How Lipstick Works

Beautiful Skin Image Gallery Lipstick symbolizes womanhood for many little girls -- a day of dress-up isn't complete without it. See more pictures of getting beautiful skin.
Beautiful Skin Image Gallery Lipstick symbolizes womanhood for many little girls -- a day of dress-up isn't complete without it. See more pictures of getting beautiful skin.

­Quick quiz: What product, used on the faces of the majority of women in the United States on a daily basis, may contain lead, cow brain tissue or crushed beetle shells? You probably didn't guess that it's lipstick. Gross, huh? Well, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there's no reason to worry. The amounts of lead are too small to be of any danger, cow brains from older cows are no longer allowed after the mad cow scare, and the crushed beetle shells are perfectly safe.

Now that you're thinking about lipstick in a new way, let's look at the basics. In short, lipstick is a compressed tube of waxes, oils, additives and pigments that color and moisturize the lips. Most of us lipstick-wearers don't give much thought to anything other than the color, how it feels on our lips and how much it costs. Lipstick can be had for anywhere from $1 to $100, depending on the brand. One lipstick made by Guerlain costs more than $60,000, but that's probably because of its diamond-encrusted, 18-karat gold tube (we hope).


Although there are many different types of lipsticks and a vast array of colors, there are some basic ingredients. And that list of ingredients above is just a paltry few of the many substances that might be in the tube of lipstick in your purse. For many ­women, wearing lipstick for the first time is a rite of passage, and even if they wear no other makeup, they feel naked without it. Lipstick essentially began the modern cosmetics industry.

The word "lipstick" can mean a lot of different things. Let's start with looking at the difference between a matte and a stain, and find out how some lipsticks can stay looking great throughout the day without any touch-ups.

Types of Lipstick, from Matte to Shimmer

If you were visiting the cosmetics area of a drugstore for the first time, you might be overwhelmed by the variety of lipstick available. Choosing one is about more than just figuring out which color looks best on you. Most women have experienced the disappointment of buying a lipstick that they end up not using, so choosing the right type is just as important. There are essentially five basic types:

  • Matte - The strongest, darkest colors of lipstick are often mattes, because they contain a lot of pigment. Rather than being shiny, they deflect the light. Mattes can often be longer-wearing than shinier types of lipstick as well. Sometimes they aren't as flattering on thinner or wrinkled lips, because they don't contain as many moisturizing ingredients.
  • Creme - This type of lipstick usually falls somewhere between mattes and glosses. Cremes contain more wax than mattes, so creme lipsticks protect the lips better than other types. However, they can also result in dry lips.
  • Shimmer - Also known as pearly or frost, shimmer lipsticks contain light-reflecting particles that may be mica, silica, synthetic pearl or even fish scales. Today, shimmers are more often used for special occasions and come in lighter colors.
  • Long-wearing - The problem with all lipsticks is that they need to be reapplied at some point because they wear off, so this type of lipstick attempts to solve that issue. Some long-wearing lipsticks are very drying. The most long-lasting lipsticks are usually a two-part system consisting of a base and a gloss. The base may contain silicone oil, which seals in its color. Once it dries, you apply the colorless gloss for the shine. The gloss may be reapplied but the colored base stays put until you remove it, usually with a makeup remover.

You now know about some of the stranger ingredients in lipstick, but what about the basics? We'll look at that next.


What's in Lipstick? And How is It Made?

A single lipstick can contain dozens of separate ingredients, and the exact blends are usually a closely guarded secret. They typically fall into a few categories: waxes, oils and fats, emollients, and pigments. The different types of waxes used in lipstick include beeswax, paraffin and carnauba wax. Wax stabilizes the stick and allows it to be molded into shape. There are also a number of different types of oils used in lipstick manufacturing, including lanolin oil, castor oil, olive oil and cocoa butter (this is where the cow brains come in -- a very inexpensive fat can be extracted from it). The oils and fats in lipstick keep it just the right texture -- soft enough to apply but firm enough to keep it from melting. Emollients make the lipstick more moisturizing to your lips, and they may include vitamin E and aloe vera.

The thing that sets each lipstick apart in most consumers' minds, however, is the pigment. Lipstick color can come from combinations of plant, animal, mineral or synthetic ingredients. The beetles mentioned in the first section of this article are the source of a color often listed as carmine or cochineal extract. Cochineal insects are killed by steam, dried, powdered and processed to create a bright crimson dye that's nontoxic and noncancerous, unlike some red dyes used in the past. Lipsticks may also contain preservatives such as alcohol, or other ingredients such as sunscreen and fragrance.


