What's in Your Makeup?

We deconstruct the five essentials you use every day. Plus how to apply it and when to throw it away.

Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on September 25, 2022
photo of makeup powder

Smoky-eyed vixen. Preppy and polished. Classic and understated. Retro goddess. We may change up our makeup styles, but do you know what's in it?

A leading dermatologist, cosmetic chemists, and celebrity makeup artists give us an up-close look at what's in the five most commonly used makeup products and offers expert tips and advice.

What's in it:

Hundreds of different foundations are on the market in an increasingly diverse range of shades. They all contain three basic groups of ingredients: moisturizers, colorants, and fillers. There are some differences: Pressed powder foundations typically don't contain water, says cosmetic chemist Ni'Kita Wilson, vice president of research and innovation at Englewood Lab, while liquid foundations are closer cousins to lotions and creams.

"Foundations are becoming the last 'treatment' product in your beauty arsenal," Wilson says. Makeup bases formulated for dry skin contain moisturizing ingredients like glycerides, squalane, and oils -- including jojoba, sesame, and avocado oils. Formulas created to control oil sop up shine with absorbent powders such as silica, alumina, cornstarch, and talc. Some combine hyaluronic acid, which is a powerful hydrator, with peptides and botanicals to plump up skin and hide fine lines. 

Best application technique:

Your fingers may be convenient, but for streak- and blotch-free application of foundation, reach for a makeup sponge, suggests New York makeup artist Kimara Ahnert, whose Manhattan makeup and skin care salon attracts celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow, Brooke Shields, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Cameron Diaz. "You'll be able to blend your foundation much more evenly with a sponge," she says, "and prevent it from caking or settling into fine lines." 

Don't dip the sponge into your foundation. Instead, use a cotton swab to apply a stripe of foundation on both cheeks and across the forehead, and tiny dots on the bridge of the nose and the chin. Then, blend with the sponge. If your skin is dry from retinol skin care products, dampen the sponge to prevent these flakey patches from "grabbing" the foundation, Ahnert says.

When to ditch it:

If you use your liquid or cream foundation sparingly, that 1-ounce jar might last years. But even if it's half full, Wilson suggests tossing it after 12 to 18 months. One telltale sign that your foundation is past its expiration date is an "off" odor. "That's telling you the natural oils in the product are rancid," Wilson says. If the color looks uneven in the bottle, that's evidence the ingredients are separating. Powder foundations should be good for about two years after you open them. 

The doctor says ...

Avoid foundations with diazolidinyl urea or imidazolidinyl urea, both preservatives. "They release formaldehyde, which can be irritating to sensitive skin," says Adam Friedman, MD, director of dermatologic research for New York City's Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

What's in it:

Flirting, a bawdy joke, or the revelation of your embarrassing childhood nickname may bring on a natural blush. Cosmetics companies aim to do that by relying on FDA-approved colorants. Typically, three or four of these pigments are combined to create a shade. Chemists add fillers, such as talc and stearic (a natural fatty acid), to dilute the pigments and make that brushed-on blush appear believable, or at least not clownish. Finally, concealing pigments, including mica, zinc oxide, and titanium oxide, "block your natural skin color," says Perry Romanowski, a Chicago cosmetic chemist, "so the blush you apply will be bright and true."

How to apply it:

For the most flattering placement of blush, consider the structure of your face, says Dallas makeup artist Penny Sadler. "If your face is wide, you can make it appear thinner by placing the blush right on the apples of your cheeks and not extending it toward your temples." Do the opposite to make a narrow face look fuller: Apply blush on the outer edges of the apple -- align the starting point with the pupil of your eye -- then sweep your brush toward your hairline.

When to ditch it:

Cosmetic companies test blush to help it remain stable for about 12 months once opened, says Romanowski. But let your cheeks speak. If the color is looking muddy, the red pigment in the blush is likely starting to break down, causing the shade to read as browner. Plus, says Romanowski, "it won't spread as easily, so you may end up with streaks." Powder blush will last two years or so and cream blush, about half that time.

What's in it:

Pink or plum, red, or neutral in color, all lipstick contains wax, pigment, and oil. Wax gives the lipstick its shape, pigment its color. Oils, including petrolatum, lanolin, cocoa butter, jojoba, castor, and mineral, vary by formula. The more oil, the more intense the color, so you'll find less in sheer lipsticks than in matte.  

Long-wear lipstick contains volatile solvents that deposit the pigment and then flash off, Wilson says, which is why it's hard to find one that doesn't dry out your lips. "What's eliminated are 'wet' ingredients like oils and certain emollients that could potentially cause the pigment to slide around and transfer onto wine glasses or coffee cups. Unfortunately, those are the same ingredients that are moisturizing to the lips!"

Hybrid lipsticks

"Hybrid" lipsticks are a cross between a balm and a gloss, conditioning lips while depositing a sheer veil of color. "There are times a woman doesn't want a very pigmented lip, but she still wants that pop of color," says Hollywood makeup artist Brett Freedman, "and that's what these shiny balms deliver. They have a translucent, lollipop-like finish that's very modern looking." Lots of brands are rolling out these shiny balms, in chubby pencil form or traditional twist-up bullets. Look for words like "glossy balm," "almost lipstick," and "sheer tint" in the lipstick's name.

