Mica in Makeup: What is Mica and is it Ethical?
Even if you’re not 100% sure what mica is, you’re probably wearing it right now.
But it’s a double edged sword.
One persons sparkly mica is another person’s (or child’s) forced labour.
You’ve likely heard of these ethical concerns associated with mica, but less talked about are the toxicity concerns.
Is mica in makeup safe to put on our faces every day?
If so, why exactly are we seeing more sustainable and eco friendly makeup brands switch to mica alternatives?
Mother Earth may have created this shimmery foundation, but if it’s mining and processing doesn’t improve, the beauty industry won’t be saving any save face.
Let’s take a look at why and how we can achieve ethical mica for makeup.
1. WHAT IS MICA IN MAKEUP?
Before we get to the glam, what is mica?
According to the Minerals Education Coalition, “Mica is a mineral name given to a group of minerals that are physically and chemically similar.”
There are 37 different types of mica minerals, or sheet silicate minerals (silicate = minerals containing SIO4, AKA most of the rocks in Earth’s crust).
These silicate minerals are light, soft, and form flakes or sheets with distinct layers. That makes sense considering “mica” is Latin for “crumb.”
Mica’s principal use is in gypsum wallboard where it serves as an extender and filler. It’s also commonly used in the paint and plastic industry as a pigment extender and the electronics industry as an insulator.
What is mica in makeup?
The mica found in makeup is made up of the same 37 mica minerals used in other applications.
Wondering if mica is in your makeup?
Check the ingredient list. In addition to “mica”, it’s sometimes referred to as “potassium aluminum silicate” or CI 77019 (the cosmetic ingredient name for “mica-group minerals”).
2. WHAT DOES MICA DO IN MAKEUP?
When it comes to the use of mica in makeup, a single property stands out: its glimmer.
Mica is the best natural skin care ingredient to provide a bit of sparkle and glow. This comes from its light-reflecting properties that help that blush really pop.
Mica also comes in many different colors, including dark green, yellow-green, blue, purple, pink, grey, black, and translucent. In some cases, these may provide a tint or hue to the makeup it’s being used in.
Benefits of mica in makeup
You know that glimmery, shimmery, bright, and beautiful look you get after a fresh application of blush or bronzer?
That’s all thanks to mica.
Additionally, some of mica’s functional properties that make it ideal for the construction or electronics applications discussed above only add to why it’s found in makeup.
In foundation (whether powder or cream), it helps individual ingredients blend well together, meaning a clump-free and smooth texture.
It can also enhance skin adhesion, keeping makeup on your face and looking fresh all day long.
In other cases, mica is combined with different ingredients to achieve different effects. When combined with titanium dioxide, for instance, it creates a pearlescent powder that reflects every color of the rainbow.
Alternatively, when iron dioxide is added, mica assumes an earthy golden tone. The combination with sodium sulfate and barium chloride provides an extra glowy and glossy look.
What makeup is mica in?
Mica has a natural luster that makes it an ideal ingredient for makeup products that shimmer: like lip gloss, highlight, eyeshadow, blush, bronzer, biodegradable body glitter, nail polish, and lipstick.
Its cohesive properties and resistance to running make it useful in concealer, foundation, and BB cream.
How long has mica been used in makeup?
Mica has been used for millennia.
Its first use dates back about 4,000 years ago in India, where it was commonly incorporated into a variety of medicines. Around the same time, Mayan civilizations were also using mica minerals to decorate walls and stucco, making them glimmer in the sun.
Mica was later “discovered” in the U.S. in 1803 and quickly began showing up in many household products.
We’re not sure exactly when mica started making its way into makeup, but it likely happened around the 1970s, when there was an increase in “mineral makeup”—products that used natural, finely ground minerals instead of preservatives, chemicals, and dyes.
While a better alternative to chemicals, the use of minerals in makeup has led to a battery of concerns and confusion in its own right.
3. IS MICA IN MAKEUP HARMFUL OR SAFE?
So, mica in makeup: good or bad?
When it comes to the safety of mica, there are a lot of layers (pun intended) to evaluate. We’ll get the bad news out of the way first.
Dangers of mica in makeup
Let’s start out with a commonly-asked question: is mica toxic in makeup?
Their concerns are few which include the following:
- Bioaccumulative and persistent in wildlife and humans
- Limited evidence of gastrointestinal or liver toxicity
However, they include that since it’s a mineral from the earth, it may contain trace amounts of heavy metals (lead, arsenic, and mercury). Mica has also sometimes been shown to be contaminated by silica or asbestos fibers.
These present their own health problems, meaning contaminated mica can lead to health risks for those with long or heavy exposure.
However, while not a perfect system, the US Food and Drug Administration does regulate that to ensure they’re all kept at low levels.
Beyond that, however, the FDS has declared mica to be a color additive exempt from certification. Because it is from a natural source (vegetables, animals, or minerals), mica doesn’t need to be certified like synthetic color additives.
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel has yet to officially review mica. However, that might change. In 2019, it was suggested by the FDA as one of the “priorities for cosmetic ingredients review”.
So, is mica safe in makeup?
Overall, yes, but as with anything, it’s probably best to use it in moderation. Save the shimmery organic lipstick for date night.
4. IS MICA ETHICAL?
Where does mica in makeup come from?
