How Makeup Works

By: Molly Edmonds

Image Gallery: Makeup Tips Could you live without makeup for a week? A month? A day? See more pictures of makeup tips.
Image Gallery: Makeup Tips Could you live without makeup for a week? A month? A day? See more pictures of makeup tips.
Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

In 2010, blogger Rachel Rabbit White challenged her readers to join her in a week without makeup. That meant no foundation or mascara before an important work meeting, and no lipstick before a big date. White acknowledged on her blog that the thought of a week without makeup scared her, yet it was that response to the idea that let her know that she was on the right track. Makeup had become something she had to put on to leave the house, and White wanted to understand how cosmetics had taken up such a permanent role in her life. She wanted, she wrote, to have a better relationship with cosmetics by coming to terms with why she felt she needed them.

Throughout the week, White posted pictures of women sans makeup on her blog. She also explored issues like the alleged toxicity of makeup, whether men like makeup on women and when she first started using makeup. While White blogged, her readers weighed in on the experiment. Some bloggers and blog commenters said they'd never go a day without makeup, and then they grappled with whether that made them vain or whether it meant they felt empowered or artistic in their use of makeup. Other women wrote about how they never touched makeup, and such a week would be easy -- they'd already found inner beauty or just made peace with what they saw in the mirror. Men weighed in with their opinions on makeup, both on women and on themselves.


White's experiment touched a nerve and inspired such a barrage of Internet activity because everyone has some experience with makeup, be it the decision not to wear it, the daily application of it or a partner's adoration of it. The worldwide cosmetics industry rakes in $40 billion each year, but there are some people who question what the industry sells and whether it delivers on that promise [source: Nixon]. Why do people wear makeup? Does it help someone's self-esteem to apply a product or are we all chasing unattainable ideals of beauty? Is wearing makeup good for our skin? In this article, we'll explore people's relationships with cosmetics, though unlike White's experiment, we won't ask you to take your makeup off. Whether you wear cosmetics daily or never touch the stuff, we promise you an interesting ride through the history, chemistry and psychology of makeup.

History of Makeup

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) made a public declaration that makeup was vulgar and improper, due to its connection with prostitutes.
Queen Victoria (1819-1901) made a public declaration that makeup was vulgar and improper, due to its connection with prostitutes.
FPG/Taxi/Getty Images

The first use of prototype cosmetics is usually traced back to the ancient Egyptians; many Egyptian tombs contained makeup canisters and kits. Cleopatra used lipstick that got its hue from ground carmine beetles, while other women used clay mixed with water to color their lips.

Most notable, though, was the ancient Egyptians' use of kohl. Both men and women would paint the kohl, a mixture of metal, lead, copper, ash and burnt almonds, all around their eyes -- picture a football player with grease paint under his eye combined with Tammy Faye Baker and her excessive use of mascara. The circles of kohl were meant to ward off the evil eye and dangerous spirits and were also handy in deflecting the harsh desert sun. In recent years, scientists have determined that the kohl makeup may have inadvertently helped the Egyptians ward off infectious diseases; the lead would kill off bacteria, though if the Egyptians had had longer life spans, the lead might have eventually killed them off as well [source: Bhanoo].


The ancient Greeks and Romans also painted their faces with powders made of ground-up minerals and stones, but the history of makeup becomes a little less colorful as time goes on -- quite literally. From the Middle Ages until the end of the 19th century, pale skin was in. Only prostitutes and lower class women would have dared use color on their lips, cheeks or eyes. Instead, women painted their faces, necks and chests with a lead and vinegar mixture known as ceruse. Elizabeth I of England, with her white face and large forehead (the lead in ceruse would often cause hair to fall out), is quite representative of this look, which was popular for centuries. And though women today might like to joke about how they suffer for beauty, women who used the lead-based ceruse often ended up with muscle paralysis or in their graves.

At the dawn of the 20th century though, products that we'd recognize today -- lipsticks, mascaras and nail polishes -- began to emerge. On the next page, we'll examine the birth of the modern-day makeup industry.

