Why Glitter Nail Polish Is The New Microbeads

By Mina Phillips

Not so long ago, microbeads were openly advertised on the packaging of facial exfoliators, toothpastes and body scrubs. A lot has changed since then. In 2015, microbeads were banned from some personal care products in the United States, and this year a ban on certain items containing microbeads was put into effect in the United Kingdom. The ban was due to the fact that these tiny plastic particles proved to be impossible to filter out of water, ending up in our bodies, and also ended up in the bodies of various forms of aquatic life.

While there has been a focus on reducing the environmental impact of personal care items containing microbeads, there’s a new product wreaking havoc with our water and the creatures that live in it: glitter, particularly that in nail polish.

Both glitter and microbeads are forms of micro plastic (fragments of plastic smaller than 5 millimetres in size). We have written about the dangers of glitter before, and indeed, some beauty brands are now using mineral glitter instead of plastic. But what we discovered in our research is that there’s one product whose manufacturers – even if they claim to be ‘clean beauty’ companies – insist on using plastic glitter: nail polish.  

Glitter Nail Polish Is The New Microbeads

The Glitter Issue

Glitter, which once upon a time was made out of crushed glass, is now more commonly a type of microplastic made up of etched aluminium and polyethylene terephthalate. It has the same implications as microbeads in that it does not break down, cannot be recycled and can end up in our oceans, doing some serious damage. Unlike microbeads, glitter is still widely used in the beauty industry.

Various studies have linked aluminium to Alzheimer’s disease. A 1989 study conducted across England and Wales found that those living in areas where higher aluminium levels were found in water supplies were at higher risk of dementia. In a more recent study, Professor Christopher Exley describes aluminium as a neurotoxin which puts an unnecessary load on the brain. Despite this information being readily available, aluminium based glitter nail polishes continue to be packaged and sold to children and adults.

In an article published by Massey University, environmental anthropologist Dr Trisia Farrelly expresses her disappointment over the lack of environmental responsibility put on producers who profit from selling plastic based glitter. Dr Farrelly explains that traces of plastic can now be found in rainwater and sea salt. She estimates that, by 2020, the world will have more weight in plastic than fish.

When we wear glitter nail polish, we take it off with cotton pads or tissues and throw those into the bin, or more often, the toilet. As a result, that polish waste eventually ends up in our waterways. So no wonder The Guardian  recently reported that microplastics were found in one third of the fish caught in the United Kingdom, based on a study conducted by marine biologist Dr Richard Thompson.

According to CNN, micro plastics attract and absorb toxins in the water and go on to harm the reproduction and survival of fish. Plankton are among the species of fish affected by microplastics and any attached toxins, according to research by biology expert Dr Anthony L. Andrady. Dr. Andrady stresses that a threat to plankton is a serious threat to the world’s oceans, as plankton are the basis of the marine food chain.

It is not only the oceans we need to worry about. Microplastics have also been found in the air, soil, drinking water, beer and, recently, human stool. Studies are now underway to try and further understand how our health may be impacted.

Glitter Nail Polish Is The New Microbeads

Why Nail Polish Is the Bad Guy

For a bit of shimmer in makeup, titanium dioxide, mica, iron and zinc oxides are all commonly used to add a bit of glam. But when I made enquiries to a variety of nail polish brands about whether they used minerals in their glitter varieties, they either didn’t answer, or admitted their glitter was plastic.

The reason nail polish is the ‘bad guy’ in your makeup box isn’t just because it uses plastic glitter: standard nail polish ingredients also include a range of dangerous chemicals which can harm our health when we wear them on our nails, and which can harm waterways when we remove those chemicals.

According to holistic health coach and sustainability expert Rachel Avalon, some of the chemicals found in nail polish can have a serious impact on wellbeing.

“Since our skin can absorb approximately 60-70% of what we put on it, the familiar phrase ‘you are what you eat’ lends itself to ‘you are what you apply,” explains Rachel.

“Toxic ingredients found in nail polish can be linked to serious health issues, ranging from asthma to cancer. For example, toluene is linked to system, developmental, and reproductive toxicity. Keep in mind; it’s not just skin contact that can pose a threat. Inhaling toxic vapours from conventional nail polish puts an unnecessary burden on the respiratory and nervous system as well as the body’s ability to detox efficiently.”

Rachel adds that choosing to buy and use conventional nail polish affects more than just the person wearing it.

“If we want to help protect everyone, especially nail salon workers and children (who are about ten times more sensitive to chemicals than adults) then we need to vote with our purchasing power and buy truly non-toxic, water-based nail polish, or skip it all together. A healthier, holistic approach is better for us, our community, and the planet.”

Glitter Nail Polish Is The New Microbeads

Just Two Alternatives

When researching this article, I searched and searched for non-toxic nail polish brands that used non-plastic glitter. Despite the plethora of brands on the market, I could only find two. Just two!

Kester Black

This is an ethical nail polish brand based in Australia. They are 10-Free, meaning their nail polish is free from nasties such as formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, camphor, formaldehyde resin, xylene, parabens, fragrances, phthalates and ethyl. They are also vegan, palm oil free and carbon neutral certified.

The brand is promoted as the first beauty brand in the world to receive B corporation certification. This means they are required, by law, to run a business which is considerate of its “governance, transparency, environmental and social impact,” says Kester Black’s Sophie Guiounet.

When it comes to shimmering nails, Sophie confirms they have sustainable glitter covered too.

“All the glitters we use in our products are bio-glitters, so no microplastic to worry about here. Our eco-friendly biodegradable glitter allows everyone to enjoy the sparkles, guilt free,” she says.

Glitter Nail Polish Is The New Microbeads


This well known label also has some great glittery options for the festive season.  The brand, created by husband and wife duo Zoya (a cosmetologist) and Michael (a chemist), uses a range of natural and synthetic cosmetic approved glitter in its nail polish.

Another 10-Free brand, Zoya nail polish cuts out the chemicals formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, dibutyl phthalate, toluene, camphor, TPHP, parabens, xylene, ethyl tosylamide and lead.

Both brands provide options of highly customer rated glitter nail polishes in a variety of colours. The best part? You can wear them with a clean conscience.   


Glitter Nail Polish Is The New Microbeads

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Chere Di Boscio
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