Skin & Cosmetics: Facial Foundations, Powders, and Blushes

Facial Foundations, Powders, and Blushes


The formulation and use of colored cosmetics is an area of dermatology where medicine, science, art, and appearance intermingle. This makes the study of colored cosmetics both challenging and fascinating. Colored cosmetics are of medical significance for their ability to function as camouflaging aids. Recognizing dermatoses that rarely may be related to the use of foundations also is important. The formulation and efficacy of colored cosmetics is grounded firmly in the science of cosmetic chemistry and skin physiology. Yet, colored cosmetics are valued for their appearance-enhancing capability and the intangible aspects of well-being that their use imparts. A discussion of the art and science of colored cosmetics can provide a fund of knowledge useful to the physician in tackling problems related to appearance and dermatologic disease.

Facial Foundations

Facial foundations are designed to add color, to cover blemishes, and to blend uneven facial color in women of all skin colors.[1, 2] Facial foundations available for white or light skin must be formulated in at least 7-8 shades; however, facial foundations for black or dark skin must be formulated in at least 10-12 or more shades to cover the tremendous variation in skin pigmentation. In basic terms, a facial foundation is a pigmented moisturizer that can be customized to meet the needs of a variety of skin types. Facial foundation is applied to the entire face, used on a daily basis, and worn for an extended period of time. For this reason, facial foundation plays an important role in skin treatment, but it is also the facial cosmetic most likely to be problematic. Facial foundation is a relatively modern product, invented and patented by Max Factor in 1936 in the form of a cake makeup used primarily in the film industry. Popular demand for this cosmetic developed shortly thereafter as women found the excellent coverage, velvety look, and added facial color desirable. Since that time, the variety and popularity of facial foundations has expanded tremendously.


Four basic facial foundation formulations are available, oil-based, water-based, oil-free, and water-free or anhydrous forms. Oil-based products are designed for dry skin, while water-based products can be adapted for all skin types. Oil-free formulations are used for oily skin, while anhydrous forms are extremely long wearing and are used for camouflage or theatrical purposes. Oil-based foundations are water-in-oil emulsions containing pigments suspended in oil, such as mineral oil or lanolin alcohol. Vegetable oils (eg, coconut, sesame, safflower) and synthetic esters (eg, isopropyl myristate, octyl palmitate, isopropyl palmitate) also may be incorporated. The water evaporates from the foundation following application, leaving the pigment in oil on the face. This creates a moist skin feeling, which is especially desirable in patients with a dry complexion. Oil-based foundations do not shift color as they mix with sebum because the color is fully developed in the oily phase of the formulation. These foundations are easy to apply because the pigment can be spread over the face for up to 5 minutes prior to setting. Water-based facial foundations are oil-in-water emulsions containing a small amount of oil in which the pigment is emulsified with a relatively large quantity of water. The primary emulsifier is usually soap (eg, triethanolamine, nonionic surfactant). The secondary emulsifier, present in smaller quantity, is usually glyceryl stearate or propylene glycol stearate. These popular foundations are appropriate for minimally dry to normal skin. Because the pigment is already developed in oil, this foundation type also is not subject to color drift. The application time is shorter than with oil-based foundations because of the lower oil content. These products usually are packaged in a bottle. Oil-free facial foundations contain no animal, vegetable, or mineral oils. They contain other oily substances, such as the silicones dimethicone or cyclomethicone. These foundations usually are designed for individuals with oily complexions because they leave the skin with a dry feeling. Silicone is noncomedogenic, nonacnegenic, and hypoallergenic, accounting for the tremendous popularity of this type of facial foundation formulation. These products usually are liquids packaged in a bottle. Oil control facial foundations should not be confused with oil-free facial foundations. All facial foundations contain a blotter designed to absorb sebum. Oil control facial foundations simply contain additional blotters, such as talc, kaolin, starch, or other polymers, designed to absorb sebum in higher concentration. Usually, these products are formulated with dimethicone; however, mineral oil may be added to some formulations. Thus, oil-control foundations are not necessarily oil-free. Water-free or anhydrous foundations are waterproof. Vegetable oil, mineral oil, lanolin alcohol, and synthetic esters form the oil phase, which may be mixed with waxes to form a cream. High concentrations of pigment can be incorporated into the formulation, yielding an opaque facial foundation. The coloring agents are based on titanium dioxide with iron oxides, occasionally in combination with ultramarine blue. Titanium dioxide acts as a facial-concealing or covering agent. These products can be dipped from a jar, squeezed from a tube, wiped from a compact, or stroked from a stick. These foundations are well suited for use in patients with facial scarring who desire camouflaging. The newest facial foundation formulations are as known as mineral makeups. The "mineral" name speaks to a natural holistic formulation, but these foundations contain the same pigments as the previously discussed cream and liquid versions, except in a loose powder. The powders are brushed on over the face, but are short-lived, as they are easily brushed off. Their simple formulation without the lotion- or cream-based additives makes them ideal for persons with multiple allergies or sensitive skin, such as rosacea or atopic dermatitis. The pigments can offer some degree of sun protection, but they should be combined with an underlying sunscreen-containing moisturizer for optimal results. Initial moisturizer application followed by the powder application may allow the powder to stay in place longer. Pigment blends can be developed to minimize facial redness or sallowness, providing a role for these products in facial camouflaging.

Surface characteristics

Facial foundations are manufactured in a variety of finishes, including the following: matte, semimatte, moist semimatte, and shiny. The finish is the surface characteristic of a cosmetic. Matte finish foundations yield a flat look with no shine and generally are oil-free. They are good for patients with oily skin who tend to develop some shine after a foundation has been applied. A semimatte finish has minimal shine and is generally an oil-free foundation or water-based foundation with minimal oil content. This finish works well on slightly oily to normal skin. A foundation with more shine is known as a moist semimatte foundation and generally is water-based with moderate oil content. This finish works well on normal-to-dry skin. Shiny finishes are found in oil-based foundations and are only appropriate for persons with dry skin. The shinier foundations with increased oil content also have increased moisturizing ability.


