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The Problem with Mica

Mica is an ingredient used widely in the cosmetics industry. We look at which companies are using illegally sourced mica in their makeup, and the links with child labour in many mica mines.   

Mica is the name of a naturally occurring group of silicate minerals. It is derived from the Latin word micare which means to shine, to flash or to glitter. Mica is used throughout the cosmetics and personal care industry, and is common in makeup like eye shadow and lipstick and other products that glow or shine.

It can be listed as ‘mica,’ ‘potassium aluminium silicate,’ or ‘CI 77019,’ on ingredient lists.

Mica is also mined for industries including pharmaceuticals, electronics, construction, and is used in things like car paint.

However, there are several problems with mica, including the health impact on workers mining it, and child labour.

Issues with mining mica

Although mica is considered safe for skin application in cosmetics, research has shown that workers with repeated exposure to mica can suffer from pneumoconiosis, affecting lung tissue. 

A lot of workers extracting mica are likely to be children working in unregulated mines in the Bihar and Jharkhand regions of India, where the majority of mica comes from.

Child labour and mica

In 2016, Dutch NGO SOMO and Terre des Hommes Netherlands released a new report which confirmed findings of up to 20,000 child labourers being involved in the mining of the mineral along the border between Jharkhand and Bihar in North East India. It is estimated that 25% of the world production of mica is sourced from these illegal mines.

According to Terre des Hommes (TDH) Netherlands:

The work is exhausting, hazardous and jeopardising their health. Moreover, those children cannot attend school and will therefore be trapped in a vicious cycle of exploitation. Children and adults working in illegal mines, can only earn 45 percent of the average salary in a legal mine, while legal mines only contribute to a small part in the total volume of mica exported.

While the report questioned several large Dutch companies, including Unilever, about their mica supply chains, it found that, for the majority of mica imported from Jharkhand/Bihar, no due diligence had been conducted either by the pigment producers or the exporters. The report called on companies to conduct due diligence of their supply chains and to work collaboratively with other companies on the issue.

In February 2017 an ITV investigation found child labour was evident in mica mines in India.

Collaboration: The Responsible Mica Sourcing Initiative

In February 2017, TDH announced that a new multi-stakeholder body had been established, with 21 actors across industries and NGOs teaming up to form the Responsible Mica Initiative. The initiative set its aims to eradicate child labour and unacceptable working conditions in the Indian mica supply chain within five years ie, by 2022.

Sander Hanenberg, manager of the mica programme of TDH said at the time:

It’s energising to see so many important players such as L’Oréal, Merck and Kuncai together and showing their commitment to eradicate child labour. Most of them were more or less working on the theme, but our research demonstrated the urgency to speed up the process. We will contribute with our expertise and help companies and governments to have the Indian mica supply chain responsible in five years. This will make a major difference to thousands of children.

The initiative has three objectives:

  • Implement fair and sustainable mica collection, processing and sourcing practices and improve traceability along the Indian mica supply chain.
  • Empower local communities to ensure long lasting change.
  • Work together with the Indian government and local authorities to build a legal framework and liveable environment for Indian mica communities.
Image: Mica in Make Up

Unfortunately, despite the initiative, the problem of child labour is still occuring. 

Refinery29 conducted an investigation into conditions in mica mines in India in 2020, where child labour is still common.

Target to end child labour in mica industry

The RMI’s original target was to eradicate child labour by 2022. It didn’t reach that target, but the RMI’s 2022 annual report said, “Five third-party audits at processors were conducted with the close support of the RMI team on the ground. RMI has added 50 villages under its Community Empowerment Programs, reaching 180 villages”. Five audits doesn’t seem very many.

Current corporate members of the RMI from the makeup industry include Clarins, Coty, L’Oreal, LVMH, Natura & Co, Shiseido, and Estée Lauder.

Most companies still have a long way to go to show that their commitments towards mica and human rights is a priority, with many not being transparent about their sourcing.

What are brands doing about sourcing mica?

We reviewed a number of brands for our makeup guide in late 2023. 

Some brands didn't have any policies on mica, some avoided mica from certain countries, and two companies didn't use it.

Green People doesn't use mica as they didn't make eye shadow, and Lush said it has only used synthetic mica since 2018 because “natural mica is a no-no” due to ethical reasons. Synthetic mica is still made from natural materials, so there are no microplastics. 

Other companies in the makeup guide with mica policies:

  • Avon says that its supply chains, including for mica, will be “fully traceable and/or certified by 2025”.
  • The Body Shop says, “our suppliers must demonstrate to us that they work exclusively in gated mines, which don’t allow children to enter, to prevent child labour”.
  • Dr Hauschka requires Fair Trade certificates to be produced from its mica suppliers, which prohibits child labour.
  • Estée Lauder works with Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation (KSCF) in India and has supported the establishment of 150 ‘child-friendly villages’*.
  • Ethique doesn’t use mica sourced from India or Madagascar.
  • L'Oréal sources from the USA and India and is part of the RMI, “We believe that discontinuing the use of Indian mica would further weaken the situation in the region.”

*Child-friendly villages are where child marriage is prohibited, children are withdrawn from child labour, girls have access to school, there are infrastructure improvements, and community leaders include women and young people.

Currently there is no boycott call on mica – having no income at all could be even worse for workers and their families. 

If you want to take action you could write to companies to ask them what they are doing to eliminate child labour in their mica supply chain and whether they are doing enough. We have drafted a template email at the bottom of the makeup guide page

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