You've seen it - the glittery, shiny substance that makes your eyeshadow pop, that allows your favorite highlighter to contour your cheekbones and that makes your moisturizing cream brighten your undereye. The ingredient that makes your beauty products glimmer is a naturally occurring rock called mica that's been crushed into a smooth powder, and although it may emphasize your natural beauty, this earth - derived mineral is riddled with secrets and a dark history that the beauty industry is less than willing to admit.
What is Mica?
Mica (also labeled as CI 77019 or Serecite) belongs to a group of 37 naturally occurring minerals that are obtained through mining and used in various industries including cosmetics, construction, and even technology. 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 minerals are divided into two groups: light-colored (muscovite, paragonite, and lepidolite) and dark-colored (biotite and phlogopite). These fairly light, somewhat soft, and flexible “rocks” can be a variety of colors ranging from purple, rosy, silver, gray, brown, black, dark green, yellowish-brown, green-white, and even transparent. Mica minerals are very distinctive and you can easily spot them by their non-metallic luster, which can be described as glass-like.
Mica is mined across the world, but the largest supplier can be traced to the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Rajasthan in India, with the infamous areas known for illegal sourcing and labor being at the border between Jharkhand and Bihar known as the "Mica Belt".
A girl shows some mica flakes she has collected whilst working in a open cast illegal mine in Giridih district in the eastern state of Jharkhand, India. REUTERS/NITA BHALLA (Source: newsweek.com)
The Role of Mica in the Beauty Industry
Mica can be found in beauty products ranging from eyeshadows, highlighters, moisturizers, lipsticks, lip gloss, and concealers. The purpose of using mica in these products is to create a shiny glow which is thought to create a healthy and youthful appearance as the reflection can highlight certain features while diverting from others. Besides its use for aesthetics, it can also be added as a thickening and binding agent in formulas. You can find mica in pretty much every product that promises to deliver illuminating shine.
But are there any physical skin benefits to using products that include mica? Unlike other ingredients like Hyaluronic Acid or skin - nourishing vitamins, the role of mica in beauty products is simply to create a natural shimmery finish. Vitamin C and Retinol, for example, act as skin brighteners and assist in maintaining healthy skin, whereas mica only temporarily alters the external appearance of skin.
With the demand for natural cosmetics skyrocketing in the last several years, mica mining has increased dramatically. But this has begged the loaded question, is natural better than synthetic? In the case of naturally occurring mica and the ethical and social justice issues at hand, it certainly stands to argue that alternatives might serve everyone better. However, experts on site suggest that pulling out of India all together could have detrimental initial impacts on those living there, relying on the mica mines to survive. Instead, they suggest that the large conglomerates utilizing the materials implement social programs and clean up the supply chain from the inside out.
Mica Mining in India: Exploitation, Child Labor & Health Dangers
As SOMO and NGOs Terre des Hommes exposed, a quarter of the world’s mica comes from the eastern Indian states of Jharkhand 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 well-known that at least half of the mica from Madagascar is mined by minors between the ages of 5 and 17.
In the poorest regions of India, 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 the minerals, they proceed to sell them for as low as $1 - $2 depending on the market price.
Due to the lack of childcare services and schools, some mothers must take the children with them. They also may have their children work in the mine shafts because they have a smaller stature that can fit in the tighter spaces. Both of these factors leads to the recurring child labor issue that is being uncovered in these areas.
Since resources are limited, most people in these areas feel as though they have no other option than work in the mines. "I would rather work in the mines than die of starvation," explains a woman working in one of Jharkhand's many mica mines. According to 2013 data 36.9% of the population in Jharkhand 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.
Those who survive are usually not without injury. Respiratory issues are one of the most common health issues the 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. The low wages make it difficult for people to receive adequate health services and there aren't any sufficient safety measures set in place to protect the workers.
Children sorting through materials and debris to find mica fragments in India. (Source: sabrangindia.in)
“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 - year - 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. Unfortunately, her 14 - year - old sister, Lakmi, was 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 killed in mica mines in just two months. However, the report sparked 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. Typically, the governments either don't know what's going on or they will turn a blind eye knowing that the mines create economic wealth for these areas.
Not every family in this region is willing to take their kids out of school and let their kids work in the mines alongside them. However, sometimes if they choose this route, their children may face being kidnapped and forced into child labor.
Beauty Brands that Mine Mica
Many widely-loved beauty brands have been linked to India’s mica mines including 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.
Mica Mining Regulations & Industry Changes
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 activism from beauty brands.
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 while empowering and educating them. 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.
Some brands have made a step in the right direction by not participating in the industry at all by not using natural mica ingredients, but other larger corporations have found it more difficult to pull out all operations. In an effort to address this matter, L'Oreal committed to revamping their tracing and transparency to ensure the legal extraction of mica, but even with these measures, it still proves difficult to reliably identify where all of the mica comes from, and there's still massive corruption throughout the supply chain.
Child pulling a basket of materials from mine. (Source: sabrangindia.in)
How You Can Help
While you don't need to toss out all of your makeup or skincare with mica, it's best to be mindful when shopping to consider if it's in your products and which type is being used. Beauty brands are required by law to disclose their ingredients, so make sure to turn your products and look for natural mica listed as "Mica", "CI 77019", "Potassium Aluminum Silicate", or "Serecite" and synthetic mica listed as "Synthetic Mica" or "Synthetic Fluorphlogopite". If you have any questions about whether it's a natural or synthetic source, always reach out to the brand for clarity.
While you still have complete control over the products you choose to purchase and use, we always suggest supporting brands that go the extra mile to create a better and just world, and live these values through their brand and products. With that said, here are a few other things you can do to help this cause and continue to stay informed:
- 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.
- Sign petitions: 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. Check below for two compelling videos on this topic. 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.
How Your Favorite Brands Can Help
Beauty brands have a responsibility to be as transparent as possible, however, it's understood that since mica is difficult to trace, remaining fully transparent is also difficult. Luckily in 2022, there's no shortage of eco-friendly synthetic alternatives and materials. One type is a synthetic mica called "Fluorphlogopite", a plastic - free alternative to natural mica that is more durable and can be made into more colors.
As a brand in the industry, we stand to make positive tangible change in the world. Along with spreading awareness to the industry and consumers alike about these kinds of topics, we simply don't use naturally - derived mica in our products. Instead, we chose to use naturally - derived colors and scents, like the cherry powder in our Cherry Almond Body Scrubs and raspberry juice in our Raspberry Mimosa Body Oil.
Why This Matters: A Matter of Ethics & Social Justice
If you didn't know about this dark secret of the beauty industry, just know you aren't alone or to blame - the industry is full of closeted secrets similar to this that they don't want you to know and it's indie brands like Bellavana Beauty, who are making waves of change by spreading awareness and standing up against industry norms for the greater good for all.
Beauty and skincare shouldn't be a guilty pleasure, but rather something that allows you to feel good knowing that you are making a positive change in the world - a change with the ability to ripple out and touch more people than you'd know.