Have you ever wondered what lipstick is made of?
This post outlines the most common ingredients currently used in popular lipsticks. Additionally, we examine the history of lipstick formula, and the upcoming future developments in the lipstick industry based on the academic literature.
Keep reading to learn the present, past, and future of lipstick formula!
Present Day Lipstick | Formula/Ingredients
In the past many harmful ingredients provided the pigment in lipsticks. These poisonous chemicals like mercury, arsenic, and vermilion are no longer used in modern formulas (thankfully)!
Eosin and tetrabromo fluorescein commonly provided color pigment, and have now largely been replaced by oxides1 like aluminum and barium lakes.
It’s important that lipstick2…
• Is edible
• Adheres to the lips
• Is dermatologically safe
• Is pleasant to taste and smell
• Has strong color pay off
• Is water and sweat proof
• Is easy to apply
Because we haven’t discovered a single ingredient to cover all of these bases, lipstick is formulated with a range of different ingredients1 – mostly a blend of fatty materials & oils (emollients), waxes, and pigment for color. Additionally, lipsticks include preservatives3 to help them last longer, and fragrance for a pleasant smell.4
The Essential Ingredients
The basic lipstick ingredients have not changed much at all throughout history (which is fairly rare for a cosmetic product)! Most noticeably cochineal extract and carmine are still popular for pigment, but the formula has definitely improved.
Innovation and trial and error has improved the quality of lip products dramatically over the centuries. Mastering the base and ratios of ingredients is at the core of this enhancement. Instead of using just one type of wax, oil, and emollient, now developers mix several together to economise on costs and create better performing lipsticks.
Wax Gives Lipstick Its Shape
The wax in the lipstick gives it its shape. In the past, pure beeswax was used.2 Now a combination of carnauba and beeswax (or sometimes candelilla) is the norm.5 Carnauba, while more expensive, is a good addition because it melts at a higher temperature than the beeswax – meaning your lipstick is less likely to turn to liquid in the heat.
Beeswax improved in the 1990s. ‘Ultrabee’ (a brand name) makes lipstick application better, more transfer proof, and prevents the lipstick bleeding on the lips.2
Oils And Emollients For Hydrating, Even Application
Emollients (and oils) are protective agents that help evenly disperse color and moisturize the lips. When emollients are designed to evaporate quickly after application, it creates a lip stain for long lasting (but sometimes drying) makeup.
Oils can provide an antimicrobial and moisturizing effect. Typical oil additions include vegetable, mineral, or caster oil. Scientists have discovered that some traditional oil ingredients in large doses (petrolatum and lanolin oils) bare allergy risks and contamination risks respectively.2 Therefore, modern lipsticks now contains a much higher ratio of castor oil.
Along with the traditional castor oil, esters, and lanolin – 21st century emollients also include moisturizers, collagen, sunscreen, and aloe vera. The added nylon microspheres (a modern replacement for water) helps the lipstick color adhere to the skin and moisturize better than before.2
Production Process – Melting, Mixing, and Pouring
In the past, lipstick was handmade at home using different recipes. The modern automation process means each new lipstick on the production line turns out identical to the last. Production occurs in three stages:6
. 1. The melting process
. 2. The mixing process
. 3. Pouring into the tube/container
Different Ingredient Ratios Produce Different Textures
By adjusting the ratio7 of oil & emollients and wax, different textures2 were recently made possible:
• Matte formulas contain less emollients, with more wax and pigment
• Creme formulas have a higher oil ratio
• Glossy formulas have a greater emollient content, and also are made with softer waxes
• Lip stains are comprised of softer wax with a lot of oil
In the past 25 years, fluorescents1 have increasingly been included in lipstick formula for a shinier texture and deeper color.
Is Modern Lipstick Vegan?
Most lipsticks are NOT vegan.
Beeswax (which a lot of vegans avoid) is often used as the wax base. Carmine (made from crushed bugs) is included in most red or pink lipsticks. Lanolin oil, another common lipstick ingredient, is derived from sheep sebaceous glands.
Grossed out? Fear not! Certain lipstick brands have vegan ranges. The Urban Decay Sheer Revolution, Too Faced Melted Liquified, and LUSH liquid lipstick lines are vegan, cruelty free, and PETA approved.8
Prone To Allergies? Here’s What To Avoid
Lipstick is the most common cause of allergic contact cheilitis (an inflammation around the lips).9 The condition arises from a hypersensitive reaction after exposure to an allergen – often from one of the ingredients frequently used in lipsticks.
Eosin was a huge cause of allergic contact cheilitis in the early to mid 1900s, however it’s rarely used in lipstick today.
Because carmine can cause allergic reactions, the FDA require a label on most carmine-based cosmetic and food products.10
Many of the oils used in lipstick can cause contact cheilitis.9 Ricinoleic acid (found in castor oil) is a common cause. Lanolin oil, olive oil, coconut oil, and almond oil are also known to trigger this allergy.
