Let’s Talk About Glitter!
There are two primary concerns that I routinely see from consumers in the online beauty community and from readers with respect to glitter: 1) whether cosmetic-grade glitter is eye safe, and 2) concerns about plastic glitter and its impact on the environment. Those concerns continue to be expressed more frequently as more brands include glitter in their product offerings, including products that may or may not be explicitly marketed for eyes but often are included in palettes that otherwise look like a typical eyeshadow palette.
Briefly, with respect to the second concern: cosmetic grade glitter generally means plastic glitter or polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This post doesn’t seek to address or provide more information on the environmental impact of plastic glitter in cosmetics or viable alternatives; biodegradable glitter exists but it is unclear why it isn’t used more often or if it is a safer alternative (based on my limited research). There are alternatives to using plastic glitter, like synthetic fluorophlogopite (which is lab-made mica) and borosilicates, which are two ways Lush replaced plastic glitter in their products, that have widespread usage in cosmetics already.
This post is focused on the first concern as I recently had to go to an eye doctor after-hours to have a plastic particle removed that had gotten stuck to my upper eyelid immediately after I removed my makeup (not during wear) that would not flush out at home. Fortunately, I walked away with minimal damage (antibiotics for a week and skip contacts for a few days), so I consider myself lucky and definitely think getting to the doctor sooner (about two hours) was the right move!
You can get a corneal abrasion or scratch on your eye through regularly-scheduled, mundane activities from inserting contact lenses (fingernails are often the culprits) to dust or sand getting into your eye to rubbing your eye. If you accidentally stab yourself in the eye with a mascara wand or eye brush that could cause damage to the eye. If you wear eye makeup, it makes sense to take care in the types of products used, ensure that they’re adhering well to the area, and take care removing it all.
I’ve been wearing heavy eye makeup for over 15 years, and this is the first time I’ve gone to an eye doctor because something was stuck in my eye. I have worn glitter products for years, too, on the lid as well as below the lash line (not the waterline) not always fully aware of the risks but quite aware of potential risks in the last few years. I’m not looking for sympathy (I knew the risks), but it did make me want to look into glitter in cosmetics again (previous attempts to find clarity were not fruitful… it was not much more fruitful this time).
My personal takeaway from my recent experience and after sifting through what little information was available is to use caution when working with products near or around the eyes, particularly when working with larger particles, whether more traditional sparkle or glitter, and when working with mascara wands (I’ve poked myself in the eye at least a dozen times over the years) and brushes (keep ’em clean!). This was a painful reminder to take care and if there’s a precaution available, I should take it — e.g. I’m not going to test any loose sparkle/glitter without an adhesive base any more.
Ophthalmology on Eye Safety
In my quest to try and to provide information to readers, I considered looking to ophthalmologists, who would likely be the ones “seeing” the impacts of glitter. A lot of ophthalmology organizations didn’t turn up any results when I tried searching their websites for glitter and/or cosmetics (generally) information or guidance. From the organization American Academy of Ophthalmology, they included the title of a section as “avoid glitter eye makeup” but go on to say be careful:
Be careful with metallic, glitter, sparkle powder or other makeup. Flakes can fall into the eye, get into the tear film and irritate your eyes. Glitter eye makeup is a common cause of corneal irritation or infection, especially for people who wear contact lenses. Larger glitter or inclusions in makeup can scratch the eye, much like getting sand or dirt in your eye.
Everyone should have a good grasp of the general dos and don’ts of what to do if something gets in your eye, and if you’re someone who regularly wears eye makeup, particularly anything with larger particles (like glitter), I’d say it’s well-worth knowing what to do (or not do) before you need to know it!
If you suspect that you’ve scratched your eye, even if you’ve been able to flush out the foreign body or bodies, seeing an eye doctor to determine the best course of action from there is a good idea. Minor scratches can heal in a few days, whereas deeper ones can take longer, so seeing an eye doctor will allow them to look at the area and prescribe any necessary medications or provide treatment instructions for that specific case.
