If you’ve ever found yourself opting for a beauty formula solely because the phrases “vegan” and “all-natural” were plastered all over the label, you are not alone. In fact, even the pros might sometimes let some questionable ingredients slip through the cracks. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that your trusted, ultra-shimmery eyeshadow palette, festival-ready glitter makeup, blush, bronzer, or even lipgloss might very well be “enhanced” with mica.
But what is mica? How can a simple, shine-inducing ingredient be so tightly connected to child labor, soil erosion, water contamination, and respiratory illnesses? The presence of mica in the beauty industry has a long, dark history. And unlike your reflective manicure and super flattering bronzer, mica mining is far from glamorous.
What is mica in beauty?
Mica (also labeled as CI 77019 or Serecite) belongs to a group of 37 naturally occurring rock-forming silicate and hydrous potassium minerals that are used in various industries including cosmetics, construction, and even technology.
Mica is a type of phyllosilicate and consists of layers of volcanic material. These sparkly minerals are, of course, obtained through mining. Unsurprisingly, mica mining is a very lucrative business. As the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) pointed out, the market for this group of minerals will grow to almost $700 million in 2024.
Mica colors & appearance
Naturally, Mica colors vary, and thus, they are divided into two groups. Light-colored mica minerals (muscovite, paragonite, and lepidolite) and dark-colored mica (biotite and phlogopite). These fairly light and somewhat soft, and flexible “rocks” can be purple, rosy, silver, gray, brown, black, and dark green. Additionally, they also come in yellowish-brown, green-white colors as well as transparent.
Mica minerals are very distinctive with perfect basal cleavage and a pretty unique hexagonal shape that separates them from other natural minerals. You can easily spot them by their non-metallic luster, which can be described as glass-like.
What is the role of mica in the beauty industry?
As we previously mentioned, formulas containing mica in the beauty industry are extremely common. Nowadays, this mineral has crept into the skincare sphere as well. You can find mica in pretty much every formula that promises to deliver coveted shine such as skin brightening creams, illuminating formulas that give your complexion an all-over “healthy” glow. So basically, mica is present in most cosmetic formulas that deliver a pearly, shiny appearance.
Does mica have any skin benefits?
Surely there must be some benefits, we hear you wondering. Well, not exactly. Unlike other stellar ingredients like Hyaluronic acid or skin-nourishing vitamins, the role of mica in the beauty industry is simply to create a natural shimmery finish. Vitamin C and Retinol, for example, act as skin brighteners and overall assist in maintaining healthy skin. That’s certainly not the case for mica.
The history of mica in beauty
Mica was not always a part of the beauty industry. In fact, Mica was first mined in India about 4,000 years ago. Its main purpose was medical, but Mayans also took advantage of its shine-inducing abilities to make their temples sparkle under the sun.
It was only in the 1970s that mica found its way into the beauty industry. During this time, there was hype around the newly formulated “mineral makeup”—formulas that were created with naturally-occurring ground minerals to replace the widely used preservatives, chemicals, and dyes.
Following the highly successful launch of Bare Escentuals’ mineral cosmetic formulas in the form of loose powders in the mid-1970s, the ” Mineral Revolution” took the beauty world by storm – and it is still very popular to this day.
However, your glittery makeup comes at a great cost. The dark and twisted world of mica mining is soaked in child exploitation, corruption, and inhumane working conditions – and your favorite brands are actively supporting it.
So what’s the deal, why is it bad and why haven’t I heard anything about it?
As SOMO and NGOs Terre des Hommes exposed, a quarter of the world’s mica comes from the eastern Indian states of Jharkand and Bihar where mica mining is illegal. The report points out that 22,000 children work in mica mines in these two states alone. In other areas like Rajasthan, the legality is still under question. It’s a well-known secret that at least half of the mica from Madagascar is mined by minors between the ages of 5 and 17. In reality, there are places where mining and sourcing are deemed legal.
Mica mining in India: exploitation, health dangers & child labor
In the poorest regions of the world, men, women, and children spend hours upon hours kneeling under the blazing sun, rummaging through the dirt with their bare hands to extract little clusters of mica. Once they fill their baskets with minerals, they quickly proceed to sell them for as low as $1-$2 depending on the market price.
Respiratory issues are one of the most common health issues miners face. Additionally, long-term inhalation of mica dust can cause lung scarring which leads to symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, weakness, and weight loss. However, many mica miners are not as lucky.