Additionally, vitamin E and propylene glycol are linked to allergic reactions – watch out for them on your lipsticks’ ingredients list.
Past Ingredients & Innovations | A Historic Timeline
Ancient History Of Lipstick Formula
Lipstick Can Be Traced Back To Ancient Mesopotamia
The use of lipstick can be traced back to Circa 3,500 B.C. with the Sumerian Queen Schub-ad in Mesopotamia.2 The Queen coated her lips with a mix of white lead and crushed up red rocks.
Excavations of Mesopotamia reveal the rich were buried with cockleshells containing lip paint. This lip paint was worn by both men and women at this time.
Lipstick Used By Both Men and Women in Ancient Egypt
When lipstick use spread to Egypt, it was also used by both sexes. Lip makeup acted as more of a wealth signal than a gender expression.2 Egyptians made and perfumed their own lip paint at home in wooden or brass makeup kits, completely free from any government regulation.
In ancient Egypt, lips were rouged with red ochre (a type of clay)11, that was ground up and mixed in with water. This was applied with wet wood sticks. While orange, blue-black, and magenta were also popular shade options, red was highly fashionable during this period.
The elites of 50 B.C (including Cleopatra) popularised the use of carmine as the main red dye in lip paint. Carmine is derived of the ground up remains from pregnant cochineal insects.12
Regulation of Lipstick Use Occurs In Ancient Greece
In ancient Greece, lipstick was worn primarily by ladies of the night – who used wine, red dye, and unique ingredients like human saliva, crocodile waste, and sheep sweat! Because it acted as a signal for this kind of work, regulation of lipstick use (but not regulation of ingredients) began.2
Eventually, the popularity of lip paint rose within the higher classes.2 This higher end lip paint contained more appealing ingredients – vegetable extracts (seaweed, mulberries), plant roots, but also commonly included the not-so-safe vermilion.
Want to learn more about the ancient Greek makeup and style? Check out our Greek Goddess Look breakdown.
Elites Used Poisonous Lip Paint During The Roman Empire
During the 150-31 B.C period, lipstick use rose in popularity for both sexes. Once again, it acted as a signal of high status. Copying Nero’s wife, women in Rome applied purple or red lip paint using iron ore and ochre.2
Much like Mesopotamia’s and Greek’s use of lead and vermilion respectively, rich Romans also used a dangerous, potentially deadly poison called fucus in their lip paint concoctions.2 The poor, who relied on red wine instead, did not expose themselves to this poison.
Some Of The Earliest Lipstick Moulds In Andalusia
In the 10th century Al-Zahrawi wrote an important medical encyclopedia called Al-Tasreef.11 As he considered cosmetics a branch of medicine, he included a chapter solely on the topic of cosmetics – discussing incense, aromatics, and perfumes. This encyclopedia was later translated and spread to the West.
At the time, adhan (an oily substance), was commonly used as a beauty product. Stocks were perfumed, rolled, and pressed in dedicated moulds – and these are believed by some to be the earliest forms of modern day lipstick.11
A More Natural Approach In Japan
Safflower petals11 were crushed in Japan to make lipstick, which was applied to the edges of the lips.
Western History Of Lipstick Formula
Queen Elizabeth Loved Lip Paint In The 1500s
Lip makeup was not uncommon during this era in Northern Europe. Several Irish texts from this period refer to red lips achieved with the help of herbal dyes.2
Religious institutions began heavily criticising the use of lipstick during the Middle Ages, especially in England. A light hint of color was permissible – women would tint their lips with crushed up red roots or sheep fat.2
A more opaque lip came back into fashion with Queen Elizabeth 1’s coronation. A huge fan of lip paint, the Queen made her own crimson shade with fig milk, egg whites, gum Arabic, and cochineal.2
The lip pencil is thought to be invented either by the Queen herself or her entourage.2 Plaster of Paris or ground alabaster was mixed with a coloring substance, and rolled into a crayon like shape.
Lipstick during this era became so fashionable that it was not uncommon to use it instead of cash as a means of exchange! Ironically, many at the time believed it had magical healing powers.2 In actuality, it contained a harmful substance called ceruse (white lead) as the main ingredient.
The use of lipstick was later regulated by the English parliament. Wearing makeup in order to coax a man into marriage became punishable as witchcraft!2
Elites Used More Expensive Ingredients In 1600s
During the reign of James 1, lip color acted as a signal of class due to the difference in cost of pigment ingredients.2
Lower classes stuck with the traditional, less expensive ochre red, made from cheap and dangerous ceruse. The higher classes could afford bright cherry red, composed of less toxic ingredients (like animal fat), which was imported from abroad.
Some Ingredients Were Banned In 1700s
In the 1700s, older women made their own lip paint, and some of the wealthiest even had rooms dedicated for this purpose!2 They typically used popular or family recipes – some of the ingredients included wax, ox’s marrow, alkanet, and white pomatum.
