For many people, makeup means empowerment, art, creativity, and individuality. It's a millenary resource that can be perfect for enhancing beauty, covering imperfections, or creating characters on film sets. However, makeup can also mean pollution, toxicity, and even child exploitation.
Although the cosmetics industry has embraced some ethical and environmentally friendly practices in recent years, most manufacturers continue to use harmful ingredients in their products. One of them is mica, which makes the lipsticks and highlighters you have at home sparkle and shine on your skin. Yup, the shimmer in your makeup has a dark side, but first things first: what is mica exactly?
What is Mica? Is it Natural?
This common yet controversial ingredient is not a chemical, but rather a mineral. In fact, it's not just one mineral, it's a group of shimmery minerals that are used in the manufacture of all kinds of products for the cosmetic, automotive, and even construction industries.
The composition of mica allows it to be ground down into a fine powder without any added chemicals, also, it doesn’t have a specific colour or hue. When found in its natural form, it can have a range of colours like white, silver, golden, etc. Each type of mica has different properties and unique characteristics, but the main characteristic they all have in common is that it's a natural resource. Therefore, it's an ingredient frequently used in natural and “cruelty-free” makeup.
What Mineral Classification does Mica fall into?
Mica falls into the mineral classification of non-metallic and sheet silicates, meaning that it exhibits a distinct two-dimensional sheet or layer structure. There is also scrap or flake mica, but the one used in makeup is basically a by-product of the sheet mica mining industry.
How many types of mica are there?
There are 37 different groups of mica with different colours and levels of sheen, but the most commonly used types of mica worldwide are muscovite, biotite, and phlogopite.
Also, as I mentioned above, this mineral can be classified into two main types or "physical states", sheet mica and scrap mica. The one most often used in cosmetics is scrap mica but only if it's a by-product of the sheet mica because it's the highest quality scrap mica.
Although the scrap mica that is obtained straight from mining is not used as much, since it comes from its form in sheets I'll focus later in this post on how the extraction of this mineral affects the miners who put all their energy into the vast mica mines. Spoiler alert: it affects them heavily even as children. Yup, we're talking about child labour, but for now, let's focus on mica itself.
What is Mica used for Today?
Today, mica is used for many things in different areas besides providing brightness and sparkle in cosmetics such as eye shadows, highlighters, bronzers, and blushes. It is also used in car paints to give them a sparkling touch and prevent them from cracking, in sunscreens, in decorative panels in lamps and windows, in the construction industry as a filler, and even in the electronic and electrical industries thanks to its thermal and electrically insulating characteristics. In fact, the electronics industry is one of the largest consumers of the mica produced worldwide, using it to manufacture insulators.
The Dark Side Of Mica: That Shimmer Is Not As Bright As You Think
All that glitters is not gold, and while mica shines in the cosmetics industry because of its popularity, it has a dark side that is hard to hide. From ethical and human health issues to negative environmental consequences, this mineral is not as bright as you think.
Why is Mica used in Personal Care Items and Cosmetic products?
If you’ve ever wondered where all that shine from your makeup actually comes from, well, mica is responsible. However, mica not only adds shine and luminosity to cosmetic products and personal care items but also gives them some colour and helps the ingredients in powder products blend well. Long story short, it adds shimmer, colour, and smoothness to that bronzer you may have in your makeup bag at this very moment!
Is Mica Safe For Skin or dangerous for your health?
Since it’s a mineral, mica may contain small amounts of heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, or mercury, however, several studies have shown that the amount of mica used in makeup isn’t toxic nor harmful.
Although mica is safe for most skins even if you use mica-containing products on a daily basis, it can be toxic if inhaled. Tests on animals (going off-topic for a sec, no animal should be used to test these kinds of things) have shown that it can cause cancer, and in humans, it can even cause pulmonary fibrosis if significant amounts of mica dust are inhaled.
Obviously, we know that there is no way you can inhale large amounts of your highlighter on a constant basis in your daily life, but I wanted to point out this risk factor anyway because it affects mostly the workers who extract mica from the mica mines. Still, when putting your makeup on, try to do so in a ventilated area!
What Makeup & Skincare Products is Mica Found in?