What Little I Could Find on PET Glitter Safety
You would think that it would be easy to ascertain if glitter was safe or if this ingredient was safe for this area or not, but alas, it is not so simple. CosIng, which is the EU source for ingredient safety, seems to allow for use of PET glitter without restriction in cosmetics, but the in the US, when I’ve asked industry insiders and brand owners that I know, the consensus is that no glitter is approved by FDA for usage on the eye… and yet it is clearly being used by brands routinely.
Fellow blogger Phyrra tried to figure it all out in July 2012, and she corresponded with FDA, who said that “Glitter usually consists of aluminum, an approved color additive, bonded to an etched plastic film composed of polyethylene terephthalate. FDA considers glitter and mica-based composite pigments to be non-permitted color additives when used in FDA-regulated products, including cosmetics. However, we are exercising enforcement discretion for a period of time.”
I can’t find anything more on the period of discretion, whether it’s still ongoing, whether it ended and what the outcome was, etc. However, the FDA has a Color Additives and Cosmetics Fact Sheet, and they go over “special effects and novelty use,” and they included this example (which sounds similar to the example provided in their response in 2012):
Composite pigments: Color additives used in combination to achieve variable effects, such as those found in pearlescent products, are subject to the same regulations as all other color additives. Some color additives, when used in combination, may form new pigments, which may not be approved for the intended use. An example is a “holographic” glitter, consisting of aluminum, an approved color additive, bonded to an etched plastic film. (FDA Color Additives and Cosmetics Fact Sheet)
It seemed like they were illustrating an example of something that “may not be approved for the intended use” but may not be is not the same as is not approved–there are other examples on the same page that said “are unapproved” or “are approved.”
I reached out to the FDA via their online contact form on January 14th, 2020:
I wanted to inquire whether glitter, Polyethylene Terephthalate, is an approved ingredient for eye cosmetics, such as eye liner, eye shadow, and so forth.
In 2012, the FDA had replied to another media outlet with this: “However, we are exercising enforcement discretion for a period of time. During this time, we will allow glitter and mica-based composite pigments to be released with comment when presented for importation into the US. Once the enforcement discretion period is over, FDA will resume our enforcement of these non-permitted colors.”
So I wanted to get a status update on glitter in eye cosmetics.
I also wanted to inquire on whether there will be any modifications to approved color additives, particularly for use on eyes, for such color additives as Red 28 Lake (Ci 45410), Red 7 Lake (Ci 15850), and Yellow 6 Lake (Ci 15985).
The FDA’s response, received on January 16th, 2020:
FDA regulates the dyes and pigments used for coloring foods, drugs, cosmetics, and medical devices or the human body as “color additives.” Glitter (polyethylene terephthalate) imparts color to cosmetics so it meets the definition of a color additive. FDA has not approved the use of glitter or polyethylene terephthalate as a color additive in cosmetics or any other FDA-regulated product.
You also asked if the regulatory status of Red 28 Lake (CI 45410), Red 7 Lake (CI 15850), and Yellow 6 Lake (CI 15985) has changed in that they are now allowed for eye-area use.
These are still non-permitted color additives in eye-area use cosmetics.
So, the answer is that PET glitter continues to be “not approved,” and based on my reading of their response, it’s actually not approved in cosmetics, generally. They also confirmed that certain commonly used color additives in “Pressed Pigments” remain “non-permitted” for eye area use (I mean, while I was on the line with them, so-to-speak, I figured I’d ask!).
You can find a list of FDA-approved Color Additives here, which will also breakdown restrictions on use or any limitations. This list is useful in particular for anyone who is concerned about “Pressed Pigments” (not glitter) as you can look up the various pigments used in a particular shade to see if it is approved for eye usage or not. I wasn’t able to find any pending petitions regarding glitter, and you can also view final rules regarding color additives (generally) here.
