What Is Mica Powder? Uses in the Beauty Industry and Sustainability Concerns

rainbow array of eyeshadow colors with glittery mica ingredients

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

If you’ve ever gravitated towards a product that promised to make your skin sparkle or glow, chances are it had mica powder in it. 

In fact, even if you’ve never been much of a makeup buff, you’ve probably still come in contact with the ingredient via your shampoo or shaving cream. It’s probably in your foundation, as well as your toaster and car paint.

In recent years, mica has become controversial because child labor may be used in its mining process. Although some beauty companies are working towards sourcing the ingredient ethically, finding alternatives isn’t so easy for those looking to avoid it altogether.

Beauty Products That Contain Mica

Mica is used to thicken and add shimmer to the following beauty products:

  • Bronzer and highlighter
  • Lipstick and lip gloss
  • Eye shadow and mascara
  • Concealer, foundation, makeup primer, and facial serum
  • Blush and facial powder
  • Nail polish
  • Daily use SPF
  • Men’s shaving cream and baby shampoo
  • Toothpaste and deodorant
  • BB cream and CC cream
  • Body wash and oil

What Is Mica Powder?

Mica is the name of a group of minerals that come from sheet silicate. There are 37 types and can be found in granite, slate, phyllite, and shale.

Mica powder is lightweight and flexible. It’s resistant to heat, which makes it a favorite material for the electronic industry. However, it’s the pearly luster of its flakes that make it popular in cosmetics and skin care products.

It’s primarily used as a colorant but is also a mild abrasive, as well as a thickening and smoothing agent. Mica is naturally reflective and the reason why highlighter “lights” up brow bones and eyeshadow sparkles.

Beauty chemists combine it with other ingredients to create different effects. Smaller bits can be added to powders to create a smoother but illuminating finish.

If you check out the ingredient list of your lipstick or body bronzer, you may find it listed as:

  • C177019
  • Micagroup Minerals
  • Pigment White 20
  • Sericite
  • Sericite GMS-ZC
  • Sericite GMS-C
  • Sericite MK-A
  • Sericite MK-B
  • Golden Mica
  • Muscovite Mica

Synthetic Mica vs. Natural Mica

While natural mica powder comes from rocks, synthetic mica is made in a lab. It’s also known as synthetic fluorphlogopite, and is created from magnesium aluminum silicate sheets.

The process includes melting manganese, metal, and aluminum, and then cooling to produce a crystal. From there it can be ground into a powder.

One of the benefits of using synthetic mica, according to companies like Lush, is that it’s purer and can achieve brighter colors because of its particle size. Organic mica is not as refined. 

Synthetic mica may appear in ingredients lists under the following names:

  • Fluorphlogopite
  • Fluorphlogopite (MG3K[ALF2O(SIO3)3])
  • Synthetic Fluorphilogopite
  • Synthetic Fluorphlogopite

According to the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database, neither ingredient is considered environmentally toxic or harmful to the body. However, information regarding synthetic mica is limited, and according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the dust from natural mica powder has been shown to cause respiratory issues in workers.

One huge benefit of synthetic mica is that it side-steps the need for mining altogether. A 2016 investigation by the Thompson Reuters Foundation revealed that several children were killed while working in illegal mica mines in India. The use of child labor in the extraction of the mineral has led to more companies opting to use its synthetic counterpart.

How Is Mica Powder Produced?

Mica specimen mineral on collection
Jimena Terraza / Getty Images

According to a 2019 report from Zion Market Research, the global mica market is expected to reach $727 million by 2025. There are two divisions of the industry: flake mica mining and sheet mica mining.

Flake mining largely serves the electronic, rubber, and construction industry. Once extracted from placer deposits and pegmatites, mica is ground and used as a pigment extender for paint, filler, and reinforcing agent. There are mines across the U.S., half of them being in North Carolina. 

Sheet mica is the mineral of choice for cosmetic companies. It’s gathered through open-pit surface mining. There are mines throughout the world, including China, Brazil, and Madagascar. The beauty industry heavily relies on mica from India, which exported $71.3 million worth of the mineral in 2019.

According to the investigation from the Thompson Reuters Foundation, 70% of the mines operating in India are illegal. There are mines in Andhra, Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, and Jharkhand.

Bihar and Jharkhand are part of what is sometimes referred to as the “mica belt.” It’s a region that’s home to mines that often employ children who are small enough to fit into cave openings. According to a survey from India’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, some of the children working in the mines are as young as six.

Work is labor-intensive, requiring miners to move down narrow tunnels that sometimes collapse. In non-commercial settings, mica is separated from the rock by hand with the use of pry bars and hammers.

Injuries and deaths are not often reported by workers or families. Many mines are located in impoverished areas, where collecting mica is the main source of income.

One of the drivers of illegal mining in India is the country's Forest Conservation Act. Many of India’s mines are located in protected forests, making it difficult for legal leases to be acquired. This has led villages to collect mica from abandoned mines in the area.

While the mica belt has received the brunt of attention from child welfare advocates, a 2018 report from Terre des hommes showed similar practices happening in Pakistan, Sudan, China, and Brazil. 

Most recently, attention has been on mica mining in Madagascar. It’s reported that 10,000 children there are miners. 

Is Mica Powder Sustainable?

Natural mica is not renewable, making sustainability complicated. While electronics containing mica can be recycled and reused, the same cannot be said for body washes or beauty products.

While there hasn’t been a ton of research on the environmental impact of mica mining specifically, the mining industry has been shown to be disruptive to ecosystems. Some of the potential impacts of mining include deforestation, contamination of local water, dust emissions, and increased noise pollution.

From an environmental and sustainability perspective, synthetic mica may be more friendly—and it doesn't put children at risk. However, other industries haven’t been able to utilize synthetic mica the way that the cosmetic industry has.

Although synthetic mica may be more sustainable to produce, it’s not as affordable as natural mica. It’s also manufactured in China and Japan, meaning it still needs to be exported to other parts of the globe.

Can Mica Powder Be Ethically Sourced?

With child exploitation being common, natural mica powder is not the most ethical ingredient. However, completely stopping mining may create other problems, as it is often the sole source of income for families in production areas.

Since the incidence of child labor has been exposed, more beauty companies have taken concrete steps to source the ingredient ethically. Companies like Chanel, Burts Bee's, Coty, and Sephora have become members of the Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI), an organization working to create responsible (and traceable) mica chains. Its goals are to end child labor and create work environments that follow legal mandates. Other companies have decided to rely on synthetic mica.