The Beauty Industry’s Exploitation of Child Labor for Mica

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

$93.5 billion. In 2019, this was the worth of the cosmetics industry in the United States.  

With countless new trends and products being introduced in the market every day, there is no doubt that the makeup industry is one of the fastest growing and dynamic industries not just in the U.S., but all around the world. However, the majority of consumers are unaware of the ties that mica, one of the most common makeup ingredients, has to child labor and the exploitation of vulnerable children all around the world.

25% of the world’s mica powder comes from illegal mining in India, notably the Jharkhand and Bihar states. Here, roughly 20,000 children (as of 2016) are working in unsafe and toxic conditions to extract mica powder.

Mica and the Dangers of Mining

Mica is a naturally occurring mineral dust. It is essentially a glittery pigment that is found in common makeup products such as foundation, concealer, highlighters, facial creams, and more.

The raw mica material is obtained through mining. Mica miners chisel for mica with hammers in mine shafts that have a high risk of collapsing, smash larger chunks of mica into smaller sections in order to break it up, and carry baskets of rocks to the top of the mines to sort through the contents.

Mica miners are exposed to many life-threatening situations due to the fact that they are under long-term exposure to toxic air and work near explosions or in underground mines where deadly cave-ins are common. A three-month investigation by Thomson Reuters in 2016 found that seven children had perished in the span of two months from working in mica mines. Furthermore, long term exposure to mica can lead to bad health conditions such as “lung scarring which leads to symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, weakness, and weight loss.”

Some Children Have to Mine

According to the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child, it is forbidden for children to work if it has “negative consequences on their health, prevents them from attending school or means they are exploited financially.” Indian law also prohibits children under 14 years of age to work in mines or mica extraction, however children as young as the age of 5 have been found working.

Additionally, around 90% of the mines in India are illegal, according to a recent report by the NGO SOMO, a Netherlands based nonprofit dedicated to social, ecological and economic issues related to sustainable development.

Family poverty is one of, if not the biggest, contributor to child labour in India. 36.9% of the population in Jharkand and 33.7% in Bihar live below the poverty line, which means that slavery can easily enter the supply chain. Children become vulnerable as poverty drives them to seek jobs to support their families. A local representative of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) stated that about 10% of the children (out of a youth population of roughly 4,500) in the mica mining village Dhab don’t go to school at all to work in the mines.

Pavan, a ten year old boy profiled by World Vision CA, stated “If I could, I would definitely go to school. But I have to work here.” After a whole day of work, Pavan, his younger brother, and his mother (Kiran) make 200 rupees total. This equals roughly $2.95 USD. Kiran told World Vision CA that “there is no other livelihood for us, except this.” In other cases, working in mica mining runs in the family. Earlier generations spend a lifetime working in these mines so the job continues to run in the family.

Mica producing countries under suspect of child labour besides India include Brazil, China, Madagascar, Pakistan, Peru, Sri Lanka and Sudan.

Involved Brands

According to World Vision CA, 70% of companies did not have any public statement available addressing child labour. The supply chain for mica is complex with buyers selling to various intermediates before landing in pigment producers hands, making transparency with child labour challenging to address.

The majority of consumers are unable to inform themselves about what the ingredients on the makeup products they are purchasing contain. Many products are not labelled clearly for their contents, which can lead to risky purchases and safety concerns.

L’Oréal, the world’s second largest beauty company, buys mica from the Jharkhand area through the chemical company Merck and the Chinese company Kuncai. Merck and Kuncai have been named as two of the biggest buyers from that area through several exporters. DanWatch interviewed many exporters such as Mount Hill’s Industries and ICR Mica, who all state that Kuncai does not have a child labour free policy. This makes it extremely likely that there is child labour involved with L’Oréal, who owns Maybelline, Lancôme, Garnier, Yves Saint Laurent Beauty, Kiehls, and Urban Decay.

Lush Cosmetics is one of the companies that has spoken out about the unethical labor for mica. Initially, Lush had no problem with using natural mica distributed by a third party company. Lush Cosmetics firmly chooses suppliers based off of the guarantee that no child labor is involved and that there are audit reports to verify this information. However, when the company who supplied Lush with mica powder was sold to another group, problems with transparency arose. The new company could not offer verification of the fact that no child labor was involved which raised concerns for the Lush team.

In 2014, Lush made the executive decision to cut off the third party suppliers and switch to an alternative: synthetic mica. Lush creative buyer, Gabbi Loedolff, explains that it “became clear that [Lush] couldn’t get the transparency that we wanted in our natural mica supply chains” and decided synthetic mica was a safe solution to the issue of sketchy sourcing of the natural material.

Some brands such Kjaer Weis, Kosas and ColourPop purchase their ingredients ethically from suppliers who mine the stone in Europe, Japan, or the U.S.

Initiatives to Eliminate Child Labour

The Indian government recognizes the vast amount of child labour and has started on initiatives to eliminate it. More schools have been built for youth between the ages of 6-14 which include free meals. Additionally, more roads have been built and the public has been made more aware of governmental welfare and developmental schemes. Moreover, BBA worked in a third of the villages in the main mica mining area to implement their “child friendly” concept. BBA’s project was centered around informing parents of the benefits of a proper education, and giving alternative sources of income besides mica mining so that families wouldn’t lose income by sending their children to school.

It is evident that transparency between the makeup industry and child labour is a very complex issue. However, Merck, one of the biggest mica buyers from the Jharkhand and Bihar states, recently did research which concluded that child labour was an issue in the area. It is now undertaking a “series of initiatives to improve its social responsibility.”

These steps towards eliminating child labour include creating a supply chain free from child labour, opening schools and health centers, and more.

Through Teen Lenses: According to World Vision CA, 70% of companies did not have any public statement available addressing child labour. Were you aware of this statistic and did you find it shocking?

“Although I knew that some companies kept their practice of child labour a secret from the public, learning the exact percentage was shocking to me. Now that I know a large portion of the makeup industries hide this crucial fact, my views on these specific companies have definitely changed. I’ve lost respect for any company who takes advantage of child labour, which in itself is disgusting, and purposely hides it for their own benefit and profit.” Cansu Moral, 16, Junior at Thomas Wootton High School, Potomac MD
“I wasn’t aware of the statistic at all. I don’t find it shocking that so many companies did not have a public statement because most of the labour that goes into producing something like coffee or makeup the general public is not aware of, and more likely than not, companies are utilizing unethical means in order to reduce costs of products. If companies were to publicly address child labor, they’d probably be shooting themselves in the foot business-wise.” Jasmine Gong, 16, Junior at Thomas Wootton High School, Potomac MD
“I was aware companies hid the non ethical aspects of their system under wraps, but not the severity of just how bad it is. In some ways, yes, I do find this shocking in that there are hundreds if not thousands of lives being affected. But on the other hand, there are some really dishonest and nasty people out there and if you put them together you can get an unethical child labour camp.” Jen Austin, 17, Senior at California School of the Arts – San Gabriel Valley, Glendale CA

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