The dark side of Mica

In remote villages throughout India, children are risking injuries, illnesses, and even death for the precious, shimmering mineral sitting at the bottom of your makeup bag. All that glitters isn’t always gold. The beauty industry is full of pretty, sparkly things— all different types of fizzy bath bombs, shimmery “going out” eye shadows, glittery body washes to give your skin a hint of shine. In each of these lies one of the biggest, most horrifying secrets of all.

ARTWORK JILLIAN WEST @electricblanketnow

Mica, a naturally-occurring silicate mineral composite typically found in the mining grounds of India in a poverty-stricken area called Jharkhand and Bihar, is a commodity, touching each of our lives every day. The mixture (including crystals, granite and other rocks) is responsible for producing the sparkle you see in makeup products, paints, household appliances and more. The shimmer may be pretty, but the truth of the mica supply chain is downright ugly. Ask your beauty retailer/consultant where the mica comes from and more than likely you’ll get *crickets* and no, they aren’t withholding information, most actually have no idea. So, what is the truth? 

Wake up call

Small children are doing some of the most dangerous jobs in the world, each and every morning. Each day, child miners trek down into small, dark, man-made tunnels with absolutely zero protective gear. Not even shoes. From there, they use their bare hands and sticks and hammers to chip the walls of the tunnels, to ensure they collect the mineral mixture. Baskets and baskets of these minerals are then thrown into a sifting net to filter out the mica flakes. Why?

Child labor and illegal mining for the majority of mica is linked to rural states of India where the opportunity for upward mobility is lower and democracy can seem a distant dream. People in Jharkhand, Ampikazo and Madagascar are trapped in a cycle of poverty where putting food on the table is a problem to many. Children in these communities are subjected to unsafe working conditions and exploitation, risking injury and death – all for an extremely small payout. 

According to Refinery 29, 22,000 children as young as four, resorted to mining Mica in hazardous conditions for money, although it only pays 30 rupees (roughly $0.41) per day. That may sound like a very small amount of money, but it’s steady income. 

Not only is it extremely horrifying that children are risking their lives each and every day for very little pay, it’s also illegal for anyone under 14 in India to be employed in mining. But that doesn’t stop them from throwing children as young as five into the “workforce.” These children are at  extreme risk of having rocks collapsing on them, but they’re also exposed to the potential to contract respiratory illnesses, scorpion and snake bites and skin infections. Refinery 29 states that an estimated 5-10 children die each month in these mica mines. 

“These children are at  extreme risk of having rocks collapsing on them, but they’re also exposed to the potential to contract respiratory illnesses, scorpion and snake bites and skin infections. “

Everyone benefits? Really… everyone?

Once the raw materials are excavated, they are collected by a broker who then sells to an exporter. From there, the manufacturer (typically in China) receives it and mills it into the fine, pearly pigment that is bought and sold by international beauty conglomerates to add to makeup products (like eyeshadows, lipsticks, blushes, etc.) In this supply chain, everyone benefits financially because costs are so low when exporters are exploiting the people mining it. 

With all of the illegal mining, child labor and explotation, you’d think shutting down the industry would be an easy solution. But it’s not. Many who are extremely horrified by the child labor and mining that continues to make the beauty business bloom, have started demanding alternative solutions. But the communities in India depend on mining work as a source of income. While ending the mining industry in India may not be feasible, enacting regulations to make it safer seems like the very least we can do. This includes creating more regulations and making safety a priority. It also means no five-year-olds. And no, not just talk. We need to ensure that the industry complies. This means middle men who are responsible for buying mica need to push for change. And middle men will apply that pressure if they receive it from consumers and cosmetic companies. 

How can we stop the effects of mining Mica?

All of this means nothing if we don’t start improving the transparency behind mica’s supply chain I think this may band exposing the horrors of child labor and illegal mining. It’s our job as consumers to ask the right questions before making purchases, too. And we have much more power than we give ourselves credit for. No, really. Ask questions to understand what you’re buying. Here are a few questions to use: Are they really cruelty-free? Are they from a responsible and sustainable supply chain? Is natural mica really better for my skin?

“The purchases we make, the products we use, and the choices we make moving forward—we control that.”

Due to amplification of some of the horrifying practices associated with mica mining in recent years, there has been some major progress. Now, companies are beginning to use ethically sourced mica in their products. How is mica ethically sourced? Without any form of child labor or exploitation. 

Companies are able to find this information by choosing to work (and align themselves) with suppliers that have ethical labor standards, and can verify an ethical supply chain. In many cases, this requires avoiding all mica from India or Madagascar where the labor standards aren’t regulated and child labor exists. Some companies, such as Mad Micas, require declarations from every supplier stating that no minors participate in any operations. 

Organizations such as Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), aims to rescue, rehabilitate and educate children that have been a part of the abuse and exploitation.They rescue about 400 children from servitude every year – 87,000 children since the 1980sm and have created ‘Child-Friendly Villages’ where children are able to receive an education, and not expected to work. 

These are necessary steps in the right direction, but it’s ultimately about asking the right questions, doing our research and thinking before we buy. 

Next time you reach into your makeup bag, or think about making a run to your local Ulta or Sephora, know what you’re buying into. The purchases we make, the products we use, and the choices we make moving forward—we control that.