The word “mineral” implies “natural”, so many of us assume that mineral makeups are a much safer alternative to the commercial makeup lines out there. This is often true—mineral makeups typically contain fewer chemicals than, say, a cream foundation might. But that doesn’t mean they’re automatically safe, nor that they actually provide your skin with the nutrients it needs to remain vibrant and healthy.

What Are the “Minerals” in Mineral Makeup?

The minerals in makeup impart a sort of shimmer to the skin after it is applied, because they reflect and refract light.

  • Titanium dioxide: while this is not a toxic ingredient in and of itself, it can’t be found pure enough in nature to be used in a makeup. It becomes toxic during the refinement process (see below). Titanium is also not a necessary ingredient for skin health.
  • Bismuth oxychloride: while bismuth is a natural mineral (in fact it’s a heavy metal, but with no known toxic effects on humans), it can cause acne, redness, and skin rashes. Also not an element found anywhere in the skin (i.e. it has no nutritional value.)
  • Mica: If you’re from Arizona and you’ve ever taken a good look at the rocks that occur naturally here, you’ve probably seen this: it’s those flecks of silver that you can sometimes peel right off when they’re large enough. It does impart a lovely sheen to the skin… however, it, too, can aggravate acne and cause redness.
  • Iron oxide and zinc oxide: The only potential issue with these are possible contamination from the refinement process.

Another issue I saw raised from a number of sources was the presence of “nanoparticles”: that is, particles of the minerals in question small enough to cause fibrosis of the lungs if inhaled. Large cosmetic companies deny the claims that their products contain nanoparticles, saying instead they contain micronized particles, much too large to cause a problem.

What Chemicals Should You Look Out For?

Here are a few of the nasty chemicals that still make their way into mineral makeup products:

  • Heavy metals: These tend to show up as a byproduct of mineral purification; some lipsticks, for instance, contain as much as ten times the acceptable limit of lead. Lead has been associated with neurological problems such as depression and anxiety, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s Disease. It can also cause high blood pressure, often poorly or unresponsive to medication.
  • Parabens: this is usually a suffix, so look for any word that ends in this. These are used as preservatives, but are associated with endocrine (hormonal) cancers.  Specifically they have been linked with breast and ovarian cancer. They’ve been banned in Japan and Sweden.
  • Talc: used as an anti-caking agent, talc increases the risk for ovarian cancer and UTIs.
  • Mineral oil: this one is not so much found in powdered mineral makeups, but the trend now is to call liquid foundations “mineral” makeup as well —and it tends to show up there. Mineral oil is what’s left over when gasoline is distilled from crude oil. It contains carcinogenic dioxane.
  • Phthalates: if the package says “fragrance,” it probably contains these. Phthalates are also associated with endocrine cancers, and can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system.

The Upshot:

Unfortunately, like I mentioned last week in the discussion on clean skincare, I’m having a hard time finding a makeup line I can wholeheartedly recommend. I still think mineral makeups are among the best options available on the market, but they, too, have their drawbacks. My recommendations:

  • Read labels. If you actually see any of the toxic ingredients above listed on the label, do not buy the product. Remember that what you put on your skin matters! Foreign substances that enter your body through your skin or the tissue in your mouth bypass the liver and go straight to your bloodstream. From there, most of them get stored in your fat cells, where they set up shop and have the potential to cause long-term problems.
  • Wash your face before bedtime. It might be tempting to go to sleep with your makeup on, especially if you’re blessed with clear skin that won’t reward you with pimples in the morning. Resist it.
  • Wear makeup sparingly. I get it—most of us don’t like the idea of skipping makeup altogether. But if you’re home all day, or just going to the grocery store, give your skin a break!