Makeup in the 20th Century: Max Factor Makes Women Look Like Movie Stars

Max Factor shows actress Louise Fazenda how to apply her lipstick.
Max Factor shows actress Louise Fazenda how to apply her lipstick.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At the very end of the 1800s, portrait photography became popular. People would save up to sit for the one picture they'd ever have of themselves, and applying makeup before that picture became standard. Mirrors also became more affordable at this time, and more people owned one in their homes. These two factors were important in the development of makeup, but nothing would play a greater role in the mainstream use of cosmetics than motion pictures.

When actors made the transition from stage to screen, they brought with them very heavy makeup regimens that were designed to make them visible to the very last row -- a look that didn't translate very well on camera. In 1914, Max Factor, who provided wigs to Hollywood studios, developed a greasepaint foundation that wouldn't cake or crack. The greasepaint was popular with movie stars both onscreen and off, and it marked Factor's first major success in the cosmetic industry. Factor would go on to develop lip gloss and an eyebrow pencil, and he popularized the word "makeup." In the 1920s, he began marketing his makeup to the public with the claims that they could look like their favorite movie stars.


A few years earlier, in 1915, T.L. Williams started the Maybelline Company. Williams' sister, Mabel, had what he thought was an ingenious way to make her lashes look striking -- she mixed petroleum jelly and coal dust. Williams distilled the formula into cake form and eventually found great success in selling it to the public.

Around the same time, major advancements were being made in the production of nail polish. Prior to the 1920s, nail care consisted of buffing one's nails, and buying a car meant purchasing a black one from Henry Ford. Ford used black lacquer paint on his vehicles because it dried more quickly than other colors, but other companies begin formulating fast-drying lacquer paints in multiple colors to compete. These quick-drying lacquers were co-opted by other businesses, including cosmetics companies. The main ingredient was nitrocellulose, which was also used in smokeless gun powder and false teeth.

It was Charles Revson, who co-founded Revlon, who made nail polish popular in the United States. In the 1950s, Revson spearheaded some advertising campaigns for matching nail polishes and lipsticks that are still lauded to this day. He tied the personality of his potential customer to the product, most notably in the "Fire and Ice" advertisements -- if you were the type of woman who wanted to bleach her hair platinum without her husband's consent, for example, then you were the perfect candidate for this new color of lipstick and nail polish. Revson was threatened, however, when a new kissproof lipstick entered the market to great acclaim. In the 1950s, chemist Hazel Bishop developed the formula for a lipstick that would stay put, and the success of her product resulted in "the lipstick wars" between Bishop's company and Revlon.

Ultimately, Bishop didn't prove herself to be as canny an entrepreneur as Revson and other personalities of the time. Estée Lauder was a voracious marketer who gave out free samples and gifts of the skin cream she developed with her uncle. Lauder's empire would go on to include Clinique and Origins, among other companies.

With rapidly improving products and persuasive marketing efforts, women were sold on makeup, and they haven't looked back since. But when someone picks up Maybelline mascara or Revlon lipstick, what exactly are they getting? We'll go inside the tubes on the next page.

Makeup Ingredients

Women testing lipsticks for durability
Women testing lipsticks for durability
Carsten/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While different cosmetics companies may claim to have mixed up a super-secret formula for their products that put them head and shoulders above the rest, most makeup products share the same basic ingredients. Foundations feature a moisturizing base made out of water, oil or wax, combined with a filler like talc that ensures smooth distribution over the face. There are also pigments like iron oxide included so that foundation can be matched to skin tone. Other than that, foundations may boast different ingredients for varying skin needs, such as jojoba oil for dry skin or salicylic acid for acne [source: Goins].

Eyeliners work because they feature film formers and thickeners; the film former is the line of makeup you paint around the eye, while the thickener helps the former stay there. Eyeliners also include various pigments made out of iron oxide, depending on the shade of the eyeliner [source: Goins]. Eye shadows also rely on a variety of pigments, but the main ingredients for this product are base fillers and binders. The base might be made of talc, mica or kaolin clay, but it's the binder that makes sure these ingredients stay put on your eyelids. Binders might be made out of zinc or magnesium derivatives. Eye shadows that come in cream form include waxes and oils in the base that dry on the lid for long-lasting color [source: Goins].


