Is mineral makeup really natural?

Getting Beautiful Skin Image Gallery Mineral makeup is the cosmetic industry's latest beauty cure-all. See more pictures of getting beautiful skin.

­­When it comes to the pursuit of beauty, people are willing to go to pretty extreme lengths. Thousands of dollars in surgery, botulism, or "Botox," injections and face creams made of caviar and crushed pearls have become par for the course.

So when the cosmetics industry announced a new type of makeup that costs between $10 and $50 a jar that's supposed to create the appearance of a perfect complexion while making skin healthier in the long run, women got excited. No matter that it has actually been around since the '70s: Mineral makeup is the early-21st century beauty cure-all.


That is, at least according to the multibillion dollar cosmetics industry, which spends about 25 percent of its revenue on marketing and about 2 percent on research and development [source: Rastogi]. With that balance, it's hard to know what's true.

In this article, we'll find out what mineral makeup is and what it isn't, and we'll explore the pros and cons of the latest cosmetics revolution.

First: What's the big idea behind "mineral makeup?"

­Ideally, mineral makeup is exactly what it sounds like: cosmetics made mostly of naturally occurring minerals mined from the earth. Minerals like zinc oxide, iron oxide, titanium dioxide, mica and ultramarine are ground up into fine particles and used to make powders and foundations. These minerals provide not only pigment, but also sun prote­ction and anti-inflammatory effects.

The other big selling point for mineral makeup is purity. The products are supposed to be natural so they're nonirritating and healthier than conventional cosmetics. If you buy mineral makeup, you expect it to be free of controversial ingredients like parabens and phthalates (see How Natural Cosmetics Work), as well as synthetic dyes and fragrances that can harm sensitive skin. That's where things get a bit hairy.

When it comes to mineral makeup, how pure is "pure?" 




Mineral Makeup Marketing Claims

Some mineral makeup contains bismuth oxychloride, an ingredient that's a known irritant.

Is mineral makeup really pure and natural? As with most big-business marketing claims, there's no simple answer. The terms "pure" and "natural" are neither standardized nor regulated in cosmetics, so companies can pretty much say whatever they want.

Some products are what they seem -- made of all-natural minerals. Some aren't natural at all. The minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have been common in foundations and powders for decades; technically, any makeup with those ingredients can call itself "mineral makeup" and be legally correct. You might look at the ingredient list of a mineral foundation and find synthetic preservatives like phthalates or parabens in it; you might find synthetic binders and fillers. There's just no way to know until you look, since labeling in the industry is pretty loose.


So let's say you pick up a pot of "100 Percent Pure" Bare Minerals foundation and check the ingredients. It says: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, bismuth oxychloride, mica and iron oxides. Sounds pretty natural, right? No parabens, no phthalates, no FD&C Yellow.

But there's a problem here that you'll find in many top-selling mineral makeup brands. The problem is bismuth oxychloride.

Bismuth oxychloride is a mineral, but it's not a natural one. It's a metal derivative, most commonly obtained as a byproduct of lead or copper smelting. It has been used in cosmetics for years to impart a shimmering glow. That glow is a big selling point in mineral makeup, and you'll find this synthetic powder in many brands that claim to be all natural. Bismuth is naturally occurring; bismuth oxychloride is not.

The other problem with bismuth oxychloride is that it's a known irritant. It can cause itchiness, rashes and can even trigger acne breakouts in people with sensitive skin. While this powder is in many cosmetics, in mineral makeup it's a particular problem because mineral makeup is specifically marketed to people with sensitive skin.

It's easy enough to find mineral makeup that doesn't use bismuth oxychloride. Just a few companies with bismuth-free products are Jane Iredale, Mineral Silk and Erth. But there's something else to keep in mind: In makeup, "natural" doesn't necessarily mean "good." Powder makeup in general, and perhaps especially mineral makeup, can make older skin look worse by settling into wrinkles. What's more, some perfectly natural minerals like mica and talc are problematic. Mica can cause micro-tears and irritation in sensitive skin; talc is both an irritant and a carcinogen. But don't worry -- you can find lots of products marketed as mica- and talc-free, too. In cosmetics, there's something for every paying customer.

For more information on mineral makeup and related topics, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Bismuth oxychloride. Truth in Aging.
  • Bouchez, Colette. "The Lowdown on Mineral Makeup." WebMD.
  • Elliot, Jessica. "Cosmetics veteran gives tips on best inexpensive makeup." The Dallas Morning News. March 9, 2009.
  • Kaylor, Annalise. "Mineral makeup for the over-40 set." Examiner. March 15, 2009.
  • Valhouli, Christina. "Makeup, Excavated From a Mine." The New York Times. Aug. 24, 2006.