“Clean beauty” is a term appearing all across the skincare and cosmetic industries today. With top name brands and huge beauty retailers such as Sephora adopting this “clean beauty” initiative, it has become clear that this is not just another fad. But what exactly is clean beauty? According to Sephora’s website, clean beauty products are formulated without parabens, sulfates SLS and SLES, phthalates, mineral oils, formaldehydes, formaldehyde-releasing agents, retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone, coal tar, hydroquinone, triclosan and triclocarban. While many of those are long and hard to pronounce words, in short, clean beauty refers to products formulated without ingredients the consumer might consider harmful. Clean beauty is safe for the consumer, but does that mean safe for the unseen faces behind the production of these products?
In order to understand the idea of clean and ethical beauty, we must first become familiar with the number one ingredient found in most cosmetic products: mica. Mica is the most common mineral found on Earth, and is most likely responsible for the shimmer found in many of your makeup products. However, the problem with mica isn’t its abundant quantities, but rather the way it is sourced. According to a 2018 report from the research center DanWatch, twelve out of sixteen international cosmetic companies do not disclose where they source their mica from. This is where the issue begins.
The world’s primary mica deposits are found in India, and over 50% of the world’s mica is sourced from these regions, many of which are impoverished and depend upon an unskilled, underaged and extremely underpaid workforce to mine this mineral. Up to 20,000 children are estimated to work in the mines, around 90% of which work illegally. While the U.S ranks as the 4th largest mica importing country in the world, and one kilogram of mica can often be sold for as much as $1,000, the children mining the mica make as little as 50 rupees (the equivalent to 70 cents) per day.
So where do we go from here? How do we solve an issue being posed by the number one ingredient found in most cosmetic products? While many beauty companies have pledged to cease their use of unethically sourced mica, the use of middlemen in the purchasing process seriously complicates this promise. In many cases, mica is purchased by intermediaries which allows for the mixing of both legal and illegal mica; this mixture is then sold to larger companies and labeled as “ethically sourced.” This leaves two possible solutions, neither of which are necessarily easy.
First, brands could ultimately source from suppliers in areas that strongly enforce ethical labor standards, such as the U.S and Malaysia, avoiding sourcing from India where labor standards are completely unregulated. The second solution would be for brands to eliminate natural mica in their products all together and make the switch to synthetic mica, as we’ve seen brands such as LUSH do in the past. Although making this switch is less economically beneficial for big brands in the short term—as the main appeal of natural mica is its extremely low cost—it could prove to be the smarter financial decision in the long run. Synthetic mica not only mimics the exact effect of natural mica, but it would also allow for greater brand transparency and therefore a stronger overall brand image by eliminating the potential of middlemen in the mica purchasing process and the possibility of sourcing from unregulated regions.
Both paths carry their own obstacles and would require brand commitment towards the greater ethical goal at hand. Consumers nowadays are becoming increasingly more aware of the brands they are supporting, and the values that those brands uphold. A name on a foundation bottle is no longer just a name but a representation of yourself as a person, the things you support and the values you believe in. Therefore, if we are choosing to boycott companies that use ingredients that may be unsafe for our use, we should also choose to boycott companies whose business practices jeopardize the safety and well-being of others.