Mineral Powder Makeup? Or small rocks and pearl bits?

by Madeleine Hawks

I think I started using makeup when I was about 14 (freshman year in high school) and by junior year I had a little regimen that I went through most days before school. There are probably a number of factors that keep me on the makeup train. I’ve always liked ritual and applying makeup is a sort of buffer to my day every morning. I find it soothing and meditative. It’s the same at night: washing my face is part of my wind-down routine, and it makes me feel ready for bed. Probably a much bigger factor was my long-term experience with acne, which made me feel like I had to wear makeup all the time. And then of course there was this probably unhealthy fascination my sister Olivia and I share about Hollywood glamor (Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, etc.–ya know, 1930s-1960s, see below).

I’ve experimented with a lot of products over the years, but now I use mineral powder foundation, concealer, blush, eye shadow, bronzer, and even mineral powder eye liner if I want to get fancy (just add water!). Now that my skin is clearing, I don’t need as much concealer, etc., so my routine is often just moisturizer, a little concealer, and some foundation.

I spent some time poking around A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, by Ruth Winter (M.S.). I highly recommend it if you’re interested in being in the know about what’s in your bottle. Ruth has been in health, food safety, and pharmaceuticals for 30+ years. She worked as a journalist for  The Star-Ledger, in New Jersey, and The Los Angeles Times. Ruth has also authored 28 books and hundreds of magazine articles on different health-related subjects from anti-aging hormones to medicines in foods.

I pulled out my face powder container and found the ingredient list in one of those accordion-style packets taped to the bottom. Luckily, there aren’t too many ingredients in the makeup I use. The ingredients are titanium dioxide, bismuth oxychloride, zinc oxide, mica, iron oxides. They sound kind of scary, actually, and I couldn’t picture what they might look like, so I did some research. Here’s what I found:

Titanium Dioxide

“The greatest covering and tinting powder of any white pigments.” It’s used in pretty much anything, including bath powder, depilatories, eyeliner, antiperspirants, face powder, lipsticks, hand lotion, and nail polish. It’s an opacifier, meaning it makes things opaque. In high concentrations, dust can cause lung damage.

Fun fact: it can be used as white pigment in candy, gum, and ink.

Bismuth Oxychloride

A gray/white powder with a metallic luster that comes from the earth’s crust. Sometimes called “synthetic pearl”, it’s used as a skin protective. Most bismuth compounds have a low toxicity when ingested but can cause allergic reactions when applied to the skin.

Fun fact: it used to be used to treat syphilis.

Zinc Oxide

“Flowers of zinc.” Zinc is a white brittle metal. It doesn’t dissolve in water but it can dissolve in acid or hot alkalies (what??). It is added to food sometimes and you can take it as a mineral supplement. Zinc oxide gives opacity to face powders. In ointment form, it is used medicinally to encourage healing of skin disorders. Although it’s harmless when used in cosmetics, people who work with zinc can suffer skin eruptions called “zinc pox” under the arm and in the groin.  Zinc pox is likely caused by blocking the hair follicles. Rather astringent, zinc oxide is sometimes not recommended for dry skin.

Fun fact: zinc is in lots of things like mouthwash, freckle creams, baby powder, antiperspirants, rouge, shaving cream, and white eyeshadow.


“Pearls.” It’s pretty rad to think of applying pearl powder to your face actually. Less romantically, mica are any group of minerals that are found in crystallized elastic sheets that can be easily separated. They can be pale green, black, or even colorless. Mica can be ground and used as a lubricant, cosmetic coloring, and create a glow for makeup. Inhalation can be irritating and may be damaging to the lungs.

Fun fact: it’s pearls, for your face!

Iron Oxides

These are used frequently to color cosmetics.  They may be natural or synthetic oxides of iron (iron combined with oxygen) and can vary in color from red to brown, black, orange, or yellow. Their color relates to the amount of water added and the purity. The FDA considers safe colors those that pass the tests of “oral toxicity, primary irritation, sensitization, subacute skin toxicity, on intact or abraded skin, and carcinogenicity (cancer causing) by skin application”.

Fun fact: as far as color psychology goes, it’s been determined that women over 25 prefer pink shades of lotions whereas teenagers prefer blue shades of lotion.

Mostly what I’ve determined from this research is that

1. I’m glad I don’t work on the manufacturing/processing side of makeup.

2. “Colors” are a weird grouping of ingredients that do so many different things.

3. There’s not much difference between the things you “wear” on your skin and the things you eat or breathe. I probably won’t be snacking on my face powder anytime soon but apparently it would taste a little like earth’s crust, pearls, and rocks.

I highly recommend mineral powder makeup products if you’re into this kind of thing. They have fewer ingredients and are safe for using every day. Make sure you read the labels carefully though because you don’t want any carcinogens thrown in with your “mineral” powders. Not all powders are created equally!

Next week: how to (and why you should) clean those makeup brushes you use to apply your mineral makeup!

3 responses to “Mineral Powder Makeup? Or small rocks and pearl bits?

  1. I’m curious…did the consumer’s dictionary say anything about how these ingredients are extracted or produced? I’m wary of anything that says it comes *from* a natural source..

    also, here’s a riddle…what do your post and liz’s post have in common?? ZINC OXIDE!! 🙂 har har.

    • I sure do love me some riddles! Anyway, the book doesn’t talk about manufacturing processes, other than a few mentions about how factory workers sometimes suffer respiratory problems or zinc pox from production of things like zinc or mica, etc. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for manufacturing info in the future.

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