An image of two young children in a narrow tunnel of a mica mine.

The Dark Secret Behind Mica Mining in the Makeup Industry

 Since ancient times, makeup dawned on the faces of royalty, nobility, and the wealthy. Today, while self-expressive, it holds a dark secret that either goes unknown or is ignored: mica mining.

The evolution of makeup showed the natural elements that once went into basic cosmetics for a basic look.

Nowadays, natural ingredients give a shimmery look because of a mineral called mica, which is the dark secret behind the makeup industry.

Children as young as four years old work in unsafe conditions in unstable mica mines in India and Madagascar. These children work long hours of the day for a mineral used in cosmetics, drywall, and car paint, among others.

The Evolution of Makeup

An artistic interpretation of Ancient Egyptian women applying makeup/
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3000 BCE

Ancient Egyptians used copper and lead ore to create a pigment in their cosmetics. Kohl created dark eyeliners and eyeshadows.

To represent the different social classes in ancient China, gum Arabia, egg whites and beeswax made a pigment that stained fingernails. They were a symbol of wealth and power and it was a crime for anyone else to have stained fingernails.

1000 BCE – 800 CE

The ancient Greeks and Romans evidently used oils and waxes for topical balms. Higher-class women adopted many practices from the ancient Egyptians.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the use of cosmetics declined in Europe. The Church saw it as sinful and frowned upon it.

By 794 CE, the use of makeup became common in Japan. During the Heian period (794 – 1185), female entertainers painted their skin white and shaded their eyebrows and lips with color.

White Powder and Paint

White-painted faces, a trend that continued for centuries, were a sign of wealth all over the world.

The paler the complexion, the wealthier the individual. Darker, tanned skin meant an individual worked long hours in the sun.

Although it was a sign of success, the methods to have a paler complex were unsafe and, at times, deadly.

Early face-whitening powders contained lead and other poisons. Women would go to great lengths for a pale complexion, such as ingesting arsenic or bleeding themselves.

The Middle Ages

Between 1265 and 1274, the Church discouraged the use of makeup. They believed it to be a sign of sin and promiscuity. Nevertheless, high-class women still used face powder and lip stains.

Bright vs. Neutral

In the 100s, brighter shades of makeup were popular in France.

In America, bright shades were sexual and sinful and natural tones of makeup were popular. They associated heavy makeup with “ladies of the night”, such as female entertainers, dancers, and sex workers.

Max Factor and Maybelline

In 1909, Max Factor, a Polish cosmetician, opened his first professional makeup studio for movie stars in Los Angeles.

During this time, women didn’t heavily use cosmetics. Most of it had to be purchased from theatrical cosmetic stores.

His “flexible grease paint” was initially for film, but the demand for his product increased. He created a wide variety of skin colors for different complexions on- and off-screen.

As for eyelashes, women used dark wax or petroleum to darken them.

T.J. Williams invented a formula for mascara and started Maybelline, a cosmetic line named after his sister, Mabel.

“False Impression”

More women accepted and embraced makeup use, but there were still those who believed it was sinful.

A Kansas legislature tried to pass a law to make it a misdemeanor for women under the age of 44 to wear makeup “for the purpose of creating a false impression”.

Women often wore excessive makeup to hide unflattering traits, which many deemed deceptive.

 Flapper Style

The Roaring 20s is when the flapper style further normalized cosmetic use.

It was also the era for pale skin ended and the desire for tanned skin began, and it started with Coco Chanel. Her tanned skin represented a life of leisure and luxury because she could lie in the sun for hours.

Thus came a new demand for bronzing and tanning products.

Feminism VS Beauty

The 1960s and 1970s were the start of the civil rights movement and feminism.

Some American women started rejecting the use of cosmetics and saw the cosmetic industry as oppressive. Feminists saw that applying makeup took hours of a woman’s day and depicted unattainable beauty ideals of the Western world.

Additionally, certain products weren’t provided for women with darker complexions. This showed the beauty industry as oppressive and discriminatory and suggested that only fairer-skinned females could achieve the “golden standard” of beauty.

The Era of Self-Expression

In the 1980s, people used makeup to express themselves through bold liners, intense eyeshadows, and colorful lipsticks in bright shades of pink, orange, green and blue.

