If you want to add some sparkle or shimmer to your craft project, you’ll naturally reach for glitter or mica powder. They’re both sparkly little flakes that make your project have a special magic. You can use them both with papercrafts and with polymer clay, but you’ll use them in different ways. There’s often mislabeling and misunderstanding about these ubiquitous crafting materials. But be “sparkle aware.” Glitter and mica powder are not the same thing!
What Is Glitter?
Years ago, glitter was made from glass. You can still purchase glass glitter, of course, but nowadays, most glitter is made differently. Glitter is made from tiny cut squares of shiny plastic (typically PETE, aka polyester). Sometimes the pieces are cut into shapes. Larger glitter shapes are more similar to sequins or spangles. But it’s all the same stuff. Glitter is nearly always made from tiny pieces of plastic. (I say nearly because glass glitter is still being made and sold, and there is also metal glitter you’ll find every once in a while. But the vast majority of glitter is punched plastic.)
And a word about environmental concerns. Because plastic glitter has obvious drawbacks (it never disappears), there’s a growing movement to use mica powder as a natural substitute for glitter. And that is blurring the lines between these two products. That doesn’t change the fact they are different things.
What is Mica Powder?
Mica powder is entirely different. Mica is a natural mineral, found naturally in sheet form, that’s mined from the ground. These sheets are colored with pigments, and then mica powder is made by grinding mica into various sized flakes. Mica powder can be made from large flakes (which very much resemble glitter) or from a very fine powder that gives a pearlescent sheen.
A well-known brand of mica powder is Pearl Ex, which is made from natural mica. You can see all the colors of Pearl Ex and download a poster of them here. There is also synthetic mica powder, which is made in a lab. It comes in the same sizes as mica powder, but it tends to have brighter sparkle and comes in a range of specialty coatings that give special effects such as these gorgeous nail powders. (Note that these are labelled as glitter. This is for search purposes so they can sell more. These powders are not glitter. No wonder there’s confusion!)
Mica Powder and Pigments: Not the same!
And while we’re at it, mica powder and pigments are not the same things either. You can read more about that in my article here and see photos that show the difference.
How to tell the difference between Glitter and Mica Powder
If you have some sparkly powder, how can you know if it’s mica powder or glitter? Look at it closely. If you can’t see the individual flakes, take a picture and zoom in with your phone. Mica flakes will be irregular and will feel powdery on your fingers. Glitter flakes will be in tiny squares or rectangles or hexagons. They will feel like sand.
Sometimes mica powder can be very coarsely ground, and it will look a lot like glitter. It might even be advertised or sold as glitter. But mica powder is irregular and made from entirely different materials.
Why does this matter?
If you’re doing papercrafts or adding sparkly accents to your creations, it won’t matter at all which one you use. Mica powder and glitter both add a wonderful appearance and a glimmer of light. But they DO behave differently.
If you’re using powders with polymer clay, mica powders will usually be able to go through silkscreens while glitter will not. Mica powders will stick to raw clay without using any sort of glue. They will not fall off after curing. Glitter will not stick well to raw polymer clay because there has to be enough space between the flakes to hold another flake. Otherwise, you’ll get spotty coverage. Glitter is best applied after baking by using some sort of binder, such as mixing the glitter with glue, varnish, or liquid clay.
If you’re mixing the sparkly powder into polymer clay, pay attention to which you’re using. Either can be used beautifully when making a new color (such as a green glitter sparkle Christmas tree). But if you’ll be slicing the resulting raw clay as for making canes or mokume gane, then you’ll want to stick with mica powder. The larger flake size of glitter will get caught on the blade and cause draglines. Glitter flakes can sometimes accidentally find their way into your canes, ruining a perfectly good slice!
Does all this talk of powders get your curiosity going? Then you will LOVE the 90 page Guide to Using Powders with Polymer Clay. It’s all about pigments, mica, metal powders, dyes, and how to use them with polymer clay. There’s nothing else like it out there. Learn to use your craft materials to their full potential!
Pigments, mica, and powders are magical
Don’t be intimidated by those little jars and packets of colorful powders. Learn to use them effectively in your projects.