Our Stance on Mica: What You Need to Know

Young children risk their lives to supply the hair industry with this sparkly mineral. AIIR is working to change that.

Deep in the forested hills of northeast India, small children labor to extract mica from the earth. Using picks and hammers, they mine this valuable mineral from the walls of dark, cramped underground pits. These kids rarely get to play or go to school. Instead, they work long hours in unsafe conditions, risking injuries and chronic health problems. Every year, some of them die.

The mica these children mine adds shimmer to hair products, makeup, car paint and many other consumer goods.

Between the mines of India and the products we buy every day is a long and complicated supply chain. Mica mined by children is sold for pennies to a local dealer. Eventually, it is resold to an exporter, then to a processor, usually in China. By the time the mica is purchased by an international company, it’s often hard to tell where it came from-- or who mined it. 

The unclear origins of mica keep prices low and conceal the exploitation and suffering of the workers. But today, this ugly secret is being brought to light. Hair and beauty brands, including AIIR, are taking a stand against child labor in the mica industry.

In today’s blog post, we’re sharing everything you need to know about the mica in your hair and makeup products, our stance on mica, and what you can do to help.

What is mica?

You might never have heard of mica before, but there’s a good chance you use it every day. Mica is a flaky mineral that forms underground. It’s prized for its insulating, non-conductive and heat-resistant properties, as well as its natural sparkle.

Mica is used in electronics, paints, gypsum wallboard, personal care products, cosmetics and more. Hair and makeup products often contain mica to add shimmer and shine. In fact, the beauty industry is one of the largest buyers of mica.

You can find out if mica is in your favorite products by reading the ingredient lists. Look for the words Mica, CI 77019, or Muscovite.

Where does mica come from?

Mica can be found all over the world. However, 60% of the high-quality mica used in makeup and hair products comes from India— mostly the states of Bihar and Jharkhand in the country’s rural northeast. This area, known as India’s “mica belt”, is one of the poorest regions in the country, with unusually high rates of unemployment and illiteracy.

Why do Indian mica mines use child labor?

In India, over 22,000 children work in mica mines. Children as young as 5 descend into dark, narrow mine shafts to collect the mica that adults can’t reach. They sit for hours in the hot sun, sorting through piles of mica with their small hands.

Child miners rarely attend school and are too tired to study or play. Their parents don’t want to send them to work in the mines, but they have no choice. The lack of jobs and low wages for mining forces many families to labor in the mines together.

Indian law forbids the employment of children younger than 14. It also requires that workers in hazardous industries, such as mining, be at least 18.

The problem is that at least 70% of India’s mica mines are illegal. These mines are run by an informal network, known as the “mica mafia”.

Because they operate under the table, the mica mafia doesn’t comply with local laws or international human rights standards. This hidden industry exploits the poorest and most vulnerable families in India’s mica belt. 

Kailash Satyarthi Nobel Peace Prize / Indian Activist

What are the risks to children who work in mica mines?

Working in unregulated mica mines is extremely dangerous. Children can be bitten by snakes or scorpions in the underground tunnels. They often experience back, neck and shoulder pain from working hunched over for hours on end. They suffer from cuts, abrasions and broken bones caused by falling debris. Breathing in the fine mica dust all day can also lead to respiratory illnesses such as asthma, silicosis, tuberculosis and bronchitis.

No medical care is provided at mining sites, so families often go into debt to pay for medication and treatment, creating a vicious cycle of poverty and exploitation.

Local mica bosses don’t give workers proper safety equipment like masks, goggles, and gloves. Some children do not even wear shoes to protect their feet from the sharp stones.

Worst of all, child laborers can die if a mine shaft collapses. The hastily dug, unsupported tunnels can cave in at any time, crushing or suffocating the workers underground.

Every month, there are between 10-20 deaths in India’s mica mines. Children who labor in the mines are well aware of this risk. They fear for their lives every time they enter the tunnels. But despite the danger, the children return to the mines every day. Their parents need the extra income to put food on the table.

Why do hair and beauty brands use mica mined by children?

