by Aditi Mishra : Are you a fan of glitter, or how about cosmetics?
The glimmer or radiant shimmer? How about a minty fresh toothpaste with crystals promising a pearly smile, or the paint of your SUV?
Mica is the magic ingredient behind all of these.
It is an element indispensable for modern life. It is present in electronics, in insulation, paints and yes even in our toothpaste and cosmetic highlighters.
But what most of us are blissfully unaware of is that most of the world’s mica comes from India. A 2016 Reuter’s investigation shows that it is mined by children.
Children, as young as five, climb into abandoned and often dingy, dark and obviously dangerous mines, and come out caked with shimmery dust with mica ores on their head. Most of these mines are illegal because of environmental regulations, are unregulated and operate dangerously.
But what is Mica? Mineral mica is a naturally occurring inorganic silicate mineral. The natural mica that is used in everyday products is just a substrate a starting point to be coated with titanium dioxide, iron oxide or another metal oxide so that shimmer can be produced by the phenomenon of interference.
When white light hits the pigment at boundary layers, such as between air and mineral, white light is broken up and divided into its components – the colors of the rainbow. Depending on the angle at which the light hits the boundary layer, some light is reflected from the surface, white some other reflects from the inter coated boundaries and some penetrates through, giving a transparent and pearl like effect. Of the reflected rays the light waves interfere with each other intensifying or diminishing light waves of certain colours based on the thickness of the coating on the silicate layer. Because the thickness of the layer determines light waves of which colour (which is a function of frequency) cancel each other out and which light waves add up and intensify.
As one can see the silicate mineral is just a platform that allows for light waves to interfere. Hence there are synthetic substitutes for it.
Some cosmetic companies like lush have vowed to use these alternative synthetic micas. But synthetic Mica is expensive and almost omnipresent. Even 2 years after embarking on this mission, Lush is struggling to remove natural Mica from its supply chains.
Because Mica that is used as a direct ingredient is just one part of the problem. Mica is all around us. It is entrenched in other complex mixtures used to make colour pigments and lustres.
While this effort is undoubtedly noble, it is not a sustainable solution. Every rupee taken away from the natural mica supply chain would push the poor families mining this material further into poverty.
Another tactic has been to invest in child friendly villages. Which basically aims to take the children out of mines and to put the children back into schools.
Several cosmetic companies like Estée Lauder, L’Oréal and Yves Rocher are involved in this arm instead. While a lot of improvement has taken place with 400 such villages to show for.
Child labour free Mica is far from a reality.
Ultimately a strictly regulated mica mining industry is the answer. Companies like L’Oréal, and Merck are committed to sourcing Mica only from legal mines.
And it would take a government with conscience to solve this issue.
However, till then while Mica remains a part of our life, the real possibility of being trapped under mines, broken bones, respiratory disorders and even death is a part of life for these child miners.
While solving such a big systemic flaw is beyond most of us, what we buy is very much within our power. Are you willing to shell out a little more and buy from Manufacturers that commit to ethical practices?
The question is how far will you go for that cheap inexpensive shimmer? Will the perfect highlight make up for the fact that we all have blood on our hands?
Beauty companies and the struggle to source child labour-free mica. Thu 28 Jul 2016, The Guardian.
Blood Mica: Key findings of investigation into child deaths in India’s illegal mica mines. AUGUST 3, 2016, Reuters.