When to ditch it:

If you haven't used up a lipstick or gloss after a year, you should give it the heave-ho, Friedman suggests. "Preservatives break down in about 12 months," he says, "and that can lead to bacterial contamination or irritation."

What's in it:

Here's what it takes to lengthen and fatten your fringe: iron oxide, a metallic pigment that darkens lashes; triethanolamine, an emulsifier that allows the mascara to stick to lashes; waxes and polymers that form a film to thicken lashes; and a preservative, such as phenoxyethanol, to prevent contamination by pesky microbes. Waterproof formulas swap water for a silicone ingredient, such as cyclopentasiloxane, which repels moisture. It's also the ingredient that makes waterproof mascara so tough to remove.

Use an oil-based eye makeup remover -- or, in a pinch, a cotton pad soaked in baby oil, says Ahnert. Gently press the pad against your lashes for a few seconds, then wipe the pad across your eyelid.

How to apply it:

If you always end up with a clumpy fringe no matter what brand of mascara you try, that's likely because your lashes grow close together, says makeup artist Freedman. Wipe extra product off the mascara brush by swiping it across a tissue. "That way you'll darken and lengthen lashes without the danger of ending up with a glop of product gluing your lashes together," Freedman says.

Still got clumps? Clean them up by running a spooly brush -- you can find disposable ones at beauty stores -- through your lashes while they're still wet.

Some mascaras promise to deliver thicker, longer lashes and also to stimulate lash growth with so-called lash-enhancing botanicals and other ingredients. That claim is a stretch, says Wilson. "For lash enhancers to work, they need to be applied to the base of your lashes, not the actual lashes themselves," she says. "Unless you're lining your eyes with mascara, you should purchase a lash-enhancing product separately."

When to ditch it:

Protect the health of your eyes by replacing your mascara every four months, Friedman says.

What's in it:

Whether you're creating a smoky eye or simply sweeping a veil of taupe along your lids, the eye shadow you apply will likely contain talc and mica, both fillers, as the two main ingredients. Binders, such as zinc stearate or kaolin clay, hold the formula together and help the shadow stick to your skin. Ingredients such as bismuth oxychloride and dimethicone also improve "slip" and adhesion, so the powder glides over your skin and stays where you put it. Iron oxides, which show up on labels as Colour Index 77510 or Blue 1 Lake, are what give shadows their hue.

Cream shadows add waxes and oils to the base. Shadows in stick form are the trickiest, Wilson says. "You don't want shadow to crumble as you apply it, but you also want to eliminate drag," she says, "so it's extremely important to have the right balance of waxes, binders, pigment, and emollients."

Line the lower eye?

Some people are concerned that doing this will make their eyes look smaller or accentuate dark circles under their eyes. A solution: Line your lower eyelid with powder eye shadow in a lighter shade than you use on your upper eyelid.  

When to ditch it:

Pressed-powder eye shadow can last two years, Friedman says. Cream or stick varieties should be tossed after six months. But if you have highly sensitive skin, it's a good idea to replace all your makeup products every three to four months, he says.  

The doctor says ...

If your lids get itchy or red when you wear eye shadow, switch to earth-toned hues. "These contain fewer dyes and are less likely to irritate the skin," Friedman says.

When you're ready to remove your makeup, cleansing cloths are one way to start, says makeup artist Kimara Ahnert. But "these cloths just take care of surface makeup and grime," Ahnert says. "It's best to follow them with a good cleanser to nourish and treat the skin and make sure you're not leaving behind dirt or product that could clog pores."

Never flush cleansing cloths or cosmetic wipes down the toilet, even if they're labeled as "flushable" -- they can clog plumbing.


Show Sources


CosmeticsInfo.org: "Ferric ammonium ferrocyanide."

Ni'Kita Wilson, cosmetics chemist; vice president of research and innovation, Englewood Lab, Englewood, N.J.

Perry Romanowski, cosmetics chemist, Chicago, Ill.

Kimara Ahnert, makeup artist, owner, Kimara Ahnert Makeup Studio, New York, N.Y.

Brett Freedman, makeup artist, Hollywood, Calif.

Penny Sadler, makeup artist, Dallas, Texas.

Adam Friedman, MD, director of dermatologic research, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, N.Y.

School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Madison: "A Patient's Guide to MRI and MRA."

WebMD Feature: "The Makeup of Makeup: Decoding Foundation."

WebMD Feature: "The Makeup of Makeup:  Decoding Lipstick."

WebMD Feature:  "The Makeup of Makeup: Decoding Mascara."

WebMD Feature:  "The Makeup of Makeup: Decoding Eye Shadow."

Cohen, M and Kozlowski, K. Read My Lips:  A Cultural History of Lipstick, Chronicle Books, 1998.

Meyer, C. Being Beautiful: The Story of Cosmetics from Ancient Art to Modern Science, William Morrow, 1977.

City of San Luis Obispo, CA: "No Wipes Down the Pipes."

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