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Glitter Doesn’t Have to Be Bad for the Planet

Little plastic particles pollute the earth. BioGlitz is a different kind of sparkle.

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“Glitter is having a moment,” 24-year-old Saba Gray tells me. “I mean, if you look all over runways, there’s glitter popping up everywhere — Margiela, Givenchy, Gucci. Topshop sells it now, and Forever 21.” As she puts it, “Times are a bit rough, but if you throw some glitter on it, doesn't seem so rough.” Given her position as the CEO of BioGlitz, the world’s first plant-based glitter company, she may seem biased, but a brief Google search confirms her position. In the past month, headlines have detailed how Bella Hadid used glitter to dye her hair at fashion week, declared “glitter boobs” this summer’s hottest festival look, and warned against the medical hazards of the trendy vaginal glitter capsules.

I first met Gray at last year’s Coachella, where she bounced around bedazzling everyone from nobodies like moi to uberstars like Paris Hilton. Gray told me her product was biodegradable, but I didn’t think much of it — I was focused on my sparkly new face. I couldn’t fathom that regular glitter could really be, like, an actual issue. Last month, however, Allure quoted chemistry professor Sherri Mason calling glitter “a little poison pill.”

Photo: Clyde Corley/BioGlitz

Gray explains that millions of pounds of glitter are produced annually, and it’s used more extensively than one might expect. Aside from illuminating faces and bodies, glitter is used in furniture, toys, clothing, and accessories. Glitter is essentially a flattened microbead, a particle plastic banned by President Obama in in 2015. “Regular glitter is polyester,” Gray explains, “so when it goes down the drain, it breaks down into even smaller pieces of plastic. Then it goes into our waterways, and our oceans are getting this tiny, tiny coating of plastic that’s insulating it ... [it] gets digested by micro-organisms, by fish, all of it. And that becomes our food, that becomes our water.”

Similarly, Mason said that studies show that “microplastics are in our air, our drinking water, our beer, our salt, our seafood.... basically everywhere.”

Gray began sparkling peoples’ faces when she first moved to New York at 18. “I’d been a figure skater my whole life,” she tells me. “So I kind of hated glitter. I thought it had to be girly.” But in New York, Gray changed her tune when she started frequenting dance parties and festivals. “I realized glitter can be a shield or this tribal warpaint.” she explains. She began carrying glitter around with her wherever she went. She would decorate faces at bars and parties, on the subway and at airports. “I saw how it really brings people together,” she says. When she’s out and sees someone who doesn’t belong, she’ll offer to paint their face and suddenly “they’re part of the tribe.”

I noticed this at Coachella, a place where people go mainly to look cool on the internet. Our group attended an exclusive poolside Calvin Klein party filled with models and rappers. It was amazing on paper, but the party felt stiff, the attendants paralyzed to avoid doing or saying anything that could be read as unchill. Gray immediately shattered this vibe. Within seconds of her arrival, she was chatting with strangers, painting their faces in elaborate patterns while preaching about sustainability. “I’ve noticed that with glitter,” she says, “people become less observant and more participatory.”

Before developing BioGlitz, Gray worked in sustainable-fashion product development, so she was well aware that her glitter habit was a problem. “It was a no-brainer to me,” she says. “If you’re wearing a shiny piece of plastic, I know that that’s not biodegradable.” So five years ago, Gray began researching how to make an eco-friendly version of her beloved sparkle.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that glitter was invented in New Jersey (mainly, I envisioned Snooki and JWoww in shimmery clubwear). Gray took advantage of the fact that she was living just across the river, in Manhattan, and started visiting manufacturers. She tells me most of them were confused, responding with variations of “You wanna do what?!” The majority of glitter manufacturers, she says, are older men who have been doing the same thing for the past 40 years. One factory was interested, but because a glitter-cutting machine can cost up to $100,000, they were hesitant to try new materials. They told her: “Figure out a formula and come back to us.”

