The Lowdown on Mineral Makeup
As beauty legend has it, it was the mid-1970s, in the aftermath of the frenzied Haight-Ashbury love-ins of San Francisco, that a quiet, little cosmetic revolution was born.
It was called "mineral makeup" – products made of all natural, finely ground minerals from the earth, without any of the chemicals, dyes, and preservatives found in traditional makeup. Fast-forward some 30 years: Mineral makeup is virtually exploding the beauty market.
"This is an extremely popular style of makeup – and it's something that a lot of my patients use and love, and I use it myself. It's also the product most patients ask about," says Kathryn Frew, MD, a dermatologist at Juva Skin and Laser Center and MediSpa in New York City.
And while mineral makeup comes in a variety of forms – and at prices ranging from less than $10 to more than $50 per product -- undoubtedly the most popular in all price ranges are the loose powder foundations and blushes. These are light, finely ground loose minerals that are buffed into the skin using a wide, fluffy brush.
But does "natural," "mineral," and "from the earth" really equal better? WebMD discovered the answer has a lot of qualifying factors -- and some vastly differing opinions.
Mineral Makeup and Skin Health
Like most cosmetic products, mineral makeup has its fans and its critics. Those who love it rave about the light, natural, long-lasting glow that simply can't be duplicated by other types of makeup. Others, however, complain it's drying, irritating, and accentuates wrinkles and adds years to your appearance. Some say the colors have an ashy undertone that is a particular problem for ethnic skin types.
But looks aside, many consumers also say they are initially drawn to try mineral makeup because of skin health claims – more specifically, that it's pure formulations are safer and better for sensitive, even acne- or rosacea-prone skin.
But is it?
"Quite frankly, I think mineral makeup is just a genius marketing plan -- a new way of selling women the same ingredients that technically have been in makeup for years," says dermatologic and pharmaceutical chemist Ben Kaminsky, author of the new book Beyond Botox: 7 Secrets for Sexy, Ageless Skin.
The main ingredients (minerals such as mica, zinc oxide, and titanium dioxide), says Kaminsky, have been the basis of most makeup foundations for decades. And he says mineral makeup has no special health or beauty properties.
"Mineral makeup can cause problems the same as any other preparations can cause problems. It's not purer; there's no scientific proof of that," he says.
But other experts see it a bit differently. Many dermatologists report that because mineral makeup frequently eliminates classic "irritants" – like fragrances, binders, synthetic dyes, and preservatives -- it is considered "purer" and can be kinder to the skin.
Mineral Makeup and Skin Health continued...
"Makeup sensitivity is often the result of synthetic dyes, fragrances, and preservatives, so any makeup that eliminates these is going to eliminate some of the related problems," says Frew.
Moreover, she adds that because titanium dioxide [and zinc oxide] have anti-inflammatory properties, certain mineral makeups can also have a calming effect on the skin, particularly important if you suffer from inflammatory problems such as rosacea or acne.
Dermatologist Francesca Fusco, MD, agrees. "It's non-comedongenic, so it won't clog pores, and it's not going to aggravate an acne condition or cause a flare-up as easily as some traditional makeups can," says Fusco, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
But what about the claims made by some companies that mineral makeup is so pure "you can sleep in it"? Experts draw the line here.
"I would never tell a patient to sleep in any kind of makeup. It's not a good idea for the skin to be covered at night, no matter how pure a makeup might be," says Fusco.
Mineral Makeup and Sun Protection
Another big draw to mineral makeup are the claims of sun protection. With an average SPF rating of 15, at least one company, Bare Minerals, has the Skin Cancer Foundation seal of approval as a sunscreen. Jane Iredale, AfterGlow, and other mineral makeups claim similar protective effects, due mostly to the high content of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide -- two ingredients commonly found in traditional sunscreen.
But does mineral makeup give you all the sun protection you need? Experts say no.
"It's better than using nothing, but I always tell my patients to use a regular cream sunscreen under their makeup and then use the mineral foundations as an extra boost," says Frew.
Mineral Makeup: Not All Alike
Extra ingredients aside, it may seem as if all mineral makeup should be pretty much the same. But WebMD discovered that's far from the truth.
Since there is no set regulation for what constitutes a "mineral” makeup, any product containing minerals as a primary ingredient can be marketed as such -- even if it contains a whole lot of other "less natural" ingredients.
Kristen Adams, president of AfterGlow Cosmetics, says the battle lines between brands are drawn this way: "Mineral makeup formulas generally fall into two large camps - those that take care not to use synthetics (like paraben preservatives and other fillers) and stay true to the original intent of pure mineral makeup, and those that do add the fillers, colors, binders, preservatives, and other chemicals to their formulas," says Adams.
Although you can weed out at least some of these brands by reading the ingredient label, Adams cautions not to let the term "all natural" or "all mineral formula" fool you.
Mineral Makeup: Not All Alike continued...
That's because within the brands that claim "pure mineral" formulations, there is still another category breakdown -- those that contain an arguably "natural" mineral known as bismuth oxycholoride, and those that do not.
A pearlizing agent that gives mineral makeup that "candlelight glow," bismuth oxychloride is a mineral, but it's not found in the earth. Bismuth is a byproduct of lead and copper processing. Bismuth oxychloride is also frequently used to fill or "bulk up" or bind products, says Adams, and some say it comes with a heavy price.
"Bismuth oxychloride is considered a skin irritant and can cause itching and rashes and in large amounts it can cause cystic acne as well – it's one of the ingredients you should try to avoid if you have acne or rosacea or sensitive skin," says Frew, who also reminds us that some products in a line have this ingredient, while others do not. "Some products also contain very little, so it doesn't act like an irritant, but you won't know until you try it."
Mineral Makeup: Buyer Beware
One of the factors that makes mineral makeup so popular is the smooth, natural, long-lasting coverage -- a feat that's some companies accomplish by pulverizing or "micronizing" their minerals into microscopic or even nanoparticle size.
But some researchers say this activity may come with a price.
"Research shows that when some molecules are dramatically reduced in size to the level of a nanoparticle, they can have very different and very toxic properties than that same molecule would have in its conventional size," says Jane Houlihan, research director of consumer watchdog agency The Environmental Working Group in Washington.
"Minerals like zinc and titanium are safe when applied to healthy skin but in a micronized nanoparticle form, there remains a concern, particularly when applied to damaged skin, or when inhaled," says Houlihan.
The bottom line: Even when beauty comes from the earth, it's still a case of beauty buyer beware.
Don't get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.