Freelance Life

3 Startling Issues in the Beauty Industry

Tahira goes behind the glossy packaging and perfect pouts talking about the dark side of the beauty industry; child labour, human trafficking and hidden plastics.



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Why does conscious beauty matter? Issues of ethics and sustainability in the beauty industry affect professionals and consumers alike. As professionals – and consumers – we have a responsibility to ensure our hard-earned money does not continue to perpetuate cycles of violence or environmental damage.

The beauty industry is not devoid of ethical misconduct. In fact, the issues are vast and complex…and require more than a single-sided solution. However, collectively we can have a lasting impact on the industry and our planet, by choosing products from companies that not only offer a fair exchange of goods and services, but also prioritise the long term health and wellbeing of the planet, its animal and vegetal inhabitants.

Child Labour

Mica is a common ingredient in cosmetics. This naturally occurring mineral from the silicate family has a variety of uses across industries – from paint to makeup. Once extracted, it gets ground to a fine powder and used in the cosmetics for its reflective and sparkling properties. In the past, fish scales and mother of pearl were used to achieve this shimmer, but as the industry has moved away from animal cruelty, an alternative had to be found. Today, almost all makeup that shimmers will contain mica.

The problem is that a lot of mica is still mined by children in mineral-rich but impoverished parts of the world, most notably India. This fact has been widely reported in the past few years, but has been a known problem for over a decade, as reported by in 2009.  In 2018, a report by World Vision Canada stated that approximately 22 000 children work in dangerous conditions mining mica. Putting them at risk of injury or even death from collapsing mines, and developing respiratory conditions from inhaling silica dust. 

Aside from these obvious medical and physical risks, other effects of child labour include a lack of access to education which perpetuates a cycle of poverty, exposure to violence, abuse, and sexual and physical exploitation.

Solution: More and more companies are opting for synthetic mica; a lab-grown compound made with naturally occurring elements so it remains biodegradable.

The Responsible Mica Initiative seeks to create a child-labour free supply chain and member companies support the mission of the RMI by endorsing its best practices guidelines.

Other cosmetics ingredients linked to child labour include cocoa butter in West Africa and vanilla in Madagascar according to this report by Maplecroft .

Modern Slavery

Modern slavery is an affliction that scars many aspects of the beauty industry. From unethical and exploitative working practices in the farming of natural and raw ingredients to the use of illegally trafficked workers in nail salons.

Modern Slavery is defined by as “…the severe exploitation of other people for personal or commercial gain.”

They estimate that 1 in 4 modern slaves are children, while 71% are women and girls.

Many cosmetic ingredients are farmed or mined, and the growing worldwide demand has increased the prevalence of mistreatment of people, as well as, uncovering of the unethical treatment of labourers, farmers and miners around the globe harvesting ingredients such as carnauba and candelilla wax to vanilla, cocoa and shea (source).

Meanwhile, the rise of nail art and nail bars has led to human trafficking of mainly young girls from Asia (mainly Vietnam) to work in forced and sub par conditions across the UK and other western countries.

Solution: Choosing products and services from companies with transparent supply chains or certified Fair Trade will ensure that our actions do not support the mistreatment of people for the benefit of beauty. Choose professional beauty services from reputable salons and look out for signs of human trafficking.

Hidden Plastics

After the microbead scandal of a few years ago, the use of these mini plastics has now been banned in the US, UK and Canada. However hidden plastics, in liquid form, still lurk in our beauty bottles.

Many skincare, haircare and bath products contain ingredients that are effectively plastics, which can not only cause environmental problems, but can irritate skin and clog pores.

Liquid plastics can be found on ingredient labels as synthetic polymers and PEGs (polyethylene glycols) and can cause environmental issues as they accumulate in waterways and do not degrade. 

According to research done by Donna Francis in this article, 64% of hair products contain at least one liquid plastic.

Meanwhile, silicones and silicone based ingredients (look for ingredients ending in “-cone” or “ixane”) can build up over time on the hair and skin, and although they may not be harmful per-se, they are definitely not adding any nourishment. In fact, this build up  can lead to a duller looking skin and hair – which is the opposite of  their intent. 

Solution: Look for certified  products that do not contain liquid plastics and read labels carefully.

 Learn how to read an INCI list here.


The cosmetics industry is facing more scrutiny about its practices across a variety of issues. From the environmental concerns of plastic packaging (just unnecessary packaging in general) to the treatment of the people who source the ingredients, and work within the industry itself. By choosing brands and products that have ethics and sustainability at the core of their business, consumers can avoid practices they would not support if they knew what was really going on.  It’s important to remain vigilant, ask questions and hold brands accountable when they misstep their obligations to people, animals and the Planet.

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