Makeup science

Looking your best may be as much a science as it is an art.


Cosmetics are big business, and every one of those products is a chemical concoction.

misuma/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Looking your best may be as much a science as it is an art—especially in the makeup business.

Take a look at the cosmetics and beauty products on display when you shop: hair gel, lipstick, nail polish, shimmer, lip gloss, mascara, eye shadow, face powder, hair spray, eye liner, glitter, face cream, body lotion, and more. Every one of these items is a chemical concoction.

“Formulating cosmetics is a cross between—it sounds nasty—real chemistry and cooking,” says Steve Hasher. He works at Estee Lauder,. That’s a major makeup company in New York.

The men and women who create cosmetics have to know science, especially chemistry, Hasher says. But a product’s success also depends a lot on how it looks and feels.

“When you’re cooking, you throw in a little bit of garlic, and the food comes out different,” Hasher says. “When you’re developing a product, you play with chemicals and balance ratios to get it to feel right. Basically, it’s trial and error.”

All that tinkering adds up. Makeup sales are big business.

Chemists and engineers such as Hasher are constantly working to create new products and improve old ones. Every tube of lipstick, face powder, and anti-wrinkle lotion contains a finely tuned mix of ingredients. It’s the product of intensive research with advanced technologies.

Ancient foundation

Makeup has been around for a long, long time.

More than 4,000 years ago, ancient Egyptians had a variety of beauty aids. These included body oils, face creams, perfumes, eye makeup, face paint, hair dyes, and lipstick. Women in ancient Greece applied a white powder to lighten their skin. They used powdered charcoal as eye shadow.

Recently, archaeologists from Bristol University dug up a pot of grayish cream in south London. It dated back to the second century A.D. At that time, Great Britain was part of the Roman Empire and many Romans lived in the area where London now stands.

The plain little pot was just 6 centimeters wide and 5 centimeters tall. Finger marks were still visible on the lid and there were fingerprints in the cream. The cream inside the container was amazingly well preserved.


A Roman cosmetic cream in its original container (left) and a modern version of this concoction created by scientists (right).



“Such discoveries from the Roman world are rare,” note Richard Evershed and his coworkers. They wrote about it last November in the scientific journal Nature. “This is the only one to be found so far with its lid and contents—a whitish medicinal or cosmetic cream—providing a unique opportunity to study this ancient formulation.”

At first, the researchers suspected that the substance, dubbed Londinium cream, might be toothpaste or even a ritualistic smear for goats that were about to be sacrificed. After analyzing the cream, however, they concluded that Roman women used it as a type of face makeup called a foundation cream.

Fashionable Roman women valued an unnaturally fair complexion. It would have taken a special cream to achieve the white appearance they were aiming for.

To get the necessary white color, the Romans must have taken some care in formulating the cream from animal fat, starch, and a chemical called tin oxide. The fat came from animal carcasses and was likely heated to remove any color. The starch was obtained by treating roots or grains with boiling water. Tin oxide was produced by heating tin metal in air.

Once the scientists finished analyzing the ancient cream, they made their own version using fresh ingredients. Then they tried it out.

“This cream had a pleasant texture when rubbed into the skin,” the Bristol University researchers reported. “Although it felt greasy initially, owing to the fat melting as a result of body heat, this was quickly overtaken by the smooth, powdery texture created by the starch: remarkably, starch is still used for this purpose in modern cosmetics.”

Building a cosmetic

Nowadays, just about every cosmetic product on the market has a unique formula created to meet specific needs. Some are designed for people with dry skin, others for oily skin. Colors vary widely. And companies have to keep up with a constantly changing sense of style.

“We’re always looking for something new,” Hasher says. “We want to make something that feels different from what everyone else has.”

Many modern foundations start with a combination of water and silicone, a very stable type of chemical. Substances called emulsifiers are then added. They  hold the water and silicone together. This keeps the ingredients from separating.

To the base, cosmetic formulators then add pigments for color. The Romans used tin oxide, Hasher says, because that was just about the only thing available. Today, iron oxides produce crisper colors.

Modern makeup companies also steer clear of ingredients that come from animals. Today’s materials come from plants instead, or they’re created in the lab.

One of the biggest advances in the past decade or so, Hasher says, involves synthetic materials called pearls and micas. These are tiny round particles that change the way light bounces off the face. The result is a soft, blurring effect that supposedly makes people look better.

New techniques that allow scientists to grind ingredients into extra-small pieces have also fed a trend toward more comfortable, longer-lasting foundations.

Londinium cream would have been thick and cakey, Hasher says. Like other ancient makeup, it probably cracked after a while and hurt to wear. Today’s products don’t have that problem.


One of the most important steps in producing makeup these days is something the Romans probably never did: Testing.

Before cosmetics companies can sell new products, they put them through all sorts of harsh trials—heating, freezing, and keeping them at high altitudes to see how they hold up, for example. The companies also hire people to wear the makeup for a while to make sure it interacts with skin in the way it’s supposed to. Sometimes, cosmetics are tested on animals to make sure they are safe for people.

And even though makeup is purely for appearance, makeup scientists draw from discoveries in other fields, Hasher says.

At Estee Lauder, researchers work with companies that study street-sign technology, for example, to find better ways to make bright colors that glow at night even in dim light. They talk with people in the car industry about the science behind paint colors. And they follow research on the eye, to better understand how people see makeup on others.

Still, despite all the advances that have changed makeup formulas during the last 2,000 years, some things haven’t changed. Just like in Roman times, many people today think that covering their faces with creams and colors will make them look better. In the end, though, the old adage is probably true: It’s what on the inside that really counts.

Going Deeper:

Additional Information

Questions about the Article

Word Find: Makeup Science

More Stories from Science News Explores on Humans