Mineral make-up not so natural

Mineral foundations not as miraculous as marketers would have you believe.
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01 .Introduction

Woman putting on makeup

In brief

  • Mineral foundations promise a fresh, natural look and a product that’s good for your skin.
  • CHOICE trialled 14 mineral makeups, from budget to premium.
  • Many mineral foundations don’t deliver the benefits promised. Some also contain potentially dangerous nanoparticles.

For anyone who wears foundation, the benefits of mineral foundations sound like a dream. Far from clogging your pores or being bad for your complexion, this new breed of make-up claims to be so gentle you can sleep in it. Some brands even claim using it will improve your skin.

Despite having been around since the 1970s, mineral make-up is having its 15 minutes of fame right now. Capitalising on what seems to be the public’s passion for all things natural, most major cosmetic brands have launched a line of mineral foundations over recent years and are selling them from department stores to supermarkets.

When CHOICE set out to investigate mineral foundations, we were primarily interested in seeing how this heavily hyped make-up compared with more traditional counterparts. However, we discovered there is a whole lot more to mineral make-up than we initially thought.

Please note: this information was current as of September 2009 but is still a useful guide today.

How is mineral foundation different?

Mineral foundation is marketed as a more natural alternative to other foundations such as liquid and pressed powders. The biggest difference is that it usually contains finely crushed, naturally occurring minerals. Most come in loose powder form and are applied using a special brush.

To apply, after tapping the container to loosen the powder, you dip the brush into it, knocking off any excess, and brush the foundation over your face. The idea is to gradually build up to the desired level of coverage layer by layer, buffing the powder into the skin. For extra coverage under the eyes or on blemishes, additional foundation can be applied with the fingertips and blended in.

It’s a radical departure from the usual quick application of liquid, sticks or pressed powder bases with fingertips or a sponge. Although a little more complicated and messy, the claims you’ll be improving your skin and appearance make the extra effort seem worth it — who wouldn’t want to use make-up that’s good for your skin?

Is it really natural?

Even though it’s claimed mineral foundation has many marvellous qualities, including being great for improving acne, moisturising skin and not clogging pores, dermatologist Philip Artemi says none of these claims are true. “Mineral make-up isn’t anything but an alternative kind of make-up, nothing more,” he says, arguing it does not have a therapeutic effect. As a cosmetic, mineral foundation cannot make any therapeutic claims.

As for being more natural than other kinds of make-up, again mineral foundation fails to live up to its claims. Most of the mineral ingredients naturally contain traces of toxic impurities and require processing to remove them. As ingredients undergo chemical processes and purification to render them safe for cosmetic use, it’s quite a stretch to define them as “natural”, say the experts CHOICE contacted.

CHOICE verdict

Despite the hype, mineral make-up doesn’t improve your skin, nor can it be considered a “natural” alternative to other types of foundations – it is simply an alternative.
If you have sensitive skin, look for a mineral make-up that doesn’t contain fragrance, preservatives or bismuth oxychloride and lists only a handful of ingredients. Check the ingredients, which by law will be listed in order of quantity from largest to smallest either on the bottle, the packaging or should be available at the point of sale.


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Top two

These two products rated highest with our trialists, but are among the most expensive. Their smorgasbord of ingredients includes not only preservatives and oils but also bismuth oxychloride. In fact, both contain similar ingredients to traditional liquid foundations, while Elizabeth Arden also contains nanoparticles. So if you’re thinking about using mineral foundation to avoid the added extras, you might want to give these two brands a miss.

Elizabeth Arden Pure Finish Mineral Powder Foundation

elizabeth-ardenTrialists’ comments

  • “Provided very effective coverage.”
  • “Really liked the brush and how it shaves off the foundation when you twist the cap.”
  • “Felt like I wasn’t wearing any foundation. Had feedback on how good my skin looked!”
  • “Very easy to get a controlled amount of powder into the container.”

MAC Mineralize Foundation Loose

macTrialists’ comments

  • “Very easy to apply and had good coverage.”
  • “Smooth, great finish, natural looking.”
  • “Design of the container made it easy to shake up the right amount of product.”


Au naturel

If you want to try mineral foundation and avoid a long list of ingredients, preservatives and bismuth oxychloride, this product keeps things simple and still rated well with our trialists:

Nude By Nature Natural Mineral Cover

nudeThis product stands out as being the most affordable among those that performed well, retailing at $39.95 for 15g and its brush, bought separately for $14.95, ranked among the best on trial.

Trialists’ comments

  • “Good at covering uneven skin colour.”
  • “I loved this product … the make-up felt good on my skin.”

Our trial

We asked 29 women of varying ages to trial 14 different brands of mineral foundation, ranging in price from budget to premium. Each person tried eight different brands and used each one for three consecutive days. On the third day, trialists filled in a survey, rating each foundation on areas such as coverage, ease of application, use of using the brush and appearance.

Six of the 14 products are sold with the brush included. The rest, mainly the premium brands, recommend you buy their branded brush separately to get the best results. Brushes range in price from $14.95 to $88, so the up-sell can often double the price – something worth factoring in if you’re otherwise sold on a product.