There are labeling inconsistencies (at least to us as consumers), which have led to confusion and for some, increased the alarm about the safety of the products they’ve used in the past or are currently using. Why does one brand’s Pressed Glitter come with a warning but another brand’s does not? What makes one any safer than the other? Based on the response I received from the FDA, the “FDA has not approved the use of glitter or polyethylene terephthalate as a color additive in cosmetics or any other FDA-regulated product.” (That seems to imply all cosmetics, which would
For example, ColourPop includes the warning “not intended for use in the immediate eye area” with their Pressed Glitters, which have been included in various palettes alongside eyeshadows and Pressed Pigments (another product “not intended for use in the immediate eye area”). MAC Glitters used to have a similar warning, but presently, for many of their glitters, their warning is now “Approved for adhesion on the eye area using Duo Adhesive.”
In 2009, MAC glitters came with this warning: “Keep entirely clear of eye area. If product enters eye, rinse with water. If irritation occurs, consult your ophthalmologist.” In 2016, a kit of Pigments and Glitters had this warning for the Glitter and Reflects Glitter: “Not for use in the eye area,” though the Reflects’ line of Glitters contains calcium sodium borosilicate (not plastic glitter; other Glitters in the range do contain plastic glitter) and +/- color additives, while two Pigments included in the same kit also contain this ingredient but included additional ingredients beyond color additives.
While ColourPop seems to have caught the attention of many consumers, they’re really not alone in using plastic glitter in their products, and turns out, PET glitter is included in many past and present products that were marketed for eyes. Products like Stila’s Glitter & Glow Liquid Eyeshadows contain plastic glitter in several shades and classic Urban Decay Eyeshadows (seems like most that were described as having micro-glitter) like Chopper, Gunmetal, and Midnight Cowboy (not an exhaustive list) also used PET glitter. Urban Decay’s Heavy Metal Glitter Gels and Heavy Metal Glitter Eyeliners were released last year and are listed for eye use.
I found PET glitter in newer releases like Marc Jacobs See-quins (not all shades but a fair amount), and even Pat McGrath’s Bronze Blaze (from the Bronze Seduction Palette) includes PET glitter. Brands like NARS and Fenty have released pressed glitter eyeshadows, too, and I use the term eyeshadow because they, too, use the same term to describe those products; their palettes did not come with any warning/disclosure, and the packaging showed an eye icon.
I couldn’t find much in the way of studies done on PET glitter and whether they were safe for eye usage. The one that does come up is by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), which publishes findings and safety assessments of ingredients used in cosmetics, and they published their final report in 2013 on PET glitters used in cosmetics.
Keep in mind, however, that the CIR is not a regulatory body and was originally established by the industry trade association (currently known as the Personal Care Products Council); they have a set of procedures that they say keeps their review process independent from the Council and the cosmetics industry. The report looked at the potential for ocular injury and found that:
“Use studies of eye products that contain PET demonstrated no ocular irritation or dermal sensitization. The Panel concluded that modified terephthalate polymers were safe as cosmetic ingredients in the practices of use and concentration described in this safety assessment.” (Safety Assessment of Modified Terephthalate Polymers as Used in Cosmetics, April 12, 2013)
Within the report, CIR stated, “In several use tests of eye shadows, gels, liners, and mascara containing PET (up to 46.272%), there were few reports of adverse effects, including in subjects wearing contact lenses (Table 5).” Referring to Table 5 says that “there is a very slight ocular irritant potential” with the eyeshadow used that is “normal for this type of product.”
Of the seven products tested, the only one that was noted as having any adverse event reported contained 46.272% of PET glitter with no size indicated; the other six products ranged between 8 and 12% concentration with three that provided size used and three that did not provide a size. The final report provided no insight into guidance on particle sizes, concentration, etc.
We know by the types of products released that PET glitter comes in an array of sizes and shapes, and it doesn’t seem illogical that size and shape might increase or decrease potential for ocular irritation or injury, but there’s no information that I’m aware of on that. The follow-up question is also what is the definition of safe because CIR says “ocular injury is not likely” but does, ultimately, say PET glitter is safe to use in eye cosmetics, so it seems safe is more of a spectrum of safety — not that it is 100% safe.