Lipstick is prepared in batches. After being formulated, the ingredients must be carefully combined so that the entire batch has consistent color and texture. It's actually much like making crayons. The pigment and other dry ingredients are finely ground so they will be smooth and evenly distributed within the mixture, then combined with the heated oils. Once this mass is stirred, it's mixed with heated wax and the other ingredients. Finally, the hot liquid is poured into cold aluminum molds and then chilled until firm. Typically it's quickly passed through a flame to create a satiny finish, and then the lipsticks are inserted into their metal or plastic tubes and packaged.

But what if you don't have all the fancy equipment and want to make your own lipstick? Read on.

DIY Lipstick

If learning about some of the ingredients that might be in your lipstick bothers you, there are a few solutions. Many companies make lipstick with organic, natural or vegan ingredients, although the often at a higher cost -- and the lack of color selection might leave you wanting. Another solution is to make your own lipstick.

The ingredients you choose really depend on your needs. If you want a vegan lipstick, beeswax and lanolin (which comes from the glands of sheep) are out, but there's always soy wax, olive oil, cocoa butter, shea butter and mango butter. Producing deep colors can be a real challenge, but it's not impossible. You can even add mica flakes for shimmer. Here are a few simple recipes -- there are many others available online, and even kits that include waxes, butters, oils and colorings.


Beetroot Lipstick 1 tablespoon beetroot powder 1 tablespoon vegetable glycerin (regular glycerin may be animal-derived) 1/2 teaspoon vitamin E oil or olive oil Put the vegetable glycerin and beetroot powder in a saucer and stir the mixture until it's smooth. Add the vitamin E oil and apply. [source: Guardian News and Media]

According to Jessica Pallingston, making your own lip gloss is pretty simple. Here's an easy recipe adapted from her book on lipstick:

Very Berry Lip Gloss One cup of berries (cranberry, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry) Aloe vera gel or petroleum oil, to be measured by liquid dropper One teaspoon at a time, smash berries into a paste. (For berries with seeds, you'll want to put the paste through cheesecloth or a sieve.) With the dropper, add gel or oil until you have the right consistency. If you add too much gel or oil, just drop in some more berry paste. [source: Pallingston]

Looking for more than a gloss? Pallingston also provides a simple-to-follow recipe for a neutral lipstick:

Basic Neutral Lipstick 1/4 cup grated beeswax (you could try soy wax for a vegan substitute) 3 tablespoons vegetable shortening 1 tablespoon almond oil 3 tablespoons cocoa butter Mix all of your ingredients together in an ovenproof container and then heat the mixture on high in the microwave for one to two minutes. It should be completely melted. Pour the liquid into a pan or box (about 5-by-3 inches) that you've lined with foil and greased. When the mixture has cooled, you can cut it into sticks and put those in lipstick tubes (which you can buy from cosmetics suppliers). [source: Pallingston]

To apply lipstick, just twist up the tube, press it to your lips and move it around to cover them, right? It can actually be a bit more complicated than that. Next, we'll check out lipstick application.

Lipstick Application: Puttin' on the Lips

A contestant in a "Miss World" beauty competition applies her lipstick using a shiny car as a mirror, November 1953.
A contestant in a "Miss World" beauty competition applies her lipstick using a shiny car as a mirror, November 1953.
Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Getty Images

­Being exact isn't all that important with sheer or light-colored lipsticks, but messy application of dark lipstick can look especially bad. Lipstick essentially redefines the shape of the mouth, so how it's applied can mean the difference between looking put together and looking sloppy.

Using lip liner can help. It often comes in a pencil or liquid application with brush. In addition to creating precisely defined lines, it can also prevent lip color from "bleeding" outside the edges of the lips onto the skin. This can happen especially if you have wrinkles or lines around the mouth. The lip liner creates the outline, which is then colored in with lipstick.


It's important to choose a color that is either a neutral or one shade darker than the lipstick. Start at the center of the upper lip and draw a thin line out to the corners, then switch to the lower lip and do the same thing. If you have small or uneven lips, you can make them appear larger and more symmetrical by going along the outside of the lip line. To minimize lips, draw more along the inside of the lip line. One way to make sure that the lines are straight is to space out dots along the edge of the lips and draw lines between the dots.

Keeping lips moisturized can make lipstick go on better, but lip primer can also be used. It usually contains conditioners like vitamin E and aloe. Manufacturers claim that it fills in creases and wrinkles, makes lipstick glide on smoother and makes it last longer. Some people also apply foundation or powder to the lips prior to putting on lipstick to provide more staying power, or even fill in the entire lips with a neutral lip liner as a base.

