What Colours Your Makeup?

Organic and natural makeup is here to stay and there’s nothing bad about that. More and more companies are finding ways to create luxury makeup without compromising our environment or animals. For anyone new to the green beauty market it can be confusing, overwhelming and difficult to determine what to avoid and what to embrace.

What Colours Your Makeup. What's natural and what's not. Gone Swatching xo

What I want to discuss in this post is colour. Colour is what makes cosmetics attractive. Colour can tranform anyone’s appearance to tough, sultry, luminous, seductive, playful or mysterious. It is such an integral part of formulation. It’s no wonder it’s a bit of a mine field for companies and consumers a like.

Among all the ingredients we’re told to avoid, colour pigments can also be a contentious.

I briefly worked for a mineral makeup company when I first moved to Melbourne so I know a little about the process they use to obtain cosmetic grade oxides, but other than that, that’s as far as my actual knowledge goes. Without first hand knowledge of the industry, I can only go off what information is available to all consumers. Many companies tell us what we should avoid, but I thought I’d find out for myself!

Please consider this as a compilation of the current colour extraction/creation methods, rather than a complete explanation of those methods. There are plenty of processes here that I don’t understand and therefore can’t comment on their safety, efficacy or environmental impact.

What Colours Your Makeup. What's the difference between carmine, mica, ultramarines & fruit pigments. Gone Swatching xo

I want to start this information dive with these facts:

Here, in Australia, all ingredients in a cosmetic product must be listed on the Australian Inventory of Chemical Substances (the Inventory) or notified to NICNAS (National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme) for pre-market assessment unless an exemption applies.

In the US, color additives are subject to a strict system of approval under U.S. law. and the ones added must not only be approved, but match the areas they’re approved for. An example is: You must not use a pigment approved only for use on eyes in a lipstick.

The EU have their own list of colourants approved for cosmetics.

Colors Exempt from Certification

This extra tidbit is more for anyone interested in formulating cosmetics, but something I still find interesting.

There are some color additives, such as those obtained primarily from mineral, plant, or animal sources which are exempt from batch certification requirements. However, they still are considered artificial colors, and when used in cosmetics or other FDA-regulated products, they must comply with the identity, specifications, uses, restrictions, and labeling requirements stated in the regulations. ₁


Regardless of whether all these organisations are keeping up with research, innovation and changing views of what is considered detrimental to human health, not complying is a breach of their regulations.

So with that in mind, let’s continue!


Carmine is created by harvesting the cochineal insect, crushing it, boiling it and processing it to rid it of impurities. ₂


Anyone concerned with choosing cruelty free and vegan need to know about carmine (also anyone squeamish and allergic!). It’s sad that allergies are the only reason companies are legally required to disclose this ingredient.

Companies continue to choose carmine because; it’s vibrant and stabilized by the process to achieve the dye. This means it can be added to their cosmetics formula without having to compromise too much on expiry dates or how it’ll mix in.

FD & C Dyes and Lakes

These dyes are derived from coal tar, which is a by-product of petroleum. Dyes are water soluble, lake dyes are water-insoluble. They are regulated by the FDA, which limits the allowable trace amounts of lead or asenic to 10 parts per million. The FDA only allows certain dyes for cosmetics.

The actual method of how these dyes are created was something I found hard to find. Here is an example of one (directly from the manufacturer’s label).

Red no. 6 is produced synthetically by condensation of nitroaromatics with anilines followed by reduction of the resulting azoxy dye, which is then combined with sodium salt (lake) ₃

Making Cosmetics

None of this actually makes much sense to me, but the resulting dyes must be processed to meet the standards of the FDA (which in theory renders them safe for use). In fact they must not be used unless FDA has certified each batch, which only occurs once it’s passed analysis of its composition and purity in FDA’s own labs.

Companies choose to use dyes because it can produce vibrant and stable colours. It’s also one of the FDA approved ingredients, which means it’s easier to formulate with without having to go through the legalities and having another colour source approved.

While they’re safe in theory, I know they are one of the more contentious colourants, so if you’d like to read up about them, I’d recommend looking at studies like this.

Iron Oxides

Iron oxides were once derived from the oxidation process of iron. They must be purified before they are deemed safe for cosmetic use and this involves numerous cycles of washing before the end powder is produced. Due to these issues, it’s often produced synthetically now. For cosmetic use, the FDA requires iron oxides to be sythethic.

Synthetic iron oxides are created by thermal decomposition of iron salts, precipitation of iron salts, or reduction of organic compounds by iron. ₄

Making Cosmetics

This method avoids ferrous or ferric oxides and other impurities normally found in naturally occurring iron oxides. It means it’s no longer from a natural origin but at the same time, safer for the consumer.