Mascara gets its dark color from a carbon or iron oxide pigment, and it stays put on lashes thanks to waxes and oils like lanolin, paraffin or petroleum. People attending weddings or funerals usually request waterproof mascara -- the difference between waterproof mascaras and other types is the amount of water used in creating the product. If you're looking for something that will stand up to tears, check whether water is listed in the ingredients, but don't always reach for your waterproof. Waterproof mascaras can be extremely hard to remove, so repeated use could damage your lashes [source: Goins].

Lipstick has a very short ingredients list as well -- wax, oil, moisturizers and pigment. The wax helps the lipstick hold its shape yet also allows for easy application to the lips. Beeswax, carnauba wax (from Brazilian palm trees) and candelilla wax (from the candelilla plant) are commonly used. Oils like olive oil, castor oil, mineral oil or lanolin give lipsticks their shine; less oil means more color, less sheerness. Moisturizers are a fairly new addition to lipstick concoctions. Old lipsticks used to be very cakey, but now ingredients like Vitamin E and aloe vera keep the lipstick and the lips in question moist and dewy [sources: Johnson; Goins].

After decades of trial and error, these cosmetics recipes seem perfect, though manufacturers will likely continue to tinker with formulas in the never-ending search for a competitive edge. However, cosmetics ingredients don't have the best safety record -- remember the Egyptians and their lead-containing kohl mascara? In the 20th century, certain mascaras were found to have ingredients that could blind the wearer, including turpentine and hair dye. And every few years, there's a rash of reports that lipstick contains lead. On the next page, we'll investigate the Food and Drug Administration's oversight of cosmetics and the debate about whether our makeup is safe.

Makeup Safety

When it comes to day-to-day safety, the biggest makeup threat is mascara. Mascara wands can poke the eye and scratch the cornea, which then could allow bacteria to seep into the eye. And if you don't properly remove your mascara before bed time, then it could flake and get into the eye. For maximum makeup safety, never apply mascara when moving (such as in a car on the way to work) or when your hands are full, always wash makeup off each night, keep makeup away from heat that could destroy bacteria-killing preservatives and never, ever share makeup.

But some people claim that these daily safety tips ignore the larger threat we face by putting makeup on our face and bodies, and that more must be done to police the cosmetics industry. In 1938, Congress gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) a limited role in regulating cosmetics. The FDA doesn't inspect or test cosmetics before they hit the shelves; rather, each company is responsible for ensuring their products are safe for use. "Safe for use" has generally meant that it won't cause adverse skin reactions in a large group of people. If a product hits the market and causes problems, then the company is expected to recall it, and the FDA can pursue legal action to ensure they do so. The FDA has this limited role because cosmetics have been distinguished from medicine and drugs in that they do not alter the structure of the skin or the body; any cosmetic that claims to do so would be subject to investigation or testing by the FDA.


Is this kind of oversight enough? Many critics, such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, say no, that the cosmetics industry shouldn't be allowed to self-regulate and the FDA should set more rigid definitions for what constitutes a "safe" cosmetic product. A 2007 report in the Telegraph found that women who wear cosmetics absorb nearly 5 pounds of chemicals into their bodies each year, and safety advocates say that we don't know enough yet about certain compounds in makeup to know whether such absorption is dangerous [source: Stokes].

Of particular concern to cosmetics watchdogs are lead in lipstick, parabens in skin care products and phthalates in nail polishes and fragrances. Several studies have shown that lipsticks contain varying levels of lead -- not because lead is added to the lipstick, but because it's a byproduct of the manufacturing process. If you lick your lips several times a day while wearing lipstick, how much lead would you consume? Doctors are divided on whether consuming even a negligible amount would be safe. Parabens and phthalates have been linked with reproductive problems in lab animals and in some humans, but again, doctors don't know much about the long-term effects of these compounds.

Are there any safer alternatives to makeup? And will the FDA ever take a stronger role in regulation? Keep reading to find out.