Photo: Galen Oakes/BioGlitz

Gray next went to Mango Materials, a San Francisco company that transforms waste-gas streams into biodegradable materials. They figured out a way to siphon methane gas from waste-treatment plants and feed it to E. coli, which would then egest powdered material that could be converted into to a biodegradable, compostable, and edible plastic. But they couldn't make it into thin enough sheets to make glitter, so that was a no-go.

Fast-forward a few years and through many more failed attempts. Gray found an English manufacturer that was already in the process of developing plant-based glitter. The formula involves transforming cellulose derived from FSC-certified eucalyptus trees into rolls of plant-based plastic, which is then coated in .1 percent aluminum and cosmetic pigments. The 36-inch rolls are sent through a precision cutter, and the pieces are caught in a tiny net as they are sliced out. Saba immediately reached out and pitched the company on the BioGlitz brand; they worked out a deal in which they would be her distributer, and Gray would be the face of the product.

Not long after nailing down a distributer, Gray formed her LLC. Her website for BioGlitz was still in beta, but she put it on her Facebook page to share her journey with her friends. She wound up getting 40,000 hits in two days. “It kinda went viral,” she says. In the first week, BioGlitz was in the top 3 percent of most-visited Shopify stores — not just in the U.S., but globally. She’d never advertised it anywhere but her personal Facebook.

Photo: Liz Spelman/BioGlitz

To this day, BioGlitz has had a steady stream of sales without doing any official marketing, just lots of events and word of mouth. A few other plant-based glitter companies, like Glitter Revolution, have popped up since Gray founded BioGlitz just over a year ago, confirming market demand for the product. Gray says her brand is distinguishable because of its “arts- and fashion-focused” and “community-based” ethos.

And BioGlitz is all about community. In just the weekend before our interview, Gray painted faces and sold BioGlitz at a disco party in Malibu, a pop-up in downtown LA, and a monthly showcase of female performers at the Echo. BioGlitz has a strong presence in queer, trans, and feminist communities. The company was recently hired by Red Bull to run a BioGlitz booth at LA Pride; they’ve worked at Brooklyn Pride as well. BioGlitz’s mission is to “blur gender lines through shine.”

Gray explains there is a big misconception that glitter is only for women, and perpetuating that stereotype only keeps people oppressed. The website boasts that the product is for all gender identities, and promises to break down social boundaries through adornment. Gray tells me she’s seen a lot more men interested in having their faces painted in the past year — and not just queer men, but “like, bros.”

Photo: Clyde Corley/BioGlitz

True to BioGlitz’s mission, glitter transcends social barriers — the company doesn’t have an average customer; instead, they’re all over the map. The day we talk, Gray had just sent large shipments Australia and Austria (I wonder if she was just working alphabetically, but I don’t ask). She explains that people in New York tend to order subtler colors in smaller sizes, while on the West Coast people buy brighter and bigger. At a recent event, a dad bought some glitter for his son. Gray explains that lots of people buy BioGlitz for their children because her product is nontoxic. In fact, her distributor is the largest manufacturer of school supplies in England.

“Is there glitter all over your house?” I ask at the end of our conversation. I was in law school at the height of Ke$ha’s fame and my best friend and I often sparkled our faces at night to de-stress, because, well “We R Who We R.” But the stuff took days to come off, and debris remained in my bed and bathroom for weeks. I guess for this reason, the hoax company Ship Your Enemies Glitter blew up a few years ago for offering to ship anonymous envelopes of glitter to the buyer’s foes. To me, receiving an anonymous shipment of glitter in the mail seemed like the ultimate gift, but others clearly felt differently.

But Gray says her own home isn’t coated in glitz. Typical glitter, she explains, sticks to things because metalloids cause static and friction. Because BioGlitz only uses .1 percent aluminum, it doesn’t stick. She smiles. “So I don’t have as much around my house as I would like.” Clearly we are on the same page.

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