The real question is, what products is mica not found in? It's in almost every makeup and skincare product on the market! Just to name a few:
- Shimmer sprays
- Shower gels
- Nail polish
- Bath bombs
Aaaaand many others. If I kept going on with the list of products, this post would become endless.
Where is the majority of the Cosmetic Industries’ mica sourced from?
The countries that produce the largest amount of mica are China and India, but India undoubtedly tops the list as it accounts for approximately 60% of the world's mica production.
Although there are many other countries where mica is sourced from for the cosmetic industries such as Brazil, Russia, Madagascar, and the United States, just to give you a rough idea of how important India is in that industry, about a quarter of the world's mica comes from Jharkand and Bihar (a.k.a "the mica belt"), two eastern Indian states.
The dark side of the Mica Mining Industry
The mica mining industry is far, FAR away from being ethical. Behind the glitter of cosmetics and personal care products by world-famous brands, there are workers sifting through dust and rocks for hours on end, looking for little chunks of mica.
Just to give you an example, in Madagascar (the third-largest mica exporter in the world) there are working shifts in the mines of up to 16 hours. Under the hot sun, with a 38°C temperature and zero breaks. But that's not all, let's go back to the topic of the damage that mica can cause to miners due to constant exposure.
As we mentioned above, inhaling the dust particles given off by this mineral is very harmful to the health of the workers. This is because, well, obviously it will never be healthy for anyone to inhale mineral particles, but on a more specific note, certain types of mica can be contaminated by silica or asbestos fibers and can cause asbestosis, mesothelioma, or lung cancer in the long term. Just keep reading because believe me, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
What Are The Ethical Concerns of Mica? Child Labor For Starters!
Just in case the savagery of the mica mining industry, which is thousands of years away from being ethical, wasn't clear, here's another "tiny" detail that is prevalent in the industry: child labour. Let's recap: inhumane working hours, continuous exposure to potentially harmful materials, and child exploitation... What a combo.
The estimate of how many children were working in mica mines in India was released by The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) in 2018, and at that time, the number was around 22,000. 22,000 children who may live and work in remote areas where they have no access to education, healthcare, or economic well-being. 22,000 children who simply shouldn't be exposed to deplorable working conditions at all, who shouldn't even be working. And the worst thing is that these kids (as young as five years old) didn't choose to work because they wanted to, but because their parents work in these mines and forced them to join them in order to support their family economically. Some kids are even kidnapped and forced to work, unbelievable!
Talking about the economic side of this very unethical mining, despite the fact that the value of mica exports from India is around US$ 71.3M, the children working in the mines only make 20 to 30 rupees per day. That is the equivalent of 34 - 50 cents per day, not even 1 single dollar. Mining mica in its sheet form is a labour-intensive and highly demanding task because it's the highest quality mica and it needs to be protected from the risk of damaging it in its natural state, but the industry simply doesn’t want to recognize hard work. Fair wage? What's that?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, for many adults, kids, and teens makeup represents freedom, but for others, it represents their lack of freedom, quite the opposite. Yet, sadly, many families have to do this in order to survive in the midst of the poverty that stalks them day after day in their communities. They have no other choice.
All these deplorable working conditions and human rights violations have only accomplished two things: fueling the multi-billion-dollar makeup industry and killing the childhoods of the children behind makeup ingredients... Literally! In 2016 seven children died over the course of two months in India while working in illegal mines. If mines are a dangerous and hostile environment for adults, imagine what it's like for a child who doesn't have the proper gear nor the age to work there. Let that sink in.
Is mica bad for the environment?
Not all things natural are necessarily good, and when it comes to the environment, mica mining is a serious concern. The creation of open pits to obtain mica encourages soil erosion, the formation of sinkholes, and could potentially pollute waterways and our precious soil.
Mining also leads to deforestation, trees are gradually chopped to clean large stretches of forests in order to develop more (illegal) land for mining mica. And as if that wasn’t enough, local residents in communities near the areas where the shiny mineral is extracted claim that mining has destroyed wildlife, and I absolutely believe them.
They say that certain species of animals used to coexist with them when they trespassed into their villages, such as elephants, wild boars, and rare species of birds, but now such animals are hardly ever seen near their villages. And guess what? No official authority in those areas does anything meaningful to change this situation.
