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A Guide to Mineral Makeup

In mid-1970s San Francisco, a modest little cosmetic revolution was born. It was called “mineral makeup”. Fast forward a few decades and mineral makeup is just another part of the cosmetics market – the latest addition to an emerging beauty culture seemingly dedicated to healthier living. Everyone is getting in on the trend. Brands who had quietly been making mineral cosmetics for decades now find themselves in competition with some of the most famous cosmetic brands in the world. So what is mineral makeup all about?

A mineral is a solid inorganic substance found naturally occurring in the earth. Coal, kaolin, diamond, pumice, talc and zinc are just a few of the commonly known minerals from a list of several thousand.

Minerals have a definite chemical composition, a crystalline structure and are inert, meaning that they cannot sustain any life.

After being removed from the earth by mining, the raw minerals are separated from the other mined materials (like ores). They are then purified and crushed into fine powders. This forms microscopic crystals which can then be used in cosmetics. Some have to undergo various processes to produce the required compound used as an ingredient. For example, the mineral zinc is vapourised to combine it with oxygen to create zinc oxide.

What is Mineral Makeup?

In our mind, there are three main groups of cosmetics referred to as “mineral makeup”. The division is simply down to the ingredients the makeup brand chooses to use in their products:
  • Loose powder made from just a few mineral ingredients such as titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, iron oxide and mica. These products are free of all other ingredients, including preservatives, artificial colours, synthetic fragrances and bismuth oxychloride, though some may use botanical extracts in their formulations. They come as loose, finely-milled powders and we feel it is the purest definition of “mineral makeup”.
  • Loose powder made from just a few mineral ingredients plus bismuth oxychloride. It is the inclusion of the ingredient bismuth oxycholoride that causes much controversy. It is used by some manufacturers 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 really 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 to produce a range of colours for foundations, eyeshadows, bronzers and blushers. These loose mineral products usually come in a sifter pot and are applied with a foundation brush, usually a Kabuki or a flat-topped brush.

Mineral Ingredients

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 are titanium dioxide, iron oxide, zinc oxide and mica. They provide a wide range of matte and glossy colour pigments:

  • Titanium oxide – protects skin from UVA and UVB radiation. Also used as whitener and emulsifier. Is considered no risk of skin sensitivity.
  • Zinc oxide – provides natural sunscreen properties, is matte and gives coverage. Used as whitener and as an emulsifier. Is considered no risk of skin sensitivity.
  • Iron oxides – are used for colouring and come in red, green, brown, black and yellow. Mixed to form a variety of colours and skin tones from light to dark.
  • 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 aluminum) used in cosmetics for its absorbent properties, make it a popular ingredient for oily skin.

While minerals do occur naturally in the earth, many cosmetic-grade mineral ingredients are produced synthetically. Those that are actually mined from the earth undergo lots of processing to create the ingredient and purity required.

Bismuth Oxychloride

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 many people feel it can trigger skin irritation, causing it to break out in a rash or itch uncontrollably.

If you have used mineral makeup and had a bad reaction, check the ingredients. If bismuth oxychloride (or bismuth chloride oxide) is in there, it’s possibly the culprit of your skin’s irritation.

Bismuth oxychloride is an inorganic chemical compound commonly used in a wide range of cosmetics. It is used as a filler, a white pigment and to create a pearl-like silvery sheen (“pearlescence”) in makeup. Some companies use it because it gives the skin a magnificent glow and some use it because of its bulking properties.

It can be found naturally in the rare mineral bismoclit. 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.

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

As well as the purity of the ingredients, the texture of loose, powdered mineral makeup is equally as important. It is the finely-milled ingredients that create the light and airy feel of a mineral makeup.

Fine mineral crystals overlap each other on the skin, forming a filter that allows the skin to breathe and function normally. It also helps to protect skin from airborne pollutants and sun damage.

Microscopic particles help to give the ultra-smooth coverage of mineral makeup – one of the factors that makes it so popular. However, another controversial aspect of some mineral makeups is the size of the particles achieved through the manufacturing process. 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 on 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 too 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, on the other hand, find minerals drying, irritating and say it accentuate 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.

Basically, 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 – even a good quality natural cosmetic doesn’t carry a 100% guarantee. However, the likelihood of a reaction is less likely than products with a long list of ingredients. The most irritating ingredients in standard cosmetics, 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 people.
  • 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, the brushes used to apply the minerals can still harbour bacteria, so clean your brushes properly. If you use the lid of your product to decant the minerals, then keep it clean too.
  • Long shelf life – loose minerals last a long time and don’t go off like traditional liquid and cream formulations. Cream and liquid mineral products contain ingredients like water, wax and oil which will eventually go off.
  • Anti-inflammatory properties – zinc oxide has anti-inflammatory properties and can have a calming effect on the skin. Some dermatologists believe that mineral cosmetics are a better option for those recovering from chemical peels, laser treatments and cosmetic surgery. Reading various dermatology-related forums on the internet, some people with rosacea and acne have had positive experiences with pure mineral makeup, especially the ones without bismuth oxychloride.
  • It provides some UV protection – titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are used in many regular sunscreens to provide natural broad–spectrum protection against UVA and UVB radiation. This means that, while these minerals do naturally offer some sun protection, the actual level of protection is not guaranteed without an official SPF rating. Also it is about application. Sunscreen advice says “apply liberally” and mineral makeup is not generally applied liberally. Nor is it usually applied to other exposed areas of your skin. If you want to guarantee protection for your skin against UV radiation, use a sunscreen and then do your makeup.
  • It feels light and looks natural – for some, liquid or cream foundations feel too heavy and mask-like. Mineral makeup has a light texture and, even when applied to give more coverage, a natural look is still achieved.
  • Ease of use – you only need a small amount of product and it goes on quickly and blends easily with a bit of buffing. However, it can also be messy. All those loose powders can get free from the pot if you’re not careful. Tip: when you first get your new mineral pot, don’t rip off the clear plastic cover over the sifter holes. Just pierce a few holes, enough to get product out, but keeping the flood at bay.
  • Sheer to fuller coverage – go sheer or build up to 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 really well, rarely needing a 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, so there’s less chance of them sliding off your face in the heat.
  • 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. There’s also no need to use animal hair brushes these days, as there are lots of good quality synthetic makeup brushes available. A variety of taklon or nylon brushes are available from many companies.
A small selection of colours that loose mineral makeup foundation, eyeshadow and blusher comes in.

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 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 test on animals and a few are even “leaping bunny” certified. We’ve listed them as we’ve used various items from them and they’ve worked for us. But, it is the same old case of try before you buy. To avoid certain ingredients, read the ingredients list. If you can, try a sample or a free makeover in a store before you spend.

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1 thought on “A Guide to Mineral Makeup”

  1. I never like it when girls seem to have makeup caked on. I like that you mentioned that mineral products have a more natural and light look to them. I feel like that is the look women should be going for.

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