The foundation selected should match the natural facial color as closely as possible. This can be difficult because the nose and cheeks have redder tones than the forehead and chin. The foundation is matched to the skin along the jaw line because this is where the color must be blended carefully beneath the chin. Mismatched facial foundations generally leave a demarcation at the jaw line. A foundation color should be selected in natural sunlight; the bright artificial fluorescent lights used in most stores distort color perception. In general, facial foundation should be applied with the fingertips. A dab of foundation should be placed on the forehead, nose, cheeks, and chin and then blended with a light circular motion until it is spread evenly over all the facial skin, including the lips. Finally, a puff or sponge should be used, stroking in a downward direction, to remove any streaks and to flatten vellus facial hair. Special care should be taken to rub the foundation into the hairline, over the tragus, and beneath the chin. Foundation also should be blended around the eyes and, if desired, may be applied to the entire upper eyelid. The foundation should be allowed to set or dry until it can no longer be removed with light touch. If additional coverage is desired, a second layer of foundation can be applied

Adverse effects

Facial foundations are a rare cause of allergic and irritant contact dermatitis. Usually, the fragrance or preservative ingredients account for most cases of allergic contact dermatitis reported. Irritant contact dermatitis is much more common because this product is worn by patients with dermatitic skin for 8 hours or more on a daily basis. Facial foundation can be open or closed patch tested as is. Some facial foundations are labeled for sensitive skin. The exact meaning that this marketing claim delineates is unclear. Evaluation of these products fails to reveal avoidance of any particular chemicals or group of allergens. These products sometimes contain a substance known to soothe skin, such as allantoin. These formulations may be designed to minimize any dermatitis resulting from use of the products, allowing the patient to continue wearing facial foundation.

Facial Powders

Facial powders provide coverage of complexion imperfections, oil control, a matte finish, and tactile smoothness to the skin.[3] Originally, facial powder was applied over a moisturizer to function as a type of powdered foundation. Liquid foundations have largely replaced the powdered foundation; however, for patients who wish sheer coverage with excellent oil control, a powdered foundation performs excellently. An appropriate moisturizer for the patient's skin type is first applied and allowed to set or dry, followed by application of a full coverage translucent powder.


Full coverage powders contain predominantly talc (hydrated magnesium silicate) and increased amounts of covering pigments. The covering pigments used in face powder can be listed in order of increasing opaqueness, as follows: titanium dioxide, kaolin, magnesium carbonate, magnesium stearate, zinc stearate, prepared chalk, zinc oxide, rice starch, precipitated chalk, and talc. It generally is accepted that the optimum opacity is achieved with a particle size of 0.25 microns. Magnesium carbonate also can be used to improve oil blotting, to keep the powder fluffy, and to absorb any added perfume. Kaolin (hydrated aluminium silicate) also may function to absorb oil and perspiration. Full coverage face powders usually are packaged in a compact and applied to the face with a puff. Transparent facial powders are more popular today to add coverage and to improve oil-blotting abilities of a previously applied liquid foundation. Transparent powders have the same formulation as full-coverage powders except they contain less talc, titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide because coverage is not a priority. Transparent facial powders commonly have a light shine, produced by nacreous pigments, such as bismuth oxychloride, mica, titanium dioxide–coated mica, or crystalline calcium carbonate. Facial powder usually includes iron oxides as the main pigment, but other inorganic pigments, such as ultramarine, chrome oxide, and chrome hydrate, also may be used. These powders are designed to augment the underlying skin and foundation tones; therefore, transparent powders can be used by patients who have difficulty finding an appropriately tinted facial foundation.


Facial powders are removed from a compact with a puff or dusted loosely from a container with a brush. They impart a matte finish to the face. Patients who desire a shiny or moist semimatte facial appearance should avoid powder because it absorbs the oil in the foundation, thus destroying the dewy appearance. Patients with dry complexions also may wish to avoid facial powder because it can further dry the skin. The oil-absorbing abilities of facial powder are extremely valuable in the patient with an oily complexion prone to develop a facial shine.

Adverse effects

The incidence of allergic contact dermatitis to facial powder itself is low; however, added fragrances may pose a problem. A more common problem with facial powders is irritant contact dermatitis due to coarse particulate matter, such as nacreous pigments, in the formulation. Inhalation of the powders may cause problems in patients with asthma or vasomotor rhinitis. Facial powder may be open or closed patch tested as is.

Facial Blushes

Facial blushes, also known as rouges, are designed to enhance rosy cheek color.[2] In many cases, rosy cheeks simply indicate vasomotor instability or fine telangiectatic mats from actinic damage; however, cheek color remains fashionable.


Blush and rouge are actually synonyms for a cosmetic designed to add color to the cheeks; however, to many consumers, blush denotes a powdered product, while rouge denotes a cream product. Powdered blushes are more popular and are formulated identically to compact face powder, except more vivid pigments are added. Because color rather than coverage is desired, powdered blushes do not contain much zinc oxide. Cream rouges are formulated like anhydrous foundations that contain light esters, waxes, mineral oil, titanium dioxide, and pigments.


For a natural appearance, cheek color should be applied beginning at a point directly beneath the pupil on the fleshy part of the cheek, sweeping upward beyond the lateral eye. This placement is designed to create or accentuate high cheekbones, which are a desired quality among women.

Adverse effects

The adverse reaction concerns with blushes and rouges are identical to that for facial powders (see adverse effects of facial powders above). The products can be open or closed patch tested as is.