Some of these trends are even popular today.

Makeup Today

New beauty trends appear daily from experiments with different products and methods.

There is a rise in makeup artists on every corner of the internet, posting videos and photos of products and makeup tutorials.

In the United States alone, there is an estimation of 4800 makeup artists and influences. They consider makeup as self-expression and many consider it to be a legitimate art form.

What is Mica?

A close-up image of mica, showing all the layers.
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Mica is a group of mineral dust that form distinct layers, often with a soft, flaky texture. Many industries use mica, such as for drywall, painting and plastic.

In cosmetics, mica is in powdered and shimmery makeup products that create a desirable sparkle and glow.

The shimmer effect is in eyeshadow, highlighter, blush, lip gloss, and in some concealers and skincare products for an added “glowy” effect.

It naturally sparkles and gives the complexion a healthier glow, which is why beauty brands and consumers desire mica.

It’s also in cream- and powder-based products to help ingredients blend, preventing clumping and creating a smooth texture.

On the ingredients list, it’s labeled as “mica”, “potassium aluminum” or “CI 77019”.

Based on up-to-date research, mica is non-toxic to human skin.

However, there can be traces of asbestos, but this depends on the extraction method.

Additionally, there are also safety concerns about extracting mica. The main reason people avoid mica is because of questionable ethics in extracting it.

The most well-known mica mines are in India and Madagascar. Both are associated with child labor, illegal mining, and other ethical conflicts.

In Eastern India, mica mining is most prominent in the Indian states of Bihar and Jharkhand. In those two states, people live below the poverty line.

Children as young as four years old have no choice but to work with their parents for financial support. There are over 22,000 children working in the mines in Bihar and Jharkhand.

Mica Mining in India

An example of mica mining, with young children going down a makeshift ladder into the deep man-made tunnel to find mica.
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Locals have mined mica in Jharkhand for close to a millennium. Mica was initially used for decoration and Ayurvedic medicine.

In the 19th century, British colonizers discovered the valuable mineral and named the area “the mica belt”.

India won its independence from British rule in 1947, but by then, the country had 700 mines and 20,000 adult workers.

The process of mica exportation fell when the USSR, a wealthy country that wanted mica, collapsed and brought a mica recession.

Eventually, the Indian government stopped monitoring the mines altogether.

In their efforts to decrease deforestation, the government made mining illegal in the 1980s. They didn’t close the mines or redirect workers to new industries, which created an economic vacuum that still exists.

Today, China continues where the USSR stopped. About 70% of mica produced in India comes from illegal mines that are unregulated by the government.

Jharkhand and Bihar

Globally, India is the largest producer and exporter of sheet mica.

Jharkhand and Bihar have the most mines and are among the most impoverished states in India.

The poverty rate in Jharkhand is over 46% and between 46% and 70% in Bihar. Many families are on the edge of starvation.

It’s common for children to leave school, or never attend, and engage in child labor. Families rely on this income, despite the threat to their children’s health and safety.

Communities closest to mica mines live in a cycle of poverty, abuse, and exploitation.

22,000 children work in the mines, but the secretive nature of child labor within the mines leaves the exact number unknown.

Children easily fit into the narrow tunnels, which is the main reason for their abundant use of them in mica mining.

What drives children into child labor is the desperation to earn money for their families to meet their basic needs. They earn around 50 rupees a day, equivalent to 70 American cents.

Wholesalers earn more than $1000 US for a kilogram of good quality mica, thus extending the exploitation and human rights violations.

Children at Risk

A photograph of two children, a girl climbing up the makeshift ladder with a basket of debris and mica on her head and a boy waiting down in the man-made tunnel, depicting the exploitation of child labour and mica mining.
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Children’s health and safety are constantly at risk and a constant worry to their families.

The constant exposure to dust results in respiratory illnesses and a risk of lung cancer.

After hours of digging in the soil with their bare hands, many are often at risk of skin infections and cuts.

The biggest risk is that mines frequently collapse.

An example of the impact it has on families was from a mother in an interview by Refinery29, a media company that focuses on women’s issues.

A mine collapsed on her daughters. She found her second daughter covered in debris. Her eldest daughter died at 14 years old after a large rock fell on top of her. The family had no choice but to continue working, including the second daughter.

