Courtesy of Sasha Lezhnev via Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0

The glitz and the glam of the new year brough sparkly appearances from those looking to impress others and feel their best going into 2023. When getting ready for the last party of the year, most people wearing shimmery glitter looks probably failed to stop and think about how their beauty products were manufactured. The mineral mica is found in most beauty products, like highlighters, eyeshadows, lipsticks, nail polishes, moisturizers, and sunscreens, giving them their sheen. This mineral is found and mined in China and India, with India producing about 60% of the high-quality mica used by cosmetic companies today. Mica mining, however, has led to deforestation and the exploitation of vulnerable communities who depend on the revenue it generates. This glamorous beauty industry has a dark side and must find a way to be more ethical or come to an end all together.

Mining is not usually associated with the beauty and cosmetic industry, but for the children working in these mines, throughout the Indian states of Jharkhand and Bihar, it is their livelihood. Many of these children began working in the mines at the age of five to help financially support their families and choose to work instead of attending school. Children are the ideal mine workers because their small bodies allow them to crawl into the tunnels and their hands are able to shift through dirt to find the mica flakes. On a typical day, these children earn only 20 to 30 rupees for their work. This is about 26 to 39 cents in U.S. dollars. They risk their lives and education for little compensation, and this is one of the very few economic opportunities available to them. 

Indian law states that those under the age of 18 cannot work in mines or other hazardous industries, but there are still several mines that operate using child labor. Ingesting the dust and mica particles is one of the many risks the miners face, with the most severe risk being death. The mines are prone to collapsing and the children who become trapped under are often severely hurt or found dead. It is common practice for the companies and Indian law enforcement to cover up these crimes so that large cosmetic companies do not stop buying from them. These illegal companies instead pay the families of the victims so they do not speak out. Vasdev Rai Pratap, a mine worker in Jharkhand, states that he received 100,000 rupee, about $1,500 USD, for his 16 year old son’s death in the mines.  

While the mines are dangerous for those who work there, they’re also harmful to the environment. Several of the mines are located in protected forests where deforestation has occurred to clear the land for mining. The creation of these mica mines cause soil erosion along with sinkholes and can potentially pollute waterways and the soil. Residents who live near the mines have noticed a decrease in animal wildlife and believe it is due to deforestation.  

Knowing about the exploitation surrounding mica mining, the question arises as to why this is still occurring. Many beauty and cosmetic brands have begun trying to use ethically sourced mica powder. A large problem is that when mica is sold, the inspectors are bribed and cross contamination happens. There is no accurate and reliable way to guarantee if the mica one brand uses was or was not sourced through child labor and illegal practices. A 2016 article by Reuters found that an estimated 70% of India’s mica output came from illegal mines.

Some brands like Lush Cosmetics no longer use mica powder and have turned to using a synthetic mica, but ignore the mining that is still occurring. Synthetic mica is made of natural materials and is biodegradable. Unfortunately, if all brands were to start using synthetic mica, then the families who work at the mines would be left without work and fall further into poverty. Instead of completely pulling out of the mica industry, companies should work to only use ethically sourced mica and help end the incorporation of low wages and child labor.

The Responsible Mica Initiative is a Coalition for Action that is working to enable a “responsible and sustainable mica supply chain in India free of child labor.” The RMI was created in 2017 and uses their resources to liberate child laborers working in mica mines by helping them attend school and advocating that adults working in the mines earn more for their labor. Those curious about the products they currently use and if they are linked to illegal mica can utilize Supporting groups like the RMI and researching the brands that one consumes can help put an end to the illegal and destructive practices that have become intertwined in the mining of mica. Children in India should not have to put themselves and their land at risk so that others can look their best while unaware of the sacrifices that went into their beauty and cosmetic products.