Mineral make-up not so natural

Mineral foundations not as miraculous as marketers would have you believe.
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04.Sensitive skin and nanoparticles

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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