In part of its findings, CIR wrote that a “lack of case reports” and “no ongoing FDA regulatory actions suggested to the Panel that ocular injury is not likely.” If, in fact, consumers sustain ocular injury from the use of PET glitter, then it seems it will fall to consumers to report those injuries to the FDA. For US consumers, you can report cosmetic-related complaints to the FDA. It is more important to notify the FDA of a reaction than the brand as brands are not required to report back to the FDA. This is true for any and all reactions to cosmetics.
Effect of Glitter without Using PET Glitter?
As previously mentioned, there are two ingredients that are commonly used in cosmetics, including eye products, that might work in lieu of plastic glitter: borosilicate glasses and synthetic fluorphlogopite.
Some popular products that use one or both that are very sparkly: Pat McGrath Astral Solstice, Kaja Shimmer Trios, ColourPop Eyeshadows, ColourPop Sequin Super Shock Shadow, Hourglass Scattered Light Eyeshadows, MAC Dazzleshadows, and Urban Decay Moondust Eyeshadows–just to name a few. They’re both routinely used in most mainstream powder eyeshadow from Anastasia to ColourPop to MAC to Make Up For Ever to Natasha Denona to Tom Ford.
The CIR also has a report on the safety of certain borosilicate glasses, including calcium sodium borosilicate, which is commonly used in cosmetics, including many favorite sparkly eyeshadows. (Please find CosIng database results here for borosilicate glasses.) There is also a final report on the safety of synthetic fluorphlogopite, which is also known as synthetic mica (CosIng database results for synthetic fluorphlogopite here).
Both of the CIR reports seem to confirm safety based on “present practices of use and concentration” by the industry; the tone of the report on PET glitter read to me that they were trying to establish its safety. (Please refer to first mention of CIR for potential conflict of interest information.) Based on reading through all three reports, the final report on PET glitter didn’t seem quite as detailed or as thorough to me, so I’d certainly like to see more studies/tests done.
A Look at Particle Sizes
Based on the three CIR reports linked within this post regarding particle sizes for PET glitter, borosilicate glasses, and synthetic fluorphlogopite, these were the sizes noted.
- PET glitter: 0.006 x 0.006″ or 150 x 150 μm (tested for adverse eye use) (CIR Report)
- Borosilicate glass particles (flakes): 50 nm – 5 μm in thickness with a particle size of 15 – 350 μm; borosilicate in cosmetic had an average particle diameter of 1-100 µm
- Calcium sodium borosilicate (flakes): of 9 – 13 μm (CIR Report)
- Calcium aluminum borosilicate: 20 – 200 μm, when coated with colors (CIR Report)
- Synthetic fluorphlogopite: 10 – 150 μm (CIR Report)
Browsing TKB Trading, which is an old school site where one can buy raw ingredients, their Mermaid Collection, which includes iridescent pigments using calcium sodium borosilicates includes particle sizes 60 to 400 µm. They include interesting verbiage under “Details,” copied and pasted below:
In the USA, natural mica used in cosmetics is not allowed if larger than 150 microns in size. However, larger-sized Synthetic Mica and Borosilicate products are currently permitted.
Even so, it may not be a good idea to have these larger particle sized powders near the eyes.
Borosilicate pigments like the Mermaid colors are uniquely reflective. Also, the large particle size means they are more sparkly.
The pigments can also be used in many things. In particular we recommend them for nail polish, shimmer body lotion and soap.
Approved for use: Eyes Lips, Face (but please use caution around the eyes).
Exploring synthetic fluorphlogopite options on TKB Trading, Cherika Moon also has a certificate of analysis that can be read (here), which listed particle size as 100 to 260 µm. Synthetic fluorphlogopite is supposed to have a “more uniform finish which does not contain any sharp edges” (per Lush). The more uniform edge, as opposed to natural mica, seems to be why brands feel comfortable using larger particle-sized synthetic mica than natural mica.
