In the mid-1970s San Francisco, a modest little cosmetic revolution was born called mineral makeup. Fast forward a few decades and mineral makeup is just another part of the cosmetics market. Nowadays, brands that had quietly been making mineral cosmetics for decades find themselves in competition with some of the most famous cosmetic brands in the world. This post looks at what mineral makeup is and what it is made of.
What are Minerals?
A mineral is a solid inorganic substance found naturally occurring in the earth. For example, coal, kaolin, diamond, talc, and zinc are just a few of the commonly known minerals from a list of several thousand.
Minerals have a definite chemical composition. They also have a crystalline structure and are inert, meaning they cannot sustain any life.
Minerals are obtained from the earth by mining. The raw mineral is separated from any other mined materials (like ore) and purified.
For cosmetic use, the raw mineral is crushed into fine powders. This forms microscopic crystals which can then be used in makeup.
Some may have to undergo various processes to produce the required compound that can be used as an ingredient. For example, the mineral zinc is vaporised to combine it with oxygen to create zinc oxide.
What is Mineral Makeup?
- Loose powder made from just a few mineral ingredients such as titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and mica. These products are free of all other ingredients, including preservatives, artificial colours, synthetic fragrances, and bismuth oxychloride. They come packaged as loose, finely-milled powders and we feel these products are the purest form of mineral makeup.
- Loose powder made from just a few mineral ingredients plus bismuth oxychloride. It is the inclusion of the ingredient bismuth oxychloride that causes some controversy. It is used by some brands who still label its products as pure or natural – and the purists are not impressed. More about this ingredient in a bit.
- Makeup with some mineral content. As mineral makeup became popular, canny marketing departments are quick to label anything with a hint of mineral as mineral makeup. These products have additional ingredients, anything from oils, waxes, preservatives, fillers, artificial colours to fragrance. Ultimately making their mineral products not that much different to their standard products. These products are fairly easy to weed out by checking the ingredients listed on the label.
Therefore, mineral makeup in its purest form is a fine loose powder comprised only of a few mineral ingredients. These are combined in varying amounts to produce a wide range of colours for makeup products.
Loose mineral products usually come in a sifter pot and are applied with a foundation brush, usually a Kabuki or a flat-topped brush ideal for applying powders.
Minerals and mineral compounds have been used in cosmetics for thousands of years, including some we wouldn’t use today, like lead.
Common mineral ingredients used in mineral makeup include:
- Titanium oxide – protects the skin from UVA and UVB radiation. Also used as a whitener and emulsifier. Is considered to be of no risk of skin sensitivity.
- Zinc oxide – provides natural sunscreen properties, is matte and gives coverage. Used as a whitener and as an emulsifier. Is considered to be of no risk of skin sensitivity.
- Iron oxides – come in various colours and, therefore, they are used for colouring makeup products.
- Mica – is a lightweight silicate mineral with reflective and refractive qualities, which adds shimmer and shine to the product’s finish.
- Kaolin – is a naturally occurring clay mineral (silicate of aluminium) used in cosmetics for its absorbent properties, make it a popular ingredient for products designed for oily skin.
Together, these minerals provide a wide range of matte and glossy colour pigments.
While minerals do occur naturally in the earth, many cosmetic-grade mineral ingredients are produced synthetically. Those that are mined from the earth undergo lots of processing to create the raw mineral ingredient with the purity required.
Google “bismuth oxychloride” and you’ll get mountains of articles about this ingredient. It has become a controversial ingredient when used in mineral makeup, as some people feel it can trigger skin irritation, causing it to break out in a rash or itch uncontrollably. However, others can use this ingredient with no issue at all.
If you have used mineral makeup and had a bad reaction, the first thing to do is to check the ingredients. If bismuth oxychloride (or bismuth chloride oxide) is in there, it could be the culprit of your skin’s irritation.
So, what is bismuth oxychloride? Quite simply, it is an inorganic chemical compound commonly used in a wide range of cosmetic products for various reasons. For example, it can be used as a filler to bulk up a product, or as a white pigment. It is also used to create a pearl-like silvery sheen in makeup, known as “pearlescence”. This sheen gives the skin a magnificent glow, so it’s easy to see why some brands put it into their makeup.
Bismuth oxychloride can be found naturally in the rare mineral bismoclite. However, the majority of bismuth oxychloride is manufactured by combining bismuth (a by-product of processing mined metals like lead and copper) with chloride.
It is also this “man-made” process that some people find objectionable, as it contradicts their “pure ethos” view of mineral makeup.
Generally speaking, it may be best to avoid using products that contain bismuth oxychloride if you have damaged or sensitive skin, or if you simply like to stick to ingredients you trust.
