Everyone seems to be jumping on the mineral makeup bandwagon. "People think mineral means natural, so they are drawn to it," dermatologist Francesca Fusco, MD, says.
Many people find out about mineral makeup when they want to go "green" with their cosmetics. Cosmetic chemist Jim Hammer of Mix Solutions in Uxbridge, Mass., says, "With the current interest in safe, natural, and organic products, the mineral makeup approach is very popular. And the category appears to be continuing to grow."
But switching from conventional makeup isn't for everyone. Is it right for you?
The Ancient History of Mineral Makeup
Mineral makeup got its commercial start in the 1970s, Hammer says, "with some of the really early all-natural makeup products." But, he says, its history is as ancient as the human desire to enhance one's looks.
"Mineral makeup is a return to technologies that have been in use since ancient times," he says. "Many ancient cultures used ground-up natural minerals as a means of applying color to the skin for decoration, camouflage, war paints, etc." Cleopatra's kohl-rimmed eyes are an example. "But the history of mineral makeup no doubt goes back much farther, even to early cave-dwellers."
So who first successfully marketed the concept? One pioneer was Diane Ranger, the cosmetic chemist who founded Bare Escentuals in 1976 and later started Colorescience Pro, another mineral line. She developed her first mineral cosmetics because she felt there was a need and market for natural ingredients and a natural look and feel.
"In 1976, cosmetics firms were required to list ingredients on their products for the first time, and I was shocked at what we were putting on our skin," Ranger, who had grown up wearing heavy traditional makeup, says. "Then I went through my 'hippie girl' phase and discarded makeup along with my bra."
The growing desire for natural cosmetics coincided with the increasing number of women who identified themselves as having sensitive skin. "Add in marketing and media awareness, and an aging baby boomer," Ranger says. "All these matter."
What's in Mineral Makeup?
Minerals such as iron oxides, talc, zinc oxide, and titanium dioxide are micronized, or ground and milled, into tiny particles to create makeup.
"Different products micronize to different levels," Ranger says. "A product micronized to six times leaves minerals larger so they go on the skin with light to medium coverage. Products micronized 12 times create fine-sized particles that sit closer together and offer more coverage."
A key difference from conventional makeup is what's not in mineral makeup.
"It generally does not contain the emollient oils and waxes, fragrance, and preservative ingredients found in conventional formulations," Hammer says. "Mineral products are usually preservative-free, and since they have very low odor, they are often also fragrance-free," he says, noting that preservatives and fragrance are often what cause irritation.
To ensure you're buying a quality mineral makeup product, read the label. If it says "mineral-enriched" or if the formulation is liquid or mousse, these products may contain ingredients such as paraben preservatives or dimethicone added for a smooth texture. Items that aren't powders might also contain moisturizers, antioxidant vitamins, or other ingredients for your skin. It's your choice.
The Benefits of Mineral Makeup
The benefits of mineral makeup have many women flocking to try it -- and it isn't just all hype.
One popular claim is that it can clear up acne. Fusco says it's unlikely that mineral makeup will clear up pimples, which can be caused by many factors, including changes in hormone levels. The anti-irritating ingredients like zinc can be soothing to inflammation, but it's not likely a cure-all, she says.
The lack of the filler ingredients found in conventional makeup, however, can lead to less pore clogging. That can mean fewer breakouts, Fusco says.
"There are no studies," she says. "But if you are putting on moisturizer followed by sunscreen and then, on top of that, [putting] foundation topped with powder, you are more likely to have clogs."
"Mineral makeup doesn't make my acne worse, but it doesn't make it better," Hitzfeld says.
Fusco agrees. Despite the calming effects of zinc, she does not think mineral makeup is clearly better for acne than any other kind of cosmetics. If you have acne, she recommends using skin care products targeted to pimples.
Another claim is that mineral makeup acts as a sunscreen to protect skin from sun damage. The protective claims for zinc oxide (the white stuff your local lifeguard paints on their nose) and titanium dioxide, usually found in powder blends, do have some research behind them. The FDA has approved zinc oxide as a skin protectant and titanium dioxide as a sunscreen.
But -- and this is a big but -- no mineral makeup is going to give you enough SPF to protect you against damaging ultraviolet rays.
One brand, Colorescience Pro, claims the product has a confirmed SPF 30. But it's unclear how much powder you'd have to apply to get full protection. "Having the SPF in the mineral makeup is a benefit, but it’s extra," Fusco says.
She says not to skip sunscreen and suggests that if, for example, you are going to sit outside at lunch and don't have time to entirely reapply your face (moisturizer, sunscreen, and makeup), you can dust on a coat of mineral powder with SPF for extra protection.
Mineral Makeup: Is It Worth It?
When it comes to mineral makeup's supposed skin-soothing properties, Hammer says it is anti-inflammatory, noting that the calamine lotion you use to calm a rash is basically zinc oxide colored with iron oxide, both of which are in mineral makeup. But there's no proof of this claim or indication of how much product you need for that result.
What about the claim that it's so gentle you can sleep in it? Mineral makeup's light-as-air feel is part of what makes it so popular, and tempting to sleep in. Still, Fusco advises against sleeping in makeup of any kind to prevent clogs and irritation.
Mineral makeup might not last as long on your face or be as durable as conventional makeup because it doesn't contain standard cosmetic ingredients such as binders, waterproof polymers, and other "stick-to-your-skin" agents.
True mineral makeup is limited in its natural range of shades, so it may be difficult to find a perfect skin tone match.