marks with glitter. An app called Kirakira+, which makes Instagram posts look like the insides of snow globes, became a vital accessory for the fashion set, from makeup artist Pat McGrath to model Bella Hadid. It was glitter’s year for letting its hair down.

But it hasn’t been all fun and ’grams. A woman in Swansea was nearly blinded by a Christmas card when a piece of glitter worked its way into her eyeball. There was a loud backlash to something called Passion Dust Intimacy Capsules, designed to fill one’s vagina with “magicum”, according to the company behind them. “Don’t glitter-bomb your vagina,” warned the gynaecologist Jen Gunter.

For some, glitter never had much going for it – comedian Demetri Martin summed it up perfectly a few years ago when he called glitter the “herpes of the craft world”. Its lingering quality has enabled forensic scientists to use it as evidence and made it popular with activists such as LGBT campaigner Nick Espinosa, who in 2011 poured it over US politician Newt Gingrich with the words: “Feel the rainbow, Newt!”

Recently, however, glitter has caught most flak for being environmentally unfriendly. Concerns about plastic pollution in our seas led one group of nurseries in the south of England to prohibit the use of glitter by 2,500 children before Christmas, while others, such as the New Zealand-based social scientist Dr Trisia Farrelly, called for a ban on plastic glitter altogether.

With most glitter being made from etched aluminium bonded to polyethylene terephthalate (PET), it is a form of microplastic, which can find its way into our oceans and the creatures that call them home. While “there is currently no evidence specifically on glitter being bad for the environment”, according to Alice Horton, a research associate at the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, “it is likely that studies on glitter would show similar results to those on other microplastics”.