We have a love-hate relationship with glitter. It's undeniably sparkly, cute and festive. But dip your hand into a jar of the iridescent plastic particles, and you'll spend the next year finding specks of it in surprising places.
Those places could range from your hair and clothes all the way to oceans and lakes, where microplastics, or minuscule nonbiodegradable bits like glitter, become an environmental hazard.
Nevertheless, glitter continues to adorn the shelves of art studios, appear in cosmetics and star in holiday wrapping paper. That's why scientists from the University of Cambridge have invented an eco-friendly alternative inspired by fresh fruit and nature's own glimmery structures: butterfly wings, peacock feathers and buttercups.
The glistening invention is even vegan, as opposed to some other cosmetic glitter products that include glycerin, which is derived from animal fats.
"It will be just as annoying -- but it won't harm the planet and is safe for your little ones," Silvia Vignolini, a professor at Cambridge's Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, said in a statement. She's the senior author of a paper on the sustainable glitter published Thursday in the journal Nature Materials.
Instead of building glitter from toxic plastic, her team created thin, shimmery films from cellulose, a material found in the cell walls of plants, vegetables and fruit. They put the cellulose into the form of nanocrystals, which dictate the film's color through a phenomenon called structural coloring.
With structural coloring, the angle of the nanocrystals forces light to scatter in a particular way, emitting a certain color. It's the same thing that happens with butterfly wings and other beautiful features of nature, which is why some sparkly insects seem to change color when exposed to different types of lighting.
Traditional minerals used to produce color typically must be heated to a whopping 800 degrees Celsius (1,472 degrees Fahrenheit), said Benjamin Droguet, a researcher in the Cambridge chemistry department and first author on the paper. As you might imagine, that heating process takes up 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 get into the soil, the ocean and contribute to an overall level of pollution. Consumers are starting to realize that while glitters are fun, they also have real environmental harms."
Once the team's opalescent film is ground up, the resulting nontoxic, glimmery grains are identical to plastic, hazardous glitter. They might even have a leg up. Unlike normal glitter, the vivid color won't fade even after a century, the researchers say.
The mechanism of generation can also be easily scaled up, they say, ensuring that industrial equipment can replace toxic glitter with the biodegradable form for commercial use.
Aside from the issues related to pigments, microplastics like familiar glitter are also unsafe for the environment. They aren't biodegradable, so they end up clogging sewage pipes, hurting marine animals and even entering the human body.
While glitter on its own doesn't comprise a significant portion of microplastics in the ocean, its limited quantity has allowed it to escape scrutiny even though it's part of the bigger problem. Recently, makeup companies have attempted to cut back on their use of glitter to prevent adverse ecological consequences, but unfortunately, experts in the cosmetics industry have struggled to reach consensus on environmentally friendly, yet glittery, cosmetic products.
Said Vignolini, "We believe this product could revolutionize the cosmetics industry by providing a fully sustainable, biodegradable and vegan pigment and glitter."