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The Colour of Compromise

To synthetic or not to synthetic?

issue five : a feast for gluttony

We have to make decisions every single day, and in all aspects of our lives; that includes our cosmetics and the array of beauty products that we use.

Still it might be nice, once in a while, not to have to choose between evils. Just once, couldn’t I choose the lesser good?

Laurell K. Hamilton, Danse Macabre
Image: Zulmaury Saavedra @ Unsplash

Compromise (n): 

“Eventually they reached a compromise”: agreement, understanding, settlement, terms, accommodation; deal, trade-off, bargain; halfway house, middle ground, middle course, happy medium, balance; Latin modus vivendi.

Everything good in life requires a bit of compromise. I hate to admit it, but it does. Perhaps the bitter word itself would be an easier pill to swallow if we gained a little perspective.  

When it comes to untainted beauty – as this is, after all, why we are here – sometimes we have to choose the lesser good if we require certain results.

Initially, this article was going to be about natural vs synthetic colours found in our untainted cosmetics and which are considered food-grade, thus tying it into our A Feast for Gluttony issue succinctly.  However, after a little gluttonous pondering time, it has become evident to me that this is a much  B I G G E R conversation.

D is for Dimethicone

On one of the clean beauty forums I cast my eyes over from time to time, someone was asking for a recommendation on a natural, waterproof mascara. Natural waterproof mascaras are by their very nature, an oxymoron. [Side note: I love that word, oxymoron. Genius!] Let me assure you, I have tried A LOT of mascaras in my time. Mostly on a professional level. Up until two weeks ago, I would have told you that a natural, waterproof mascara doesn’t exist. But, I have recently found one that actually works. I don’t mean that it simply doesn’t leave you with “panda eyes” – thankfully, there are some great natural formulations on the market that do a superb job of staying put in day-to-day situations. I mean, you can dunk your head under water and rub your eyes and the mascara doesn’t move. I mean it is waterproof! Shock horror, would you believe that it contains one synthetic chemical; dimethicone? Why does it contain dimethicone? Because without it, the formulation would be like every other natural version on the market, and it wouldn’t be waterproof. So the compromise is: If you require an effective natural waterproof mascara, it won’t be completely free from man-made chemicals. If you want a completely untainted mascara, you can’t expect it to be waterproof. As a professional makeup artist, there are times when I require the mascara to stay on in wet and wild situations, so this is a compromise I am happy to make. Would I want all my personal care products to contain dimethicone? Absolutely not! I would, however, much sooner choose a product with one synthetic ingredient in, filled with a whole host of delicious, nourishing, considered ingredients, than a mainstream brand filled with countless tainted ones

Is your lipstick a liar?

Naturally, it is! The very concept of makeup is a lie. That is another matter for another time though. What we are talking about here is the natural and synthetic colours found in our natural/organic lipsticks.

Yep, you read that right! Many ‘natural and organic’ lipsticks contain synthetic colours. Now, before you run to your handbag, or lipstick drawer (depending on your penchant for makeup) and empty the contents into the bin, take a deep breath and keep reading. In order to compromise effectively, you need to know the facts. The fact is, if you want an intense colour payoff (of unnatural colours, as many of our favourite lipsticks are) truly natural pigments just don’t quite cut it. The claims of natural and or organic will be based on the kinds of butter and waxes and other main constituents of the product that has been grown using organic farming practices. 

 Image: Richard Pengelley | Art Direction: Khandiz Joni
Image: Richard Pengelley | Art Direction: Khandiz Joni

Remember, The word “organic” has several meanings: A) it is made of carbon B) relating to a bodily organ C) the harmonious relationship between elements as a whole and D) it’s grown using organic farming practices. It is the latter of these that we refer to when talking about organic cosmetics.

The difference between lakes and dyes 

First thing’s first. Let’s try to understand the differences between the various colouring mechanisms and when and why they might be used to make up our makeup.

Iron Oxides; Naturally occurring mineral deposits or synthetic oxides of iron (ie: iron combined with oxygen) used to colour cosmetics. Natural iron oxides are sometimes referred to as earth clay.

Lakes; A soluble, organic (In this instance, organic means it’s made from carbon) dye made by depositing a solid coloured pigment with an insoluble element. Namely, a form of aluminium, calcium, barium potassium, strontium or zirconium. This chemical process then makes the finished colour insoluble in water. Lake colourings are oil-soluble and are used for dry or oily products such as lipsticks. Not all colours are suitable for making lakes. 

Dyes; A natural (think beetroot, turmeric, onions, cabbage, cochineal) or synthetic (Azo dyes) substance used to add a colour to or change the colour of something. Dyes are soluble in water. In our world of untainted cosmetics, think lip and cheek stains/tints.

Another way to look at it is, dyes ‘stain’ the skin and lakes sit on top of the skin. Dyes can be diluted and therefore lose their colour intensity, whereas, lakes do not.

Both “lakes” and “dyes” are food and cosmetic additives. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) monitors which of these colour additives are safe for human consumption. If the colour additive has FD&C next to it, it is considered safe for use in food, drugs and cosmetics. These colours can be from natural or synthetic sources. 

Image: Aaron Thomas @ Unsplash

So how can it be considered ‘untainted’ if it contains synthetics?

As the title of this article suggests, this comes down to what compromises you are prepared to make for your beauty standards. While the die-hard purist might not touch a product that contains a synthetic dye, they can’t then turn around and be disappointed when the best they can get in a lipstick colour is a lip or cheek tint with a limited colour range.

If you’re a vegan, you would choose a red lipstick with synthetic colour, otherwise you would be going against your vegan principals – as a naturally red pigmented colour would be made from cochineal (for those that don’t already know, a Cochineal is a beetle, and the colour is extracted by crushing them).

If you’re fighting for human rights, you may want to check where the minerals and mica in your mineral makeup have come from, as this is one of the biggest areas where child labour is rife. Unbeknownst to most, of course.

Not to mention that unprocessed minerals have high heavy metal contents… just in case you were worried about lead in your lipstick!

If you’re after bright, bold, vivid lipstick colours, naturally pigmented lipsticks don’t quite cut it. Just because a natural lipstick contains a synthetic ingredient, doesn’t mean it’s the devil, in fact, in certain instances, it is the lesser of two evils. 

The only way to avoid this labyrinth of decisions is to not wear makeup at all… and in this modern world, even that is a compromise.

The motivation behind UNTAINTED is to celebrate brands and products that are making the best choices – ultimately this means the most considered compromises – available to both the environment and their target market. So, do the brands I recommend contain some synthetic ingredients? Absolutely! But only if it’s in the best interest of people, planet and animals.

Only you can decide what compromises you are prepared to make and that those will be driven by your personal set of ethics.


A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter, M.S

The Nature of Beauty by Imelda Burke

untainted |ˌənˈtān(t)əd| adjective
not contaminated, polluted, or tainted: the paper was untainted by age.

UNTAINTED is a directional beauty platform, pushing the boundaries of clean, sustainable beauty. We are inspired and motivated by the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi.

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