In the United States, flake mica is abundant in states like Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Mexico, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
Despite its domestic abundance, most of the mica found in cosmetics is imported from overseas—which brings us to the biggest concern for the mineral and the dirty truth about mica in makeup
While mica is considered to be safe for makeup wearers, the same can’t be said for makeup miners or makers.
It’s been found that miners and workers in cosmetic manufacturing may be exposed to airborne mica particles, which poses a risk when exposed through inhalation. When breathed in, mica can irritate the lungs and potentially cause lung scarring (known as fibrosis).
This leads to coughing, infections, and shortness of breath.
When contaminated with silica, mica has been shown to cause cancer in animals (human risk is still unclear).
Mica is mined in more than 35 countries, but most of our mica in makeup comes from India, Madagascar, China, South Africa, and Brazil. While India has received most of the attention, China, Brazil, Madagascar, Pakistan, and Sudan have also been associated with another of mica’s non-shimmering sides: child labor.
India is home to a lot of high-quality mica, making them the first resort for many cosmetics companies.
There are more children in India than anywhere else in the world (more than 430 million) and the vast majority live in “difficult circumstances”
These factors combine to give rise to mica being mined by children.
In just the so-called Indian “mica belt” (Jharkhand and Bihar) alone, more than 22,000 children are estimated to work in the mica mining industry.
While these children and their families rely on mining incomes, the dangerous working conditions have amassed global attention.
Always, mica involves an extremely labor-intensive process that requires hammers or ice picks to chip away at the mica for hours on end. Alternatively, explosives are used to crush rocks.
Because dangerous underground passageways are constructed to access better-quality mica, mine collapses and deaths are frequent.
Estimates indicate between 10 and 20 deaths in mines each month, but local officials have been known to cover up incidents—meaning that actual fatality numbers are likely significantly higher.
Even when workers escape these collapses alive, seeing children and other laborers with injured hands or arms is common.
There has been little incentive to provide living wages to the children, either. According to a recent Refinery29 expose, children as young as five years old reportedly made just 20 to 30 rupees for a long day at the mine.
That’s the equivalent of 29 to 43 cents. Per Day!
Beyond just child labor, roughly 70% of Indian mica is the result of illegal artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM), the vast majority of which are associated with exploitative work conditions.
Unfortunately, given the economic situation of many mining families, they have no better alternative. Their continued employment in mica mines is the only way to survive—which makes it difficult for companies and consumers to know what to do.
Boycotting all Indian mica may not be the best solution, so fortunately there are brands who are trying to improve the industry, rather than eliminate mica and ignore it.
5. MAKEUP BRANDS WHO USE ETHICAL MICA
If big makeup brands (who aren’t always known for their ethical practices) have started to make a switch to ethical mica not mined using child labor, that should give you a clue how problematic traditional mica is.
Efforts like the Responsible Mica Initiative have encouraged other brands to follow suit in making the switch to ethical mica.
RMI is working to establish a fair, responsible, and sustainable mica supply chain, particularly in Jharkhand and Bihar, which have received attention for having abysmal working conditions and child labor.
Ethical mica comes with more supply chain transparency and traceability, along with documentation, audits, and enforcement to ensure that child labor wasn’t involved.
However, unless the mica is sourced in the US or another country with high regulation, even this is difficult.
For that reason, cutting out mica altogether is certainly an option, but given many brands might then resort to synthetic or chemical replacements, we’re not convinced it’s the best one.
Switching to ethical mica seems to still be the best option for organic makeup brands since it doesn’t involve using chemicals and keeps people employed under better conditions.
What about synthetic mica?
Synthetic mica provides one of the best solutions when it comes to ethics, as it is the only way we can be 100% certain that there was no use of child labor.
But is it the best solution from a health standpoint?
Synthetic mica, or fluorphlogopite, is a human-made substance commonly found in glitter. Unlike glitter, however, it’s still made with natural materials and doesn’t release microplastics.
It has even smoother edges than its natural counterpart and tends to appear brighter, more consistent, and more luminescent, too.
However, just 10% of all mica is synthetic and that number isn’t expected to grow anytime soon.
What brands are using ethical or synthetic mica?
- Lush is leading the way with synthetic mica, which they began exploring in 2014—before finding theirs actually contained traces of natural mica. The company switched to using synthetic exclusively in 2018 and has transparent sourcing practices to ensure it’s now totally synthetic.
- Axiology uses mica that is not from areas associated with child labor (i.e. India and South Africa). Their mica supplier supports the organization Made in a Free World.
- Fat and the Moon uses synthetic mica.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE BENEFITS & DANGERS OF MICA IN MAKEUP
You know what they say: all that glitters is not gold.
Mica may look pretty, but the way it’s produced can be anything but…
Fortunately, we’re starting to see a lot of ethical beauty brands replace traditional mica for ethically sourced mica (guaranteed free of child labor) or a synthetic, environmentally friendly mica.
Considering this small list of ethical mica brands though, we have our work cut out for us. We need to continue applying pressure on companies to make the switch to ethical or synthetic mica.
Next time you check out a YouTube makeup tutorial for a glittery party look, shop for cruelty-free concealer, or plan a night out with friends, do us a quick favor:
Share this article with the makeup wearers in your life to request that their favorite brands do the right thing.