What Colours Your Makeup. How is mica coloured. Gone Swatching xo

Mica is a silicate mineral, often mined from countries such as India, Brazil and US. (Some mica is mined unethically using child labour).

It’s then crushed and processed into a white, translucent powder. Just like iron oxides, mica may contain trace amounts of heavy metals. The levels of heavy metals are regulated by the FDA.

Here’s a surprising fact I came across:

To colour mica, muscovite mica flakes are coated with high heat resistant iron oxides, ultramarines or FD&C dyes. ₅

U-Makeup it.com

Mica can also be created synthetically. Not only can the company and consumer avoid any danger of contaminants, it’s often brighter as well. However it’s also coloured in the same way as it’s counterpart, coated with oxides or colourants. Look for synthetic mica or synthetic fluorphlogopite on ingredients listings, otherwise it’s natural mica.

Synthetic fluorphlogopite is composed of magnesium aluminum silicate sheets, weakly bound together with potassium. ₆

CIR Safety


What Colours Your Makeup. Gone Swatching xo

Natural ultramarine pigments are processed from lapis lazuli but because of the labour and expense involved, most ultramarines are now created synthetically. Naturally derived ultramarine carries with it the risk of trace heavy metals. You’ll find though that any ultramarines included in cosmetics have to be synthetically produced, as per FDA regulations. The excerpt below is a simplified version of how they’re created.

Ultramarines are made synthetically by a multi-step heating process involving kaolin, sulphur, carbon and organic substances resulting in a bluish pigment consisting of sulfur-containing sodium-silicate. ₇

Making Cosmetics

Fruit Pigments

I had so much trouble finding an actual method of obtaining fruit pigments, so while I don’t want to disregard them, I do find it bothersome that of all the colourants they are touted as the safest (when I don’t know how they are obtained).

Simply put, natural food colours are preparations obtained from foods and other edible natural source materials obtained by physical and/or chemical extraction. ₈

Natcol.orgFree Patents Online.com

One of the biggest selling points of fruit pigments is that they are considered safer since they are of natural origin and they retain vitamins and nutrients, which in theory benefit your skin on application.

How and where are the foods (fruit or vegetables) grown?

If you don’t think it matters, it should, considering one of the claims of fruit pigments are an abundance of vitamins and other beneficial extracts that come along with them. Those vitamins depend on the fruit itself; how was it cultivated, grown and treated before harvesting, not to mention if the vitamins are even retained throughout the extraction.

What chemicals are used during extraction?

Just like carmine and conventional iron oxides (both from a natural source), to extract or process the colours, chemicals must be used to stabilise the process and ensure a consistent result.

As soon as you leave a piece of fruit or vegetable out it starts to oxide, eventually decaying. If you want to extract pigments from something that decays, the end result must be stable enough:

  • to be be added to many different products,
  • survive the combination with ingredients it can potentially react with and
  • have a shelf life for a period of time that allows the company time to sell it and the consumers to purchase and use that product without issue.

Hexane (made from crude oil) is often used to remove lipids from the plant source. ₉

Free Patents Online.com

How are they purified afterwards?

Just like any of the other colourants I’ve mentioned, it is required to purify it afterwards to make it cosmetic grade.

Two of the well-known brands to use fruit pigments, Juice Beauty and 100% Pure, aren’t exactly forthcoming with this information. Both claim it’s a process that takes place entirely within their companies, so this is great because they maintain control. Unfortunately they don’t explain that process.

I’m not discrediting the companies or their founders. Innovation is what will propel the industry forward and benefits everyone, however it’s unfair to not have access to that information as a consumer.

I’m also not questioning whether fruit pigments are harming people, but considering they do not appear on list of approved colourants by the FDA, then how is it possible that they adhere to their regulations?

I’ll also leave this quote here, taken directly from 100% Pure’s safety and certifications page:

All 100% PURE products are FDA approved. The fruit pigments in our cosmetics are officially used as an antioxidant, but also impact the color of the product

What Colours Your Makeup. What's natural and what's not. Gone Swatching xo

Whew did you make it through that?! What I take from this is that it’s potentially impossible for you to know exactly how all your favourite makeup is coloured, unless you know the source.

After all this research, I find myself pretty impressed with the companies who are striving to bring us effective, beautiful cosmetics that are safer for our health!

I suggest using your power as a consumer by choosing what you want and if you’re not sure, asking the company! If any company is not forth-coming, then show them you’re not willing to support them, and support one that is willing to be transparent.




2 Comments Add yours

  1. great research. So much that we don’t know. I do think that some companies use the ‘fruit’ thing as a halo effect when you clearly show it’s not that simple…..


    1. Gone Swatching xo says:

      I was really surprised at some of the information I found, especially with the fruit pigments. The information is there but boy did I have to do some digging!


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