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 ignored; mica mining.
The evolution of makeup shows the natural elements that went into basic cosmetics for a basic look.
Nowadays, natural ingredients give a more shimmery look because of mica, which is the dark secret behind the makeup industry.
Children as young as four years old work in mica mines in India. Unsafe working conditions in unstable mines, these children work long hours of the day for a mineral not only used in cosmetics, but in drywall and car paint, among others.
The Evolution of Makeup
In Ancient Egypt, to create a pigment in their cosmetics, Egyptians used copper and lead ore. Kohl created dark eyeliners and eyeshadows.
To represent social class in Ancient China, gum Arabia, egg whites and beeswax created a pigment that stained fingernails.
1000 B.C.E. – 800 C.E.
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 frowned upon it as sinful.
By 794 C.E., the use of makeup was common in Japan.
Female entertainers, during the Japanese Heian period (794 – 1185), painted their skin white and shaded their eyebrows and lips with colour.
White Powder and Paint
A fad that continued for centuries, white-painted faces 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 a staple of success, the methods to have a paler complexion were unsafe and deadly.
Earlier face whitening powders contained lead and other poisons. Women would go to great lengths, 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, the brighter shades of makeup were popular in France.
However, 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 women entertainers, dancers and sex workers.
Max Factor and Maybelline
In 1909, a Polish cosmetician, Max Factor, opened his first professional makeup studio for movie stars in Los Angeles.
During this time, women did not heavily use cosmetics. Most of it had to be purchased from theatrical cosmetic stores.
His ‘flexible greasepaint’ was initially for film, but the demand for his product increased. He created a wide variety of skin colors and complexions, for 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.
More women accepted and embraced makeup use, but there were still those who believed it to be sinful.
A Kansas legislature tried to pass a law to make it a misdemeanor for women under the age of 44 to use makeup ‘for the purpose of creating a false impression’.
Women often wore excessive makeup to hide unflattering traits. Many deemed this deception.
The Roaring 20s is when the flapper style further normalized cosmetic use.
It was also the era where the desired pale skin ended and the tanned skin arose, and it all started with Coco Channel.
Her tanned skin represented a life of leisure and luxury where she lay 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 civil rights activism and feminism.
Some American women started to reject 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 did not provide for women with darker complexions. This showed that the industry was oppressive, discriminatory and suggested that only fairer-skinned females could achieve the golden standard of beauty.
The Era of Self-Expression
The 1980s were when people expressed themselves through makeup. They used bold liners, intense eyeshadows and colorful lipsticks in bright shades of pink, orange, green and blue.
Some of these trends are even popular today.
New beauty trends appear daily, experimenting 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, there is an estimated 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?
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, creating 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, giving the complexion a healthier glow, which is why beauty brands and consumers desire mica.
It is also in cream and powdered products to help ingredients blend, prevent clumping and create a smooth texture.
On the ingredients list, it is labeled as ‘mica’, ‘potassium aluminium’ or CI 77019′.
Based on up-to-date research, mica is non-toxic to human skin.
However, depending on the method of its extraction, there can be traces of asbestos.
Although there are safety concerns, the main reason people avoid mica is because of questionable ethics.
Mica mines are in countries like India and Madagascar and associated with child labor, illegal mining and other ethical conflicts.
In Eastern India, Bihar and Jharkhand are where mica mining is prominent. In those two states, people live below the poverty line.
As a result, children have no choice but to work with their parents for financial support.
As young as four years old, there are over 22 000 children working in the mines of Bihar and Jharkhand.
Mica Mining in India
For a millennium, locals mined mica in Jharkhand.
Initially, they used them 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. By then, the country had 700 mines with 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.
To decrease deforestation, the government made mining illegal in the 1980s. They did not actually 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, 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 in Bihar, between 46% and 70%.
Many families are on the edge of starvation.
Due to this, it is common for children to leave school, or never attend, and engage in child labour. Families rely on this income, despite the threats to children’s health and safety.
Communities closest to the mines live in a cycle of poverty, abuse and exploitation.
22 000 children, as young as four years old, work in the mines. The secretive nature of child labor in the mines leaves the exact number unknown.
Children fit easily into the narrow tunnels. That is the main reason for the abundant use of children in mica mining.
What drives children into child labor, is the desperation to earn money for the family to meet their basic needs.
The children earn about 50 rupees a day, equivalent to 70 American cents.
Wholesalers earn more than $1000 (U.S.) for a kilogram of good quality mica, thus extending the exploitation and human rights violations.
Children at Risk
Children’s health and safety are constantly at risk, and their families worry.
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, threatening the children’s lives.
An example of the impact was from a mother interviewed by Refinery29, a media company focusing on women’s issues.
A mine collapsed on her daughters. She saw her second daughter covered in debris and a rock on top of her eldest daughter. She died at 14 years old.
The family had no choice but to continue working, including the second daughter.
With the mines unsupervised, when children get trapped, help does not reach them on time.
Authorities estimate that ten to 20 children perish in the mines a month. However, local officials are known to cover up 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, depraved of a happy childhood and education, with limited opportunities for the future.
According to Reuters, Jharkhand’s government wants to legalize the sector, but the process is in the making.
If there are regulations on mining mica, it can create more job opportunities for villagers and, therefore, decrease the need for children.
Children would get a chance at a future that does not involve mining mica.
Refinery29 and Mica Mining
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, man-made tunnels around the area. With ice picks and hammers, they chip into the sides and backs of the small pits to loosen the rock and dirt.
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 the handfuls of mica formed underground for hundreds of years.
The children do not know where the mica goes.
A broker collects the material the children excavated. They sell 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 to their products.
The exchange of hands in obtaining 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 pull out of the mica trade and use a biodegradable shimmer made in a lab.
Pulling out of the chain is not enough. It can make the situation worse for the people mining it. They depend on the mica being sold for their wages.
If brands stop adding mica to their products, it will cost jobs.
Terres de Hommes (TDH) is a Dutch watchdog group that monitors the mica issue in India.
Aysel Sabahoglu, former senior technical advisor of children’s rights for TDH, believes brands who contribute to the current situation have a responsibility to clean up the supply chain and to be more involved in social empowerment programmes for those communities.
It will ensure people excavating the mica get a decent wage for the mineral. In doing so, they can 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 are no children working.
TDH’s senior project manager, Clair van Bakkum, explained that there are no legal mines in Jharkhand and Bihar. They exported mica from these states using licenses of legal mines in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan.
The mica might not be as verified as they presume, let alone hold legitimate licenses.
This system is not evolved enough to ensure child labor is not involved.
Giving Children a Voice
In understanding their rights, they can fight the issues that impact like, 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.
From their efforts, they freed 80 000 children from child labor, along with 3000 from mica mines.
There is even a child parliament. A group of young representatives from each village come together to discuss important issues that affect them and their families.
There is no solution to end child labor in mica mines that will not need time and effort.
While the Indian government does their part, it is up to the consumers of the cosmetic brands to become aware of their products, if they are 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 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.