While coalitions such as The Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI) are advocating for safe working conditions for workers in mica mines and for minimizing the environmental impact of such practices, there's still MUCH work to be done. There's plenty of cheap makeup on beauty store shelves, but in reality, it comes at a tremendous environmental and human cost.
What about Synthetic Mica? Is it More Ethical?
Since we know that natural mica has dirty origins in many ways, is there an alternative out there? Yes, there is! There's synthetic mica, a.k.a "synthetic fluorphlogopite", which mimics the shimmering effects of natural mica without harming the environment, but... Is the use of synthetic mica in cosmetics really any more ethical than its natural counterpart? Again, yup! In fact, it's one of the best solutions when it comes to ethics because it's synthesized in labs by adult professionals, no children involved.
Also, it's worth noting that even though synthetic mica is made in labs, it's constructed of natural materials so it doesn't release microplastics that can contaminate water supplies. That's a big eco-friendly plus!
Is synthetic Mica safe to use?
Synthetic mica is purer than natural mica because it's lab-created from plant cellulose and other natural materials, it's not contaminated with asbestos or other substances that can be harmful to the consumer in the long run so based on what's known so far, it's completely safe to use. In fact, it's biodegradable, its particles have softer edges and it even tends to be brighter and more consistent when used in beauty products. Is there any reason for us to keep using natural mica when synthetic mica exists? Not really!
How to tell if a product uses real or synthetic mica
Beauty brands need to be more transparent about the ingredients they use and their supply chains, but while they aren't, in order to tell if a product uses real mica, one thing you can do is check the labels. Natural mica will usually appear as just "mica" in the ingredients list, but in addition to that easily recognizable name, mica it's sometimes referred to as "Potassium Aluminium Silicate" or "CI 77019", the cosmetic ingredient name for any mineral that falls into the "mica" family. Also, avoid ingredients like muscovite, biotite, and phlogopite, because those are basically the names of different types of natural mica. On the other hand, synthetic mica will appear literally as "synthetic mica", or as "synthetic fluorphlogopite", pretty easy to identify.
Another thing you can do to find out if a product uses real or synthetic mica is to look on the brand's website for a section where they talk about what ingredients they use, and if you don't find anything meaningful in their "Our Ingredients", "About" or "Our Story" sections, you can always send them an email. Don't fall for buzzwords like "natural" or "cruelty-free", greenwashing is always present in the cosmetics world and the best thing you can do is do your own research and don't buy suspicious green marketing.
List of Cruelty-Free Brands That Only USe Synthetic Mica in Their Cosmetics
Although there are brands that claim with evidence that they use ethically sourced mica (kudos to them!) most use non-ethically sourced mica. The best way to be 100% sure that there is no cruelty involved in the makeup you buy is to opt for brands that only use synthetic mica, however, currently only 10% of the mica used in cosmetic products is synthetic. Some of the wonderful beauty brands that are part of that percentage that have turned their backs on natural mica are:
Cosmetics that only contain synthetic mica tend to be more expensive than those that are made with natural mica, but it's totally worth making the switch if it means contributing to the conservation of our Mother Earth and the liberation of workers and children exploited in mines. P.S: If any of you reading this is a representative of a makeup brand that uses unethical mica in its products and advertises them as "cruelty-free", let us tell you that supporting dangerous and unethical child labour is supporting cruelty. Cruelty is cruelty, whether it's animal or human. Make the switch!
By Choosing Synthetic Mica In Your Makeup & Cosmetics You Can Help Put A Stop To Unethical Mining Practices
Mica may look pretty, but everything behind its production is not, not even a teeny bit.
Don't let the poppin' highlight of mica blind you, it is time to be more aware of what we're putting on our precious skin and in our makeup bags. Next time you go shopping because you ran out of your favourite lipgloss or want to try new nail polish, consider one of the brands we listed above.
Let’s transform our knowledge into action by choosing synthetic mica in our makeup and cosmetics, that’s how we can put a stop to unethical mining practices and help build an ethical, transparent and eco-friendly industry. Step by step, every action counts!
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