Is mineral makeup really natural?

By: Julia Layton

Mineral Makeup Marketing Claims

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

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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.