‘We saw young children clambering out of mines’: The human cost of ‘glowy’ make-up

If any of your cosmetics are iridescent or have a sheen, chances are they contain a form of mica - Getty Images
If any of your cosmetics are iridescent or have a sheen, chances are they contain a form of mica - Getty Images

Glow. We can’t get enough of it. It has been the beauty buzzword of the last decade; emblazoned across everything from moisturisers to blushers, bronzers to lipsticks. It makes us look ‘healthier’, disguising fine lines and distracting from our flaws. And it’s big business. Skincare and make-up comprise the two biggest sectors of the $532 billion worldwide beauty market.

We all want our skin to look luminous and dewy. But at what cost?

While many of us will check the ingredients of the foods and drinks we consume, how much do you think about what is in the products you put on your face each day?

If you use anything iridescent or with a sheen, chances are it contains a form of mica, a family of 37 minerals found predominantly in India, but is also in quantity in Madagascar, Brazil and on the African continent.

Natural mica comes in several different ‘colours’ – from white to brown – and has many applications. It is used for resisting extremely high temperatures (brown mica is found in brake pads, in batteries of electric vehicles and as insulation in domestic products such as toasters) as well as adding a sparkly sheen to paints, creams and powders. The latter type is known as white mica. The Cosmetics, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) in the UK estimates that 18 per cent of all mined mica is used in cosmetics.

So far, so innocuous… Until you discover that children as young as five are working in illegal mica mines, with an unknown number dying in the process.

Crushed skulls, broken ribs, lung and breathing problems… This is all part of the reality of life for many children in the east-Indian state of Jharkhand, known for its rich mineral resources, whose poverty-stricken families have little choice but to send them to work in unofficial, unregulated, crumbling ‘artisan’ mines.

In 2019, LA-based reporter and beauty journalist Lexy Lebsack travelled to Jharkhand. She and her team, alongside renowned Indian journalist Rohit Gandhi, stayed in the city of Koderma, and every day drove for two hours into remote rural communities.

‘Driving along, we saw young children clambering out of “mines” at the side of the road – which were effectively just unstable tunnels dug in the dusty, dry ground,’ says Lebsack. ‘They’d emerge, blinking into the sunlight with sparkly cheeks and shimmering clothing, hauling up baskets of glittering earth. It was easy to find the children, because these mines were everywhere. We would pull over and get out of the car and children would just pop up out of the ground. When we spoke with them, most reported that they didn’t go to school and had been working in mines for as long as they could remember. None of them knew where the mica ended up – that it went into our eyeshadow palettes, our bronzers – but everyone knew the dangers.’

This is illegal work (Indian law prohibits mining for anyone under 18 and there are now no legal mica mines in Jharkhand or the state of Bihar, which also produces large quantities of the mineral), but there is no one to enforce the law. ‘We had to be careful and drive the back roads. We didn’t want to come across people who have a vested interest in these mines remaining secretive,’ says Lebsack.

Experts estimate about 70 per cent of mica production in India is from illegal mining in forests and what should be abandoned mines, run by a ‘mica mafia’.

Adults work in mica mining too, but small hands are needed to sort and pick the mineral, and small frames to fit inside the tiny, deep, dark holes. Deep, dark holes that frequently collapse, trapping people inside. Mines can be several metres deep with children spending up to eight hours a day underground, chipping away at the sparkling soil with a hammer and chisel.

Once out of the ground, mica is taken to a ‘mica dump’ or market where it’s sold to traders, processors or agents – many deals are clandestine, to disguise or hide the origins of the mineral - Matilde Gattoni / Redux / eyevine
Once out of the ground, mica is taken to a ‘mica dump’ or market where it’s sold to traders, processors or agents – many deals are clandestine, to disguise or hide the origins of the mineral - Matilde Gattoni / Redux / eyevine

Lebsack was in India in the ‘footsteps’ of a ground-breaking 2016 Thomson Reuters investigation which found child labour ‘rife’ in the mica mines of Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh – quoting one source as estimating that around 20,000 children were working in Indian mica mines at that time.