Natural Makeup

The makings of mineral makeup
The makings of mineral makeup
Susie Cushner/The Image Bank/Getty Images

In 2005, California passed the Safe Cosmetics Act, which requires cosmetics manufacturers to disclose their products' ingredients that are also on a watch list as potentially dangerous to people. The European Union and Canada have stringent rules about ingredients in cosmetics as well, so some advocates have claimed that it's time for the U.S. to have a federal law regulating cosmetics safety. In 2010, representatives introduced a bill that would give the FDA more power over the cosmetics industry.

The bill wasn't dealt with before that congressional session closed, so it's currently awaiting re-introduction to the House. The reaction to the bill was quite interesting though. Small manufacturers specializing in handmade, organic products claimed that the requirements of the bill would put them out of business, despite the fact that they might have the safest products [source: Byrnes]. While advocates of the bill claimed that these small businesses would look desirable to consumers when compared to bigger offenders, the business owners claimed that the massive amount of paperwork would doom their enterprises.


Some people aren't waiting for the FDA or legislators to take a stronger role. Instead, they seek out organic or natural makeup. These products lack the preservatives and fragrances that may contain harmful ingredients in mainstream cosmetics, but it's important to remember that the FDA hasn't defined "organic" or "natural," which means that anyone can slap that label on their product. Dermatologists also warn that certain plant extracts can cause skin irritation or could even prove poisonous [source: Singer].

A popular option for natural makeup devotees is mineral makeup, which is made from naturally occurring minerals such as zinc, lapis lazuli and titanium dioxide that are ground into a fine powder. Mineral makeup often comes with the claim that it's better for skin, though that hasn't been definitively proven. This type of makeup is free from fragrances and oils that can irritate the skin, and it contains zinc, which is good for your epidermis, but it's likely not the treatment for acne that some companies promise. Mineral makeup also doesn't provide long-lasting coverage.

The battle for safe and environmentally friendly makeup will likely continue for years to come, as consumers protest everything from animal testing to reports of makeup toxicity to even whether makeup packaging can be recycled. But if we're so unsure about whether what we put on our faces is healthy, why do it at all?

Psychology of Makeup

For many women, the ritual of putting on makeup and the camaraderie of doing so with friends is one of the best things about cosmetics.
For many women, the ritual of putting on makeup and the camaraderie of doing so with friends is one of the best things about cosmetics.
Peter Dazeley/Photodisc/Getty Images

Beauty and humans' pursuit of it can be a tricky subject to unravel. What makes one person's face more appealing than another's face? Isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder? Is beauty attained through the use of products true beauty or a falsification?

Researchers believe that we all come programmed with beauty detectors, and we're wired to seek out appealing faces, no matter the culture in which we live. There have been countless studies in which participants rate the attractiveness of faces, which has led researchers to conclude that beauty could be distilled to a mathematical formula -- we appreciate symmetrical faces, in which the nose is so many millimeters from the eyes, in which the lips are in the right spot between the nose and the chin. These standards are different for male faces than for female faces. Researchers also believe that we're wired to find youth more attractive than old age, particularly when it comes to choosing a mate; after all, if you select a woman too old to bear your children, your line dies out, evolutionarily speaking.


Makeup, then, researchers believe, is a way to highlight and amplify female features and youth. Men and women have similar faces until puberty, at which point hormones like testosterone give men angular faces with prominent brows and noses. In comparison, women have smaller noses, prominent cheekbones, longer eyelashes and plumper lips, and their eyes seem bigger because of the lack of a prominent brow. Makeup plays up these female features, thus advertising an absence of male hormones [source: Etcoff]. Eye shadows, eyeliners and mascara all make those small eyes pop. Blush emphasizes the cheekbones, and lipstick shows off plump lips. Foundations and concealers help us present smooth skin, a sign of youth and health. These may be subliminal ways that women demonstrate their gender and their youth to potential partners. All of these cosmetics may be an evolutionary urge to show off our most feminine traits so that we can attain a universal beauty ideal.

Of course, while we might be born with innate beauty standards, beauty ideals are shaped by external forces such as advertising and pop culture. Would we care so much about the shape of our eyebrows if we didn't see certain starlets or models rake in millions for their appearances? It's these external pressures that particularly grate the nerves of women's rights advocates. We'll explore the tricky relationship between makeup and feminism on the next page.