Many brands simply do not know the origin of their mica. The mica changes hands many times between the mines and the international market.

Most of the mica produced in Bihar and Jharkhand is sold under the license of a legal mine in another part of India, making it very difficult to trace. By the time it’s exported to a foreign country, the unethical mica is mixed with mica from legitimate, regulated mines.

The truth is that if companies do not intentionally source their mica from an ethical supplier, there is a possibility that the mica was the result of child labor.

Are there any alternatives to natural mica?

There are several options for adding sparkle and shimmer to beauty products, other than natural mica. The most popular alternative is synthetic mica, also known as synthetic fluorphlogopite. This substance is made in a lab, so there is no concern about child labor.

Synthetic mica is purer and brighter than natural mica and creates a slightly different visual effect. In recent years several major beauty brands, most notably Lush, have switched over to using only synthetic mica.

Plastic glitter is also used for sparkle, especially in lower-priced products. Crushed beetles are sometimes added to give hair and beauty products a shimmering effect.

At AIIR, we have chosen not to use synthetic mica or plastic glitter due to the environmental concerns surrounding man-made ingredients. As a vegan brand, we strongly oppose the use of any animal-derived substances in our products. We are committed to using only natural minerals and plants from the Earth, and taking extra care to source our ingredients responsibly. 

What is AIIR’s stance on mica?

AIIR exclusively uses responsibly sourced, natural mica that is child-labor free. Our mica supplier, Merck, is working to develop a transparent, ethical mica supply chain.

They exclusively source from legal, fenced mines where children are not present. Merck also commits to not harming nature or animals in the mining process.

Because local authorities do not always enforce child labor laws, Merck independently verifies every mine that supplies its mica. The mica supply chain is closely monitored to ensure safe working conditions and fair wages for the adult miners.

Annual audits and unannounced visits keep the mines accountable to environmental, health and safety standards. Merck maintains a zero-tolerance policy towards child labor and prohibits its suppliers from employing children.

Mica mining is the only livelihood for thousands of families in northeast India. If companies abandon this region, families and children could end up even worse off.

The AIIR team is proud to support ethically mined mica. By choosing a supplier that sources mica from qualified mines, we are contributing to local jobs, improved living conditions, and greater access to healthcare and education for families in mica mining regions.

Our supplier Merck has established a health center and funded three schools in Jharkhand in partnership with the IGEP Foundation. We are committed to supporting this important work, but we also realize that so much more needs to be done to help these kids and their families.

What is being done to help children in mica mining communities?

There has been significant progress on this issue over the last several years. In 2017, our supplier was a founding member of the Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI). This group includes non-governmental organizations, mica suppliers, and companies from many different industries that buy and use mica.

Its goal is to establish “a fair, responsible and sustainable mica supply chain in the states of Jharkhand and Bihar in India that will eliminate unacceptable working conditions and eradicate child labor by 2022”.

The RMI is working to increase transparency in the Indian mica supply chain to prevent “hidden” child labor. It also supports community empowerment in mica mining areas, with the goal of addressing the root causes of child labor and creating sustainable livelihoods for families.

How can people help end child labor in the mica industry?

The horrors of child labor in mica mining will only end when this issue is brought out into the light. Consumers and stylists have a right to know where their products come from. If buyers demand transparency around ingredient gathering, more and more brands will work to create a fair and ethical mica supply chain. Here’s how you can help:

1)   Choose hair and makeup products that use responsibly sourced mica.

2)   Speak out. If your favorite brands use mica but don’t share information about their supplier, reach out and express your concerns. Ask what steps they take to ensure their mica is child labor-free.

3)   Support organizations that are working to end child labor. Here are a few we recommend:

Terre des Hommes
Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), also known as Save the Childhood
Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation

By making ethical choices and holding companies accountable, everyone can make a difference for these children and communities.

Here at AIIR, we will continue to make honesty and integrity our top priorities-- for our families, our customers, and the people who produce our ingredients. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment below and share your thoughts on this important topic with us.

-The AIIR Professional Team