They witnessed ‘children as young as six squatting amongst glittering rocks in vast open pits in Jharkhand, scouring with their bare hands for shiny, brittle mica flakes, while older ones descended rickety ladders into shafts seeking better quality silicate’.

Once out of the ground, mica is taken to a ‘mica dump’ or market where it’s sold to traders, processors or agents. Many deals are clandestine, to disguise or hide the origins of the mineral. The mica may then be taken away for processing and milling into a fine, pearly pigment before being exported to manufacturers in China, the United States, South America and Europe.

And it’s not only the mining of natural mica that causes problems. There are links to deforestation, habitat destruction and land collapse, while the processing and milling of this powdery ingredient also causes health problems. ‘Manufacturing natural micas causes them to go everywhere,’ says Nausheen Qureshi, a biochemist with 18 years’ experience formulating skincare and make-up products for brands. ‘They become like icing sugar and it leads to a lot of pulmonary issues.’

For the miners, this backbreaking, dirty, dangerous work pays a pittance. The Thomson Reuters report found that unprocessed mica was bought from miners at ‘a maximum of 25 rupees [27p] a kilogram, yet top-quality processed mica sells for up to $2,000 [£1,700] a kilogram’.

Reporting this year by Netherlands-based children’s rights organisation Terre des Hommes (TdH) indicates the remuneration for miners in India can now be as low as 11 rupees (12p) per kilo, while in Madagascar the price can be as low as 4p.

In her report, which features in the news site Refinery29, Lebsack tells the story of Surma Kumari, aged 11, and her 14-year-old sister Lakmi. The pair were working in a mine in Jharkhand in 2018 when it began to crumble. ‘When they tried to run, Surma got stuck under a rock and Lakmi was buried under a mountain of debris,’ says Lebsack. ‘Their mother and father were in the village when they heard there had been an accident, but by the time they got to the mine, Lakmi had died. Surma’s father, Kishar, told us that deaths are so common, traders who control this particular cluster of mines have a set rate they give to families.’

That figure was £330.

It’s a story endorsed by Thomson Reuters investigators and Indian Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s child-protection movement, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), which found that less than 10 per cent of mining deaths were ever reported to authorities, with families more commonly promised pay-offs of a few hundred dollars to keep their silence.

Lebsack reports that Kishar still worked in the mines, but stays above ground to sort mica because it’s lower risk. Over a year after the mine collapse Surma was still recovering from the injuries she suffered – two broken feet, a fractured leg and damage to her spine. One of her legs is now longer than the other, and she can’t run or play.

The number of beauty brands that use mica is incalculable. Even some vegan cosmetic companies, built on an ethos of not harming animals, use mined natural mica. That illegal mica mining is linked to child labour is not news to cosmetics giants. Household names such as Chanel, L’Oréal, Coty, Clarins, Natura & Co (owners of The Body Shop and Aesop) and Huda Beauty, alongside more than 70 other businesses, including car manufacturers and chemical companies, finance the Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI), which was founded in 2017 to create ‘a responsible and sustainable mica supply chain in India free of child labour’.

Many of the companies that have signed up do, however, still use mica. And while they may do their best to source ethical mica, the RMI admits that there is a little chance of them truly knowing how it has been mined – and, by whom. ‘We are not a certification body,’ explains Olivier Dubourdieu, project manager for RMI. ‘Just because you are a member it does not mean that the mica you are extracting or processing or buying or exchanging… or using in your end product… is child labour free. It means that your organisation… is committing to improve the supply chain… Accept the fact that there are high risks for child labour, high risks for bad working conditions but you are willing to change that by implementing whatever concrete solutions we are working on collectively.’