Feminists and Makeup

When second-wave feminism swept across the U.S. in the late 1960s and '70s, feminists urged their fellow women to discard anything that men might use to objectify them. By putting on makeup and dressing in a certain way, these feminists argued, women were only submitting to a patriarchal culture that sought to exploit them for their beauty, not their brain. Stop trying to appeal to men with makeup and fashion was the rallying cry of radical feminists.

The feminists' arguments didn't go over as well as they might have hoped. Some women feared that if they gave up on lipstick, they'd be branded as ugly fringe radicals. Some women believed that a socially appropriate appearance -- one that included makeup -- was important for the workplace, where women were fighting tooth and nail to get ahead, though the argument of how feminine a woman in the workplace can be continues to this day. And some women may have acknowledged that while they wore lipstick to attract a man, they also wore it for themselves. It was fun, it was art, and they didn't think they should have to give that up, even if there was a whiff of sexism to the practice.


Today, feminists are still divided on the makeup issue. On the one hand, the issue of choice is important to many feminists, which means that a woman should be able to decide to wear makeup for herself without anyone else assuming that she's a floozy. On the other hand, many men and women are concerned about the messages implied within cosmetics advertising and television shows. They argue that women are being sold the idea that they're imperfect and need to be fixed, which can only happen if they continue to buy certain products. And will the line continue to move in a culture obsessed with youth and beauty? Will everyone be expected to get plastic surgery once foundation can no longer hide the signs of aging?

Perhaps most worrying to critics of the cosmetic industry is the trend of younger and younger girls using makeup. If makeup really does serve to signal other males of female fitness, then does wearing lip gloss and blush sexualize girls too soon? Do they stand at the precipice of a life filled with unhappiness and body angst? If makeup is possibly toxic to adults, then how toxic will it prove to be on young skin?

It's impossible to answer these questions or foresee a truce between some feminists and makeup. For some women, makeup will always be something that should be applied before leaving the house, and for others, it's unnecessary and offensive. But what do men think about makeup? While some radical feminists claimed that women only wore it to please men, you might be surprised at men's responses to cosmetics through the centuries, as well as how they might represent the next great makeup market.

Men and Makeup

Are men the great untapped makeup market?
Are men the great untapped makeup market?
Smith Collection/Iconica/Getty Images

It's often assumed that many women wear makeup to attract men, but history is full of examples of men who weren't entranced by the made-up look. The ancient Roman poet Martial wrote to a woman who wore cosmetics, "You are but a composition of lies … No man can say, I love you, for you are not what he loves, and no one loves what you are" [source: Etcoff]. And ancient Romans and Greeks weren't the last men to complain of women tricking them with artificial means: In 1770, British Parliament passed a law that made wearing makeup a crime akin to witchcraft. The reasoning behind the law was that men were enchanted by a false face, and they were due an annulment once they realized what their wives really looked like.

Today, men's preferences for a woman wearing makeup vary as much as women's preferences for wearing it do, though it's worth noting a 2008 study that found that women who wore makeup in bars were approached by men much more quickly and more often than women who didn't [source: Saad]. Perhaps men are unconsciously motivated by the same beauty ideals and gender advertising that lead women to put on makeup?


Though we began this article by describing Egyptian men who wore makeup alongside their female counterparts, men eschewed makeup in the 20th century so that they wouldn't be labeled effeminate. Those who did wear makeup tended to be rock stars like David Bowie who were aiming for an Androgynous look. In recent years, though, more men have proudly worn makeup in public, leading journalists to coin terms like "guyliner" and "manscara."

The cosmetics industry is salivating over the thought of expanding sales to half the population, but it's clear that selling makeup to men will take a little more work and time. Right now, most men are showing the most interest in products that hide flaws, such as foundations and concealers. However, if we've learned anything from the history of makeup, it's that it will only take one person with a great idea -- a chemist working on lipstick in her kitchen, or a brother lovingly marketing his sister's mascara technique -- to change the game entirely.

To learn more about makeup -- including tips on purchasing and using cosmetics -- see the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

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