The Makeup of Makeup: Decoding Foundation

It might be the most basic cosmetic, but its history and innovations may surprise you.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 07, 2012
3 min read

What’s in the base on your face? Modern day foundations have a rich history that paved their journey toward the remarkable skin-improving ingredients and formulas used today.

The First Foundation

Ancient Greeks and Romans wore versions of foundation containing high levels of white lead and mercury -- a formula that caused lethal poisoning. Nevertheless, extremely white skin remained popular into the 1800s. It represented class and privilege.

Stage Presence: Greasepaint

Modern foundation has its beginnings in the theater. Carl Baudin, a German actor, mixed a paste of zinc, ochre, and lard to hide the joint between his wig and forehead. Other actors liked his concoction so much that Baudin called it greasepaint and sold it commercially.

Not for Breakfast: Pan-Cake Makeup

In 1914, Max Factor introduced his Pan-Cake makeup to make movie actors appear more realistic in close-ups. His version of greasepaint looked more like skin and was the first makeup created for film. Factor's Pan-Cake eventually spawned other foundations and makeup for women who weren't actors.

Base Camp: Foundation Ingredients

Cosmetic chemist Nick Morante says that no matter what form it's in (solid, liquid, or spray), foundation contains the same main ingredients-- moisturizers, colorants, and fillers. The base is usually water, oil, or wax. Talc, which helps color spread evenly and makes the product go on the skin smoothly, is the most common filler. Pigments include iron oxides and titanium dioxide in various shades of red, yellow, and black to help re-create natural skin tone.

Dual Purpose: Using Foundation for Skin Care

Certain ingredients in foundation can help treat some underlying skin issues, Morante says. Foundations that contain kaolin clay and absorbent powders such as silica, alumina, cornstarch, or talc will help control oil and prevent shine. Dry skin will benefit from ingredients such as avocado oil, sesame oil, jojoba oil, squalane, or glycerides (look for them listed first in the ingredients). Foundations that contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide offer another way to fight blemishes.

Special Effects: High-Definition Foundation

The most recent advancements in foundation are "high-definition" products that claim to cover skin imperfections to get skin camera-ready. The main difference between these products and previous versions involves light-scattering ingredients such as mica, silicone, crystals, or quartz. Diffusing light creates an illusion of an even finish so you can't detect the flaws beneath. HD makeup formulas are often designed to moisturize because makeup can settle into cracks and creases, especially for those with dry complexions. The hydration also plumps up dry skin to make wrinkles and lines less noticeable.

The Perfect Match: Choosing Foundation Colors

Makeup artist Carmindy, an expert on TLC's What Not to Wear, offers this tip for finding the best foundation color for your skin. Find your perfect match by selecting a few shades. Apply each on your jawline and look at the results in daylight. Foundation should blend with no noticeable pigment lines. Don't test on your hands or arm -- the color on your face will not match.