For the miners, this backbreaking, dirty, dangerous work pays a pittance - Matilde Gattoni / Redux / eyevine
For the miners, this backbreaking, dirty, dangerous work pays a pittance - Matilde Gattoni / Redux / eyevine

L’Oréal uses mica in its products, but through the RMI it is taking measures to ensure that it is responsibly sourced. ‘Today, 99 per cent of our Indian mica comes from secured sources,’ a spokesperson says. ‘L’Oréal is committed to remaining in India and to ensuring the traceability and transparency of its supply chain. We believe that discontinuing the use of Indian mica would further weaken the situation in the region.’

The Body Shop explains that it has ‘a target’ of sourcing 100 per cent traceable or certified mica by 2025, saying, ‘We have a restricted pool of Indian mica ingredient suppliers who take additional steps to ensure there is no child labour in their supply chains. The suppliers must prove that they work exclusively with legal, gated mines, don’t buy mica collected informally, conduct independent audits and invest in community-building activities in the areas where they operate.’

Estée Lauder Companies and Chanel both echo these statements.

In 2014, Lush took things one step further and pledged to stop using natural mica. ‘It was replaced with a synthetic fluorphlogopite [synthetic mica], synthesised in a laboratory; it has a higher purity level to provide a brighter, more vibrant sparkle and shimmer,’ explains Gabbi Loedolff, the brand’s global buying coordinator.

But experts including advisors and NGOs on the ground warn simply stopping using mica doesn’t solve the problems that cause children and adults to go down the mines, and can actually make the situation worse.

The RMI’s Dubourdieu says. ‘We strongly support the “stay but change” policy. Mica comes from artisan small-scale mining. It’s mined by very poor people in remote communities that don’t have access to the social services they deserve, the livelihoods they deserve, the health and nutrition services they deserve and of course, children’s education. They are not earning enough for the mica they are mining – which is something the initiative is working on, and by 2030, one of our objectives is that all artisan miners within the supply chain of our members are earning a living wage – but they need the support of the customers and all the supply chain to be there and to continue to buy their mica. Otherwise they go from a situation where they go from earning not a lot, to earning nothing. Of course, parents would far prefer to send their children to school. But the fact is, they don’t earn the living wage, they don’t earn enough to live, so they need a supplementary revenue. That’s one of the reasons why you have children in mines.’

Dubourdieu adds that synthetic mica is not without ethical issues either. ‘A lot comes from China. To make it, raw materials – which come from mines as well – are put in a huge oven and heated to 1,800C. There is huge energy consumption involved – much more than just picking mica in the ground.’

This is what raw mica looks like - Phil Degginger / Alamy
This is what raw mica looks like - Phil Degginger / Alamy

But there is hope. The Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation (KSCF) is having a very real impact on the number of children involved in mica mining in India through a scheme focusing on youth empowerment and village development that protects children from trafficking, child labour and child marriages. ‘Currently, KSCF is working in 521 mica mining villages,’ Omprakash Pal, campaign director, explains. ‘Out of 22,0000 children estimated as working in mica mines, KSCF’s Child Friendly Village programme rescued 13,700 and enrolled them in schools.

In a 2018-2019 survey, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights estimated that 4,545 children between six and 14 years old [from Jharkhand’s Koderma and Giridih districts] were still engaged in mica collection and not attending school… By 2023, our target is to work in all 684 mica-mining villages to make them child-labour free.’

TdH also reports some successes. ‘So far we have stopped children mining mica in 86 villages in India,’ says a spokesperson Jos de Voogd. ‘In Madagascar too, where we estimate 11,000 children were involved in mica mining, we are encouraging alternative livelihoods such as setting up chicken farms and training in crop growing.’

For consumers, it’s hard to know whether the mica in their make-up has been mined ethically by adults, or unethically by children or in dangerous conditions. There is – as yet – no symbol or logo to prove mica’s provenance.

Biochemist Nausheen Qureshi believes the way forward is to demand accountability from the brands you buy. ‘I am a big advocate of consumers writing to brands,’ she says. ‘I think we need to have an open and honest conversation between consumers and companies – we can’t just take for granted what a brand says. Ask them what measures they have taken to ensure their supply chain is really ethical, because child labour is too high a price to pay to make ourselves look pretty.’

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