For comparison, Lit Cosmetics sells three sizes of loose glitter where Size #2 is dubbed “small” at 0.004 x 0.004 or 101.6 μm x 101.6 μm, Size #3 is “medium” at 0.008 x 0.008 or 203.2 x 203.2 μm, and Size #4 is “large” at 0.015 x 0.015 or 381 x 381 μm (note: I’ve made assumptions that Lit’s measurements are in inches before converting to microns). Most brands that sell glitter, whether with or without a warning, do not include information regarding particle size (this is normal; we’re not seeing microns listed on Sephora listings!), so I’m glad Lit listed those measurements so we can have some visual idea of various particle sizes.
Confusion or Conclusion?
The FDA’s position is that “FDA has not approved the use of glitter or polyethylene terephthalate as a color additive in cosmetics or any other FDA-regulated product.” EU’s CosIng database permits the use of glitter or polyethylene terephthalate without any limitations or restrictions, per searching their database. This is where I stood a week ago, and I’m really in the same place now–I don’t feel like I have that much more information.
In the US, color additives require affirmative approval, whereas other types of ingredients can be used so long as they are safe, so the industry seems to be primarily self-regulating with respect to other ingredients used. It is important to note that “not approved” doesn’t necessarily mean “not safe” but it doesn’t mean that it is safe either.
There are certain ingredients that are prohibited from use, and there are color additives that have limited or restricted use. Unfortunately, there did not appear to be any color additive petitions about getting glitter approved for cosmetic use (let alone for eyes).
One interesting nugget I read while scouring FDA’s website for information was that products are “to be safe when consumers use them according to their labeling, or as they are customarily used.” That “customarily used” with the or modifier made me wonder if products that come with a “not intended for eye” kind of warning but are otherwise placed in what looks and feels like an eyeshadow palette — would that fall under as “customarily used?” Food for thought!
“The law does not require cosmetic products and ingredients (except for color additives not intended as coal-tar hair dyes) to have FDA approval before they go on the market, but it does require them to be safe when consumers use them according to their labeling, or as they are customarily used. Also, any color additives used in cosmetics must be approved by FDA.” — FDA on Makeup
There doesn’t seem to be a way for consumers to determine if product A with a warning of “not intended for use around the immediate eye area” is actually any riskier than product B that calls itself an eyeshadow with no warning. Consumers will have to look at the information available and use their own judgment about what is comfortable for them. Seemingly, we appear to be extremely reliant on trusting brands to use ingredients that are “safe” in our cosmetics.
I’m not here to to tell you to wear glitter or to not wear glitter. My goal was to do more research and present that information to readers and consumers so that they can make the best decision for themselves with more information as more brands add plastic glitter to their products (with or without warnings).
Also, don’t use craft glitter in place of cosmetic-grade glitter! Craft glitter can be cut from glass, metal, and may be coated in dyes that are not suitable for cosmetic use. Cosmetic-grade glitter is typically made out of plastic, cut differently, and while largely self-regulated by the brand’s that release the products, are intended for cosmetics use (at least on face and body).
A Brief Aside
People have asked about the brand/product that was stuck in my eye, and given that no detailed lab analysis was done, a “plastic foreign body” was what was removed per doctor’s notes. The products I removed immediately prior to something getting stuck in my eye area were Fenty eyeshadows from the Rose and Pastel Frost palettes, Marc Jacobs Grape(vine) Matte Highliner, Pat McGrath Fetish’eyes Mascara, and La Mer Thee Soft Fluid Foundation. The other eye used Fenty eyeshadows from the Smoke and Pastel Frost palettes with the rest being the same.
The Fenty Rose (4) and Smoky (6) eyeshadow palettes both contain glitter shades, which have PET glitter in them, but they are listed as eyeshadows with an eye icon on the back of the palette with no disclosure or warning on either the cardboard packaging or the actual palette that I could find. I wore both glitter eyeshadows on part of lower lash lines–not my waterlines but below my eyeliner–as past personal experience has given me more irritation from glitter fallout into my eyes (often requiring early removal of a look) when I’ve worn it on my lid (I had no irritation during wear, only after removal). Per my doctor’s notes and what he told me, it was a plastic particle that was removed.