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A Controversial Glow: Child Labor’s Connection To Cosmetics Highlighter

Personally, I love highlighter. A good glow is usually followed by a good day. But, sadly, there is a dark side to many highlighters. Read about it below and shop consciously.

Written by
Giulia Lallas

Have you ever wondered where the sparkles in makeup products come from? Well, the answer may be surprising (and not in a good way). Unfortunately, much like the rug industry, the beauty industry is plagued with child labor. Exhibit A: mica mining.

What Is Mica?

Mica is a naturally-occurring mineral used in many cosmetics products, such as highlighter, to add shimmer and sparkle to the product. In essence, the thickness of the mica used determines its color pay-off, while the size of its particles corresponds to how shiny it shows up. An oxide is added to mica to produce a variety of different color shades, like the silver, white, pink, or purple pigments that populate beauty offerings. 

Where Is Mica Used?

Mica is found in a variety of different products, from electronics to cars and toothpaste. But its rise in the cosmetics movement has spiked following consumer trends to buy products like highlighters that give off ‘that glow’. In 2019, the mica industry was valued at nearly half a billion dollars.

The Hidden Costs Of Mica Mining

Although mica may be pretty, mining it comes at a major cost: children. As reported in The Guardian, 62% of the mica mining industry’s workers are children. Unsafe working conditions are combined with risks of harassment; in fact, young girls involved in child labor in Madagascar are highly likely to fall victim to “sexual exploitation and domestic servitude.” Madagascar has failed to set laws in place to protect them from these vulnerabilities.

At these sites, children risk being severely injured by heavy, falling rocks. In some cases, they can even face death. According to UNICEF, the children often lack proper protective gear and often work with sharp tools to extract and sort the mica. This makes them prone to getting cuts as well, and there are also health risks concerning back and breathing issues from the dust and heavy lifting. In short, the children are scared, in danger, deprived, and used.

Furthermore, as recently as November of this year, the United States Department of Labor classified mica harvested in Madagascar as “a good produced by child labor.” This confirms the ongoing lack of progress in protecting the children. 

These children, however, have nowhere else to turn. One of the main reasons they partake in mica mining is their desperate need for money, stretched out by the vicious poverty cycle. As it stands, so many of these children working in Madagascar and India have no other options besides mica mining if they want to eat.

What Is Being Done To Stop This?

As a result of mica mining’s hidden costs, companies like Lush have committed to stop using it. Instead, they use synthetic alternatives to produce mica for their products. The synthetic alternative, also called synthetic fluorophlogopite, is a lab-produced, eco-friendly ingredient that actually offers a high range of colors and intensities to be used in products. 

One thing to note about mica’s synthetic alternatives is that they tend to be more expensive than regular mica because the labor and resources involved in producing it is more costly.

Moreover, a Refinery 29 case study on mica mining in India found that for 50 kg of mica, children get paid around 3-10 rupees. This translates to $2-$8 after a whole day’s work depending on the quality of the mica mined. In other regions, some workers make under a quarter per day despite working all day outdoors. In order to make a living, these children typically work in the mines every day of the week.

Another option that some companies, such as Aether Beauty, have pursued is ensuring that natural mica used in production is ethically sourced. Additionally, beauty companies like Estée Lauder are working to provide funding to get these kids out of mines and into schools. 

Many other organizations, like the Responsible Mica Initiative, are gaining momentum with their advocacy work and demanding that stricter action be taken against child labor. Their goal is to ensure a transparent and accountable mica supply chain. 

Next Steps

All in all, transparency in mica supply chains is necessary so companies can be held accountable for where their mica really comes from. The Clean Beauty Movement is constantly pushing brands to fully disclose information regarding their ingredients, including mica. This is bringing the cosmetics industry closer to the longed-for, complete transparency, but a lot of work still needs to be done. So remember to shop consciously this holiday season and always.

Note: Depending on where you live, the mica in your products could be listed either in the heart of the ingredient list or in the 'may contain' section.