Next comes the lipstick. It can be applied straight from the tube or with a small brush. Some people actually trim their lipsticks using a razor blade to provide a cleaner line, as the tips tend to get blunt with repeated use. Start at the center of the lips and work outward, being careful to stay inside the lines. Blotting the lips with a tissue can help make sure that the texture is even, and adding another layer will deepen the color. To set the lipstick, some people also lightly powder it with a loose face powder. This doesn't work with glossy lipsticks because it will make them look cakey, but can work well with matte or creme lipstick.

While the lipstick tube has been around for less than 100 years, lipstick has been used in some form for thousands of years. We'll look at the origins of lipstick on the next page.

Lipstick History, from Seaweed to Rouge

Most histories of lipstick start with Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt, who reigned between 51 and 30 B.C. and is perhaps most famous for her relationships with Roman rulers Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Cleopatra used crushed ants and carmine in a base of beeswax to color her lips. However, women in ancient Mesopotamia as far back as 3,000 B.C. were tinting their lips with red clay, iron oxide (rust), henna, seaweed, iodine and bromine mannite (a compound consisting of a halogen element and an alcohol sugar). Some of these pigments, such as the bromine mannite, were highly toxic. Ancient Romans, especially the upper class, also used homemade lip color preparations.

Abu al-Quasim al-Zahrwai, a Muslim Andalusian known as the father of modern surgery, is credited with creating the first lipstick that was actually a stick, sometime around A.D. 900 [source: Muslim Heritage]. He created a wax base for the pigment, perfumed it and pressed it into a mold. Although lipstick remained generally popular among women during the Middle Ages, its popularity began to die out among the upper class until it was considered fit only for prostitutes and lower-class women.


Lipstick was once again considered acceptable in Europe during the Elizabethan era (the mid-1500s) because of Queen Elizabeth I, who wore very pale face powder set off with bright red lips. Her lipstick was made from beeswax and crushed, dried flowers such as roses or geraniums.

Lipstick went back out of fashion just a few hundred years later. In 1770, Parliament passed a law essentially stating that made-up women were witches who attempted to lure men into marriage, and they could be burned at the stake. The attitude that makeup of any kind was a form of deception was not uncommon. During Queen Victoria's reign, between 1837 and 1901, women who wanted to color their lips resorted to rubbing them against dyed crepe paper or ribbons. Some sneaked preparations purchased from France or elsewhere.

The tide began to turn again in the late 1890s. For the first time, the Sears Roebuck catalog offered rouge for lips and cheeks. During the rise of the film industry, lipstick was made and marketed to actresses, who needed dark colors for their mouths to stand out on black-and-white film. By 1915, the modern push-up tube was commonplace; prior to this, lip color came in a small pot. Modern cosmetic giants such as Elizabeth Arden and Estee Lauder began selling lipsticks in their salons.

The popularity of lipstick types and colors have fluctuated wildly over the years. Next, we'll look at modern lipstick trends.

Modern Lipstick Trends in America: You Better Work

A man in drag applies lipstick at a lesbian and gay pride celebration in London, June 1995.
A man in drag applies lipstick at a lesbian and gay pride celebration in London, June 1995.
Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The flapper era of the 1920s meant dark red lipstick, which remained one of the most popular shades for several decades. Max Factor invented lip gloss in the 1930s, giving clear, shiny, glossy lips their first taste of popularity. During World War II, essential lipstick ingredients like petroleum were unavailable, so lipstick was scarce. By the 1950s, however, dark red lips were back in fashion thanks to actresses like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.

Lipstick colors really began to change in the 1960s, just as trends in clothes and other types of makeup changed. Rather than the deep colors of the 1950s, manufacturers began to market light, frosted lipsticks in colors like pale pink, lavender and even white that contrasted with the emphasis on dark, heavy eyes with thick, smudgy eyeliner and mascara.


­There was a move toward more natural lip colors in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but things got dramatic again with the punk movement of the late 1970s. The rebelliousness and nihilism of the era translated into dark purples and blacks. At the same time, androgynous glam rockers like David Bowie challenged cultural norms through the use of lipstick. There began an era of "manstick" (lipstick on men) as heavy metal bands such as Twisted Sister and new wave bands like Culture Club were fronted by men wearing full '80s makeup. Lipstick in the 1980s usually came in bright orange, coral, fuchsia and red, which went along with bright eye shadow, colored mascara and heavy blush. Frosted lips and sticky, sweet lip glosses also became popular.

Lipstick shades changed over the course of the 1990s. Initially, they were matte and dark, contrasting with lighter eyes and skin. Then in the mid-1990s, browns and other neutral tones were more popular. Glitter and frosted lips were seen more on younger women, as well as ravers and club kids. "Manstick" got a real boost when MAC Cosmetics named drag queen RuPaul as its first spokesmodel in 1995.