Overall, our trialists rated Elizabeth Arden Pure Finish Mineral Powder Foundation as most effective in providing adequate coverage. It was also the brand most trialists said they would be “somewhat likely” to purchase again.

All foundations scored 80% on average for ease of removal, although it’s likely this is because they don’t stay on very long in the first place, with trialists reporting most foundation lasted five to eight hours.




Are all mineral make-ups created equal?

There are no regulations that define mineral make-up. Currently, any product can be labelled mineral make-up if it contains any mineral as a primary ingredient, even if it contains a whole host of synthetic ingredients as well. Generally, most mineral foundations contain the same core ingredients – titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, mica and iron oxides – and some will contain bismuth oxychloride and talc.

The experts CHOICE spoke to also said that many cosmetic manufacturers add a number of so-called “therapeutic” ingredients such as vitamins A, B and E, green tea, antioxidants and aloe vera, which sound great but are usually in such small quantities they will have no real benefit to the user.

It’s a personal choice

For consumers who wish to avoid all these added extras, cosmetic chemist and pharmacist Tina Aspres recommends checking the ingredients on the package. Her first rule of thumb is to look for a product with as few ingredients as possible. The products CHOICE trialled contained anything from five ingredients up to 30.

Aspres also suggests looking for a product that is fragrance-free, doesn’t contain parabens or other preservatives, and doesn’t include bismuth oxychloride. After that, she says it’s a case of trial and error to see what looks best on your complexion. “Some people with oily skin find that the mineral powders darken in patches on their skin, while other people find it quite drying,” she says. “Some people love the light coverage it gives and the way it feels. It all comes down to personal preference.”

Itchy and scratchy

While they can’t work the magic on skin marketers would have us believe, Artemi does concede that mineral foundations may appeal to people with skin conditions such as rosacea, acne and eczema.

He says the simpler mineral make-ups – those that contain only a handful of ingredients, as well as being fragrance- and preservative-free – are likely to be less irritating. However, using mineral foundation is not a guarantee your skin won’t be irritated. The usual irritants in most foundations are fillers, parabens and fragrance. Most mineral foundations are preservative- and/or fragrance-free, but many still contain allergenic fillers such as bismuth oxychloride.

Bismuth oxychloride is an ingredient we found in 10 of the 14 products trialled. Our trialists reported 21 cases of skin irritation and 11 cases of eye irritation when using several different brands, most of which contained bismuth oxychloride.

Bismuth oxychloride is a very common and popular ingredient in cosmetics; it’s used to add bulk as well as giving a visible sheen that camouflages lines, wrinkles and minor discolorations. It also gives the product a silky, luxurious feel. On the downside, bismuth oxychloride is a totally synthetic ingredient, a by-product of lead, tin and copper refining, which is further refined and combined with water and chloride.


One issue that concerned CHOICE about applying mineral foundation was the amount inevitably inhaled when you’re dealing with loose powder and a large brush designed to be swept around the face. Trialists joked about the dust clouds and complained about it getting into the eyes, nostrils and mouth.

Nanoparticles are now used in many Australian sunscreens and cosmetics, including mineral foundation, yet research is lagging dangerously behind the rapid pace of its uptake. CHOICE struggled to find any conclusive findings on the proven safety of inhaling nanoparticles, although some experts we spoke to expressed concern that there is still not enough known about the long-term effects of this very new technology. What’s more, there is currently no legal requirement for information on nanoparticles to be included on the label of cosmetics and sunscreens, so it’s impossible to know what you’re getting, short of contacting the manufacturer.

In cosmetics, larger titanium dioxide and zinc oxide particles are white and opaque, but become transparent when ground down to nanoparticles of 10 microns or less in size, making them perfect for use in make-up. Some studies have shown that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles commonly used in sunscreens and cosmetics can produce free radicals, damage DNA and cause cell toxicity, especially when exposed to UV light. This is of particular concern if the nanoparticles can reach beyond the skin’s surface (if the skin is broken) or, in the case of loose mineral powders, the particles are inhaled while being applied and deposit in the nasal cavity and lungs.

CHOICE asked the manufacturers of all 14 brands of mineral foundations if they use nanoparticles in their products. Only The Body Shop and Elizabeth Arden say they currently use nanoparticles in their products.

A spokesperson for Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, says the government is committed to examining the regulations and procedures surrounding the safe handling of nanomaterials. But there is increasing concern regulation hasn’t kept pace with the technological advances in the field of nanotechnology.

CHOICE wants the use of nanotechnology in Australia to be evidence based. There should also be mandatory product labelling to ensure consumers and workers know when they are using goods produced with nanotechnology. See our Chemicals campaign for more.

Who regulates cosmetics?

The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), a division of the Department of Health and Ageing regulates the ingredients in cosmetics. Its role is to assess the safety of chemicals new to Australia, and existing chemicals if reason for concern arises.

Anyone importing or manufacturing cosmetic ingredients or products must be registered with NICNAS. Products must comply with certain legislative requirements, including labelling of ingredients, which is overseen by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission.

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