Mineral Makeup Particle Sizes
The finely-milled texture of loose, powdered mineral makeup is what creates the light and airy feel. The tiny mineral crystals overlap each other on the skin, giving an ultra-smooth coverage. At the same time, it forms a filter that allows the skin to breathe and function normally. It also helps to protect skin from airborne pollutants and sun damage.
However, the size of the particles used in makeup can be controversial. Some brands use ingredients that are processed so finely that nanoparticles are created.
Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating matter at an atomic and molecular level. Yes – tiny! It is a relatively new science and it raises the same issues as any new technology, including safety, toxicity and environmental impact.
Some researchers believe that reducing the molecule size to the level of a nanoparticle can impact how that substance behaves. Minerals like zinc and titanium are safe when applied to healthy skin, but in micronized nanoparticle form there remains a concern, particularly when applied to damaged skin or when inhaled.
Much research has yet to be carried out on nanoparticle use in cosmetics. Calls for tighter regulation of nanotechnology have risen, along with the growing debate about its safety and the need for clear labelling on products that use them.
Is Mineral Makeup for Everyone?
Like all cosmetic products, mineral makeup also has its fans and its critics.
- Fans love the easy-to-apply, natural-looking and long-lasting glow. People with sensitive skin like the fact they can use makeup without fear of an allergic reaction.
- Critics find mineral makeup drying, irritating and that it accentuates wrinkles. Also, some colours may have an ashy undertone – a particular problem for darker skin tones.
In theory, mineral makeup is suitable for everyone – all ages, skin tones and skin types. Of course, everyone’s skin is unique and some minerals work better for some people than others. As each brand uses different combinations of ingredients, ultimately some will work better on your skin than others.
It is all about trying different brands to see what works. Most makeup brands have free or cheap samples available, and makeovers at retail outlets allow you to try a product for free to see if it meets your requirements.
Attributes of Mineral Makeup
Cosmetic companies are great at marketing and using clever word trickery to woo us into buying their products. Ignoring all the jargon, what can loose, powdered mineral makeup do for us and our skin?
- Virtually no risk of allergy or irritation – no cosmetic carries a 100% guarantee. However, the likelihood of a reaction is less likely than products with lots of ingredients. The most irritating ingredients like fragrance and preservatives aren’t found in pure mineral makeup. Watch out for the ingredient bismuth oxychloride which may cause skin irritation for some.
- Doesn’t grow nasty bugs – as minerals are inert materials they cannot support any life, including bacteria. Hence, there’s no need for preservatives. However, any makeup brushes used can still harbour bacteria, so clean your brushes properly. Similarly, if you decant the minerals into the lid, then keep it clean too.
- Long shelf life – loose minerals last a long time after being opened. They don’t go off like traditional liquid and cream products which contain ingredients like water, wax and oil that will deteriorate over time.
- Anti-inflammatory properties – zinc oxide has anti-inflammatory properties and can have a calming effect on the skin. This could be useful for people with certain skin issues, like rosacea for example. Some dermatologists believe that mineral cosmetics are a good option for those recovering from chemical peels, laser treatments and cosmetic surgery.
- It provides some UV sun protection – titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are used in many regular sunscreens to provide broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB radiation. This means these minerals do naturally offer some sun protection. However, the level of protection is not guaranteed without an official SPF rating.
- It feels light and looks natural – mineral makeup has a light texture and creates a natural look. Liquid or cream foundations can feel too heavy and mask-like for some people.
- Sheer to fuller coverage – go sheer or build up a fuller coverage if that’s what you want. It can also be used as a concealer. Build layers one by one to create a fuller coverage and don’t go in heavy-handed.
- Staying power – minerals last well, rarely needing a full touch-up during the day. The powders are water-resistant and they won’t crease or smear easily. Minerals last well in all weather conditions too and they last well in the heat.
- Ease of use – only a small amount of product is needed, it goes on quickly and blends easily with a bit of buffing. However, it can also be messy – the loose powder can get free from the pot if you’re not careful.
- Suitable for vegans and vegetarians – if the product consists of just mineral ingredients, then these are suitable for vegans and vegetarians. Be aware that some companies still use carmine or cochineal made from crushed beetles as a colourant, so check out ingredients.
Mineral Makeup Brands
There are lots of products formulated around minerals. They come in a variety of formulations, from the original loose powders to the more recent pressed powder, liquid and cream formulations.
Of course, going back to clever marketing, some companies will slap “mineral” on products to gear us into thinking that is somehow better for our skin than regular makeup. But there are lots of good options too.
The companies below provide a wide range of mineral makeup products. None of them tests on animals and a few are even Leaping Bunny certified. We’ve used various items from them and they’ve worked well for us.
As always, it is the same old case of “try before you buy”. Read the ingredients list to avoid certain substances. Finally, go to the store for a free makeover before you spend any money.