Today, a variety of lipstick colors, ranging from pale pastels to purplish blacks, can easily be found. Dark colors are generally more popular for evening (although goths wear them anytime), with neutrals and more subtle colors during the day. Another big trend is toward organic products, which use no chemicals or animal products and aren't tested on animals. According to some cosmetics forecasters, however, bright colors like pinks, reds and oranges are coming in response to the economic downtown as of March 2009. (Give What is the lipstick indicator? a read for more.)

Lipstick in Culture -- It's About More Than a Pretty Face

Often lipstick is the first cosmetic that an adolescent girl is allowed to wear, usually in the form of a sheer gloss. Eventually it becomes part of many a woman's "uniform," to the point where she feels somehow incomplete or unfinished if she doesn't put it on. In fact, lipstick is most likely to be the only type of makeup worn if there's not the time or the desire to put on anything else. Lipstick does serve a purpose beyond looking pretty -- many of them do condition and protect the fragile skin on the lips. But other than its looks, why do women wear lipstick?

One theory is that it emphasizes a woman's sexuality. By amping up the color of the lips, a woman is subconsciously echoing the color of her vaginal lips, or labia, in an effort attract attention from men. Another theory points out that young girls' lips are generally brighter in color than older women's, so women apply lipstick in an effort to appear younger and more attractive. Some researchers take this idea a step further and believe that using lipstick marks a desire to return to an infantile "rosebud mouth." Perhaps in response to these theories, some women refuse to wear lipstick because they consider it a patriarchal trap.


However, wearing lipstick can also be very empowering for women. When it still wasn't generally considered "nice" for women to wear lipstick, women during the suffrage movement in the late 1890s and early 1900s wore it to defy the norm. The 1980s power-suit-wearing woman sometimes considered her lipstick as part of her armor as she struggled to make her way in the male-dominated corporate world. Today, women in patriarchal societies and those under religious law such as Iran are forbidden to wear lipstick.

For more on women, getting out lipstick stains and special-effects makeup, we've got links to articles you'll like on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Angeloglou, Maggie. "A History of Make-up." London: The Macmillan Company, 1970.
  • Channel 4 Television. "Because You're Worth It: 100 Years of Makeup." Channel 4. 2009.
  • Cole, Bethan. "Kiss of death: Black lipstick but not everyone is a fan." The Independent. September 25, 2008.
  • Foltz-Gray, Dorothy. "Lipstick: A love story." Health. September 1996, Vol. 10, Issue 5.
  • Fong, Jennifer. "Lipstick sales rise when economies sink." Calgary Herald. February 10, 2009.
  • Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation (FSTC). "Muslim Contribution to Cosmetics." May 20, 2003.
  • Grantham, Lorreta. "Lipstick: A History Glossed Over." Palm Beach Post, December 12, 1998. 1D. Business Dateline. ProQuest.
  • Guerlain. "Guerlain's $62,000 KissKiss Gold and Diamonds Lipstick." PR Newswire. November 8, 2007.,+06:00+AM
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  • Henderson, Diedtra. "Proposal aimed at reducing mad cow risk in human, animal drugs." AP Online. September 22, 2004.
  • Johnson, Rita. "What's That Stuff?: Lipstick." Chemical & Engineering News. July 12, 1999. Volume 77, Number 28.
  • Jolique. "The Evils of Artifice: Cosmetic Use in Europe from the Baroque Age to the Victorian Age." Jolique: Exploring Dress and Culture. October 15, 1999.
  • Lesley, Vicki. "The homemade homemaker: ethical lipstick." Guardian News and Media Limited. October 28, 2007.
  • Mikkelson, Barbara and David. "Easily Lead." November 12, 2008.
  • Morris, Desmond. "Chapter 8: The Lips." The Naked Woman. London: St. Martin's Griffin. February 20, 2007.
  • Pallingston, Jessica. "Lipstick: A Celebration of the World's Favorite Cosmetic." New York: St. Martin's Press, December 15, 1998.
  • Ragas, Meg Cohen, and Karen Kozlowski. "Read My Lips: A Cultural History of Lipstick." San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Press, 1998.
  • Ricks, Delthia. "FDA: Food Makers to Acknowledge Bug-Based Additives." WPIX News. January 8, 2009.
  • Schaffer, Sara. "Reading Our Lips: The History of Lipstick Regulation in Western Seats of Power." Legal Electronic Document Archive, Harvard Law School Library. May 19, 2006.
  • Scott, Brendan and Chuck Bennett. "She's a 'Pit Bull with Lipstick'." New York Post, September 4, 2008.
  • Sinderbrand, Rebecca, et al. "'Lipstick on a pig': Attack on Palin or common line?" CNN. September 10, 2008.
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