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How our makeup puts children in danger

Mica gives many cosmetics that sought-after glimmer, but it often comes at a cost.

By Glynis Ratcliffe

North Americans are obsessed with all things shimmery. It’s no wonder — that glow is associated with health and youth. But where does the shimmer come from? For the most part, the answer is mica, a silver-coloured natural mineral found in mines all over the world. Once mica is extracted from the earth, it is ground into a fine powder and sometimes pigmented, before ending up with the manufacturers of the products in which it is used.

Cosmetics like eyeshadows and lipsticks with shimmer contain mica, as well as highlighters, bronzers, blush and nail polish. Beyond makeup, mica is also found in shampoo, sunscreen and even toothpaste. Many electronics now contain mica, and the iridescent paint you see on certain cars is made with it too. Essentially, any time you see a sparkly coating, it’s likely thanks to mica. 

Plenty of minerals are mined from the earth for cosmetic use, but not all of them are as dangerous as mica, even though some market it as environmentally friendly. The problem lies with the illegal mines that are active in India.

According to a recent World Vision Canada report, a quarter of the world’s mica comes from these mines, which are often small family-run businesses. Children in India under the age of 18 cannot, by law, work in hazardous conditions like those found in mica mines, however, a current legal loophole allows younger children to work in family businesses outside of school hours.

So, while children in India technically cannot work in mica mines, families in the two states where mica is found, Jharkhand and Bihar, risk their children's lives by having them "help out" with the family business, according to the report. 

Some mines narrow to the point that only small children can get in to extract the mineral, which can be several hundred feet from the surface. None of these mines comply with labour and safety laws.

An investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2016 revealed that seven children had died in illegal mica mine cave-ins in the preceding two months, but their deaths had been covered up.

According to a Der Spiegel report, every month, non-governmental organization Bachpan Bachao Andolan documents "between 10 and 20 deaths in collapsed mica tunnels."

Because these mines are operating illegally, child labour laws aren’t enforced, which can mean children work long days in the mines instead of attending school, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported.

The obvious next step for companies who use the mineral in their products would be to trace their own supply chains back to the source and either ensure their mica is legally mined, or tell their suppliers to shape up or be replaced. But it hasn’t been that simple.

World Vision Canada says that "intermediaries buy mica after it has been extracted from informal mines, and transport the mineral to the nearest trading centre, where they sell to other intermediaries or directly to exporters," making the finished product difficult to follow back to any specific mine. On top of that, very few companies have willingly made their supply chains transparent.

Very few companies have willingly made their [mica] supply chains transparent.

But some have taken the high road. Mercedes-Benz announced in June it would increase inspections to ensure its mica came from child-labour-free mines, joining Volkswagen in the move towards transparency.

Lush Cosmetics, known for its house-made sparkly bath bombs and skincare products, has opted out of natural mica altogether, according to Lush spokesperson Eva Cook.

“When we found that we couldn’t get the guarantees we needed to ascertain that no child labour was involved of the sourcing of natural mica, we decided to switch to a synthetic mica instead,” she said via email.

Although they had committed to suppliers who guaranteed their products were free from any child labour as early as 2012, they began to have problems with suppliers who were unwilling to be audited. By 2014, they had "pulled out of sourcing natural mica and switched to a synthetic mica instead." Their replacement, known as synthetic fluorophlogopite, is made in a lab, but because it's made using natural minerals, it's more environmentally friendly than plastic glitter.

Companies like Volkswagen and Lush are paving the way for other companies to make the changes needed to address this human rights issue, but how do we, as concerned consumers, hasten the process?

There are several recommendations in the World Vision Canada report: use your voice to tell others about this issue, urge your MP to help pass legislation that requires transparency, and ask the brands you normally buy where they source their mica. Then, let your dollar do the rest of the talking, and try to buy from ethical, transparent companies. The more of us who speak for those children, the closer we get to keeping them out of those mines once and for all.

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