“I would rather work in the mines than die of starvation,” explains a woman working in one of Jharkand’s many mica mines. According to 2013 data 36.9% of the population in Jharkand and 33.7% in Bihar live below the poverty line. Mica mines in India are illegal which “forces” organizations sometimes referred to as the “mica mafia” to cover up the tragic deaths and injuries of children and adults who work in these mines.
Illegal mica mining kills hundreds of children each year
“When we go into the mine, it’s very dark in there and we are terrified of all the rocks falling on us,” a child labor worker explained to Refinery29. “I saw a lot of children get hurt and I saw a kid’s head split open.”
In the case of Surma Kumari, an 11 years old child who used to work in the mica mines, a sudden collapse forced her to get stuck under a rock which broke both of her feet and damaged her spine. Sadly, this was not the case for Lakmi, her 14 years old sister who got buried under a pile of rocks. As Nagasayee Malathy, executive director of Indian advocacy group Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, explained, she estimates that every month, between 10 and 20 people die in the mines – many of them are young children.
A 2016 report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that seven children had been smothered to death in mica mines in just two months. However, the report sparkled little to no action from authorities or the government. Lakmi Kumari’s family didn’t see any police officer filing a report when they finally came to the mine to take her body for examination. Despite the incident, the traders who control the mine didn’t face any repercussions either.
However, not every family in these regions is willing to take their kids out of school and let their kids work in the mines alongside them. That’s when kids are kidnapped and forced into child labor.
Mica mining regulations: a change for the better
After rigorous efforts, the industry has taken a few measures to prevent modern slavery. Many charities like Anti-Slavery International, Terre des Hommes, Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, and Thomas Reuters Foundation, are actively working to stop child labor in the mica mines. But customers demand more from beauty brands.
In May, Reuters reported on the beginning of the process, with authorities planning to first sell off dumps of scrap mica and then auction old mica mines and other reserves.
The National Resources Stewardship Council, and Indian NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan established the initiative of the Child-friendly village with the end goal to help get children in 500 villages into school instead of mining with the active participation of the government and local communities. In 2016, they followed up with a report stating that 100 of the 500 villages had been converted, leading to 3650 children being enrolled in school.
Which beauty brands use mica from India?
Many widely-loved beauty brands have been linked to India’s mica mines. Estée Lauder, MAC, Rimmel, Bobbi Brown, Clinique, Toofaced, Schwartzkopf, along with the world’s second-largest beauty brand L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, and Coty Inc. Consequently, all subsidiary companies (Maybelline, Lancôme, Garnier, Yves Saint Laurent Beauty, Kiehls, Urban Decay) are also linked to the illegal mica mines.
After a 2016 Guardian investigation, many brands reported that they were now a part of the Responsible Mica Initiative, a global ‘do-tank’ of multiple organizations across many industries committed to establishing a fair, responsible, and sustainable mica. Coty (the parent company of CoverGirl, OPI, Sally Hansen, and Rimmel London) stated that they joined the initiative in a June 2017 report.
So what can I do about it as a consumer?
Mica in beauty is still a very prominent issue with many brands refusing to swap their formulas with ethical alternatives. That’s exactly why it’s important to support brands that go an extra mile to ensure that they don’t use mica unnecessarily. Beauty brands are required by law to disclose the list of ingredients, so make sure to double-check for mica, CI 77019, or Serecite.
Ask about the brand’s supply chain
If you do decide to opt for products that do contain mica, ask for additional information on their mica supply chain. Usually, most ethical beauty brands are proudly showcasing the origin of their ingredients. However, you have to make sure that their supply is traceable.
If you are ready to fight against the inhumane working conditions of mica miners, you can petition large parent companies that still use unethical industry methods to formulate their cosmetics to change their practices. As a consumer, you do have a voice!
Get educated on the topic
Nowadays, the industry’s dark secrets have been exposed. There are dozens of documentaries and articles that shed light on the tremendous consequences of mica mining. You can always educate yourself on the topic and help spread the message to others who might not be familiar with modern-day slavery.
Find mica alternatives
Also, if you want to have the exact same effect, there are many different safe synthetic alternatives to mica, such as synthetic fluorophlogopite – which offers the same effect as natural mica but is made in a lab.
If you do have mica products in your beauty arsenal, you don’t have to feel guilty. The industry comes with many secrets and some are extremely well-hidden. Things are not always as they seem, and thus it’s important to stay educated.