Blood, Sweat, and Shimmer: The Sad Truth Behind Our Favourite Beauty Products
Illustration: Zara Malik

Many makeup and beauty brands nowadays boast about being “cruelty-free”; they pride themselves on not conducting animal testing during their manufacturing process, and not including any animal products in their formulae. But are these products really cruelty-free? To answer this question, we should consider the origin of all of their ingredients, not just those which might involve animals.

Mica, a mineral that can easily be ground into a powder, is used in numerous cosmetic products. It is the perfect example of a component which is completely animal-cruelty-free, yet it is not completely free from cruelty: the mining of this mineral relies heavily on child labour, raising the question of whether these products can actually be labelled cruelty-free when they contain ingredients which are produced through the exploitation of children and the violation of their rights. When setting the standards for cruelty, brands should be aware that there is much more to it than meets the eye.

Mica is popular for the shimmery effect that it gives to the products in which it is included; this is why it can be found in most cosmetics and even in many types of paint, amongst several other products. Mica is safe on almost all skin types, and because it can be milled into a really fine powder, it is a favourite ingredient for most makeup brands that try to achieve a natural and seamless effect for their cosmetics. It is listed as “mica”, “potassium aluminium silicate”, or “CI 77019” on ingredient lists and if a product gives off a shiny effect, it most probably contains mica. So mica seems like a perfect match for everyone, right? However, the dark side of this seemingly harmless mineral is its extraction process. According to a 2016 SOMO report, it is estimated that around 22,000 children work in mica mines, only in the two Indian states of Bihar and Jharkhand. According to this report, approximately 90% of these mines are illegal.

In the rural areas of Bihar and Jharkhand, children as young as five years old work in the mines. Instead of holding toys, pencils, and crayons like most children their age, they hold ice picks, hammers, and baskets – tools with which they carry out their strenuous work. The region has become known as the “mica belt” because of the abundance of mica mines. Mining is a dangerous activity, even for experienced adults, so it is undeniable that mica mining really does take its toll on the child miners; not only are they exposed to long-term lung problems and other health conditions, but it is also not uncommon for mines to collapse while the children are inside of them, causing serious injuries and sometimes even resulting in death.

It just takes a single conversation with a local to realise the extent of the danger people working in mines are exposed to. In an interview with Refinery29, an Indian worker explained that deaths are so common that the businessmen who control these mines have a set rate they give to families when they lose a relative. He said: “For each person who dies, they give 30.000 rupees [around $432 in U.S. dollars] (…) that was it; they don’t do anything for safety.”

It is surprising, however, that relatively little is being done to address this extremely serious issue. Family mining is common in India due to the circle of poverty they are trapped in. Unfortunately, children are particularly suitable for this activity; while adults carry heavy baskets and move large amounts of mica around the mine, a child’s small size and tiny hands help him or her to move around easily along the shafts and grab smaller pieces of the mineral. Even though many parents make an incredible effort for their children to be able to attend school instead of working in these mines, most of the time the money they make is not enough to make ends meet, and the children are forced to abandon their education in order to contribute to the family’s income.

Considering that the value of mica exports from India was estimated to be around 71.3 million dollars in 2019, it is clear that this is an extremely profitable business, and the figures explain why the Indian government turns a blind eye on the abuse taking place in this industry. The cosmetics industry thrives on the exploitation of these people; given the extremely low wages miners get paid, companies are able to acquire mica in bulk at extremely low prices, which clearly favours the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

Another huge problem is the corruption that takes place in the mining business. According to Reuters, around 70% of the mica produced in India comes from illegal mines that are totally unregulated by the government; powerful businessmen exploit miners in Bihar and Jharkhand and later on declare at customs that the mining took place elsewhere, generally using the licenses of the legal mines in other Indian states. Because of the difficulty to trace their supply lines, in the past many companies did not know where their mica came from. Nowadays, however, many businesses have become much more aware of their supply chains and some are even taking action along the difficult path of bettering the situation. An example of one such company is Lush, a UK-based cosmetics brand, which was tipped off in 2014 that their supply chain might be dirty. Even though they were unable to confirm this, the brand decided to swap completely to synthetic mica, and announced in 2018 that their products are completely mica-free.

While boycotting the businesses that are cruelly profiting from the labour and even lives of these children initially sounds like a positive and plausible solution, there are many ways in which a boycott would actually be harmful to many families tied up in the mining industry and would not constitute a realistic solution to the problem.

As mentioned earlier, many families rely on all their members working in  mines in order to survive. By closing down these mines, thousands of families will be left without a source of income. Because these workers are not qualified, they live below the poverty line – most have not finished school, and many have never attended it and would, therefore, face great difficulties when searching for new employment. At the very least, it is important to ensure that the mica miners get a fair price for their jobs, as their livelihood depends on this business. Even though many people do not wish to work under such strenuous and dangerous conditions, they are unwilling to lose the only job that provides their families with some money. 

Therefore, many companies – not just beauty brands – have decided to continue buying Indian mica to avoid depriving so many people of their only source of income. They have chosen to take part in the Responsible Mica Initiative, which has the objective of eradicating child labour by 2022 by ensuring that their supply chains are transparent and responsible and, most importantly, do not employ children. Through their simultaneous initiative to empower local communities, they have helped to free many boys and girls from mica mines and given them the opportunity to attend school.

While there is no doubt that education is imperative for a child’s development and for his or her ability to eventually break free from the poverty cycle, this initiative is still struggling to achieve its desired objectives. With the opening of more schools and the increased number of children enrolling in them, these institutions are facing a serious shortage of teachers; there are just not enough teachers to fill in the necessary positions. If children do not get the quality education that will enable them to pursue higher education, they may be forced to go back into the mines once again when they come of age. 

This situation seems like a dead-end, but it does not need to be this way. Conditions are improving, slowly but steadily, especially through the creation of Bal Mitra Gram (Child Friendly Villages) and Bal Panchayat (Children’s Parliament) in many rural Indian regions. Their objective is to empower children, to help them speak up about their grievances, and to make sure that their voices are heard. Under this initiative, children elect their own representatives – also local children – whose task is to communicate their problems to the adult governors. This way, children are slowly ceasing to naturalize the exploitation they have endured their whole lives.

Special emphasis is now being placed on education, thus putting in lots of effort to encourage teachers to start working in the villages. Education in these Child Friendly Villages also helps to address the issue of gender inequality, which in turn stops numerous child marriages and helps girls get into school along with their brothers, as women have historically  been much less likely to attend school in comparison to men.

Projecting into the future, these children’s parliaments look highly promising. Considering that education is the primary way to break the poverty cycle, getting children involved in the fight for their own rights is really hopeful; not only are they being instructed under academic curriculums, but they are also learning about their rights – their importance, and how they can defend them.

The conditions in which mica is mined in India are gradually becoming known by the average consumer, yet many people still remain ignorant of the situation. Many business owners are invested in tracing their mica supply chains and trying to ensure ethical mica sourcing, and if these efforts are added up with those made by the children’s parliaments, the situation is likely to improve significantly. Many times, buyers tend to underestimate their power to impose change. It is important for consumers to become aware of the ingredients in the products they purchase. The best way to do this is by carefully reading ingredient lists on products, and if there is mica in them, checking the list of members of the Responsible Mica Initiative to see if the brand is a participant. If the brand is not a member of the initiative, it would be preferable for the consumer to not buy this product. Many brands still refuse to speak up about their mica sources. Better late than never, consumers must educate themselves on this pertinent issue and try to support companies which have chosen to walk the path towards sustainable mica mining and the empowerment of regional communities, thus seeking the safety of child miners, and their futures.