With the mines unsupervised, help doesn’t reach the trapped children on time.

Authorities estimate that ten to 20 children die in the mines a month. However, local officials are known to cover up the incidents. The number of fatalities is likely to be higher.

In addition, unregulated mica mining means families are not eligible for compensation when accidents occur.

These children grow up in mines, deprived of a happy childhood and education, with limited opportunities for the future.

According to Reuters, Jharkhand’s government wants to legalize the sector, but it’s a long process.

If there are regulations on mica mining, it can create more job opportunities for villagers and, therefore, decrease the need for children.

Children will get a chance to have a future.


Refinery29 and Mica Mining

An image of children in Madagascar working in a mica mine, sifting mica from the debris they collected from the mine.
Mica Mining in Madagascar. Image source:

In 2019, Refinery29 published an extensive report on mica mining in India.

Following the life of a then-11-year-old girl in Jharkhand, they saw the work and risks children face in the mica mines.

Children shimmy themselves into small, manmade tunnels around the area. They chip into the sides and backs of the small pits to loosen the rock and dirt with ice picks and hammers.

They put the loosened debris in baskets and hauled it out of the tunnels.

Then, they pour out the contents of their baskets onto a makeshift sifting tool (a piece of netting in a wooden frame).

After sifting, they see handfuls of mica formed underground for hundreds of years.

The children don’t know where the mica goes.

A broker collects the material the children excavated and sells it to an exporter, who then delivers it to a manufacturer, likely China.

Manufacturers grind the mica into a fine, pearly pigment. International beauty companies use this pigment for a reflective finish in their products.

The exchange of hands to obtain the mica hides its true origin. Everyone in the supply chain benefits financially. It keeps costs low by allowing exporters to continue exploiting people mining it.

Makeup Brands Accountability

Many brands pulled out of the mica trade and use a lab-made biodegradable shimmer.

However, pulling out of the chain isn’t enough. It can make the situation worse for the people mining it because they depend on the mica being sold for their wages.

If brands stop adding mica to their products, it will cost the miners jobs. There might not be a clear solution to how to effectively control mica mining.

Terres de Hommes (TDH) is a Dutch watchdog group that monitors the mica issue in India.

TDH’s former senior technical advisor of children’s rights Aysel Sabahoglu believes brands that contribute to the current situation have a responsibility to clean up the supply chain. Being involved in social empowerment programs for those communities will ensure people excavating mica receive a decent wage.

Additionally, it will help break the poverty cycle in countries where mica mining is their livelihood.

Brands like L’Oréal only buy from legal suppliers who source from independently verified mines, where there is no child labor.

TDH’s senior project manager Clair van Bakkum explained that there are no legal mines in Jharkhand and Bihar. They export mica from these states using licenses of legal mines in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan.

The mica might not be as verified as branches presume, let alone hold legitimate licenses.

The system isn’t evolved enough to ensure child labor isn’t involved.

Giving Children a Voice

An image of Kailash Satyarthi surrounded by the children he saved from abuse, child labour and exploitation, some from mica mining communities.
Kailash Satyarthi and the children he teaches. image source:

Kailash Satyarthi founded the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation and Bachpan Bachao Andola. These organizations work to give children a voice and teach them to understand their rights.

By understanding their rights, they can fight the issues that impact them, such as child marriage, teen pregnancy, child labor, and the lack of teachers and schools.

Moreover, they assist their parents in finding additional revenue while the children are at school.

Their efforts have freed 80,000 children from child labor, in addition to the 3000 from mica mines.

There’s even a child parliament, a group of young representatives from each village that come together to discuss important issues that affect them and their families.


An image of two young children in a narrow tunnel of a mica mine.
image source:

There isn’t a solution to end child labor in mica mines that won’t require time and effort.

While the Indian government does its part, it’s now up to the consumers of the cosmetic brands to be aware of their products, if they’re child-labor-free, as well as animal-cruelty-free.

In doing so, in understanding the origin of mica, there is a greater chance of helping these children have a happy childhood and gain an education.

If not now, then when? If not you, then who? If we are able to answer these fundamental questions, then perhaps we can wipe away the blot of human slavery.

-Kailash Satyarthi.

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