Fancier recipes involved mixing roses with hog’s lard, or adding gold leaf as a finishing touch. A simple lip tint was achieved by rubbing brandy on the lips until they turned red.2
A 1724 Act banned medicines and concoctions made with certain harmful ingredients in London. Some of these banned ingredients were commonly used in lip paint at the time.2
Creative Lip Rouge In The American Colonies In The 1700s
In the American colonies, women used creative methods to rouge their mouth. Some rubbed red ribbin on their lips, other sucked on lemons throughout the day, alternatively they rubbed Bavarian Red Liquor on their mouth.2
Martha Washington liked to apply a concoction of almond oil, balsam, raisins, sugar, wax, spermaceti, alkanet root, hog’s lard, and wax on her lips.2
Prohibition On Lipstick In Victorian Age England VS. Patented Rouge In The US
During the Victorian Age in England, the legal prohibition of lipstick led to a rise in black markets and homemade rouge.2 Some women just bit their lips to turn them red, others secretly added carmine to lip chap.
The richest of the rich would smuggle in Guerlain’s lip pomade (made of butter, wax, and grapefruit) from Paris.2
Meanwhile, the first US makeup counter at a department store opened in 1867 at New York’s B. Altman. In the same year, Harriet M. Fish patented rouge made from hollyhock root, strawberry juice, beet juice, and carmine.2
“Joy is the best makeup. But a little lipstick is a close runner-up.” ― Anne Lamott
(check out more lipstick and makeup quotes here)
The Word ‘Lipstick‘ Was In Vogue In The Early 1900s
Lipstick acted simultaneously as a tool for beautification, and as a feminist symbol within the suffragette movement, during this era.2
The first synthetic carmine was developed within this period, leading to a huge improvement in lip shades. Guerlain were the first big brand to create a lipstick in tube form.11 As a result, the word ‘lipstick‘ to describe lip makeup became the norm.
During the early 1900s, American lipstick consisted of beeswax, olive oil, and crushed insects. Alternatively, lipstick was sometimes made by mixing lard with pigmented powder. These formula combinations had incredibly short lifespans – turning rancid in just a few hours!2
The 1920s Brought Us Lipgloss And Waterproof Formula
Inventions in this decade included lipgloss, and the first attempts at long lasting, waterproof lipstick formulas.2 While strides were made in innovation, many lipsticks still contained dangerous ingredients, such as coal tar dyes.2
Lipstick became a symbol for the women’s rights movement yet again, and flappers adopted lipstick for shock factor.
Manufacturers experimented with new packaging designs during the economic boom of the roaring twenties.13 Some new lipstick cases included pop up mirrors (helpful to sculpt that flapper ‘rose-bud’ lip shape). Other brands developed double-ended tubes with a lipstick on one end and a perfume at the other.
‘Kissproof’ lipstick (promising longevity) with a matching blush became a best seller at the beginning of the 1920s.13
1927 marked the beginning of the iconic ‘Rouge Baiser‘, commonly believed to be the first ever indelible lipstick. This particular lipstick later became a firm favourite of Audrey Hepburn in the 1950s.13
Flavored lipsticks were also introduced this decade (the cherry flavor was especially popular).13
Fracy’s ‘Allumettes for thy lips’ product was quite popular in the 1920s. It contained just a matchbook of disposable lip paint-covered sticks and a mirror.13
James Bruce Mason Jr. invented the first wind-up tube lipstick in 1923. This made lipstick application a lot easier, and enabled flappers to begin applying their makeup in public with ease.14
Want more? Check out our research on flapper makeup (including lipstick) and style.
Lip Liner Became Popular And Regulation Occurred In The 1930s
Innovation in the lip product industry ramped up in the 1930s.2 Lip liner and sun-protection lipstick became popular. Manufacturers designed multi-functional cases for lipstick, invented new, shinier lipstick finishes, and added heavy amounts of perfume to lipsticks to create a new two-in-one product.
In 1933 a New York senator attempted to regulate the use of cosmetics. His concern arose after learning that a depilatory cream called Koremlu contained a harmful substance (thallium acetate) that was poisoning people.15
Princess Marina married the Duke of Kent in 1934. Their wedding gifts included a solid gold lipstick case set with sapphires.13
The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was eventually passed in 1936. The act stated that cosmetics could no longer contain any “poisonous” or “deleterious” elements in dangerous amounts.16
Creative Packaging Was Popular In The 1940s
The industry got creative with packaging in the 1940s. During the war era, lipstick packaging was often disguised as binoculars, and sometimes carried useful accessories like flashlights for blackouts.2
Max Factor also released the first ‘truly long lasting’ lipstick Tru-Color.2
A Ban On Colorants With Cancer Links In The 1950s
A lot of formula development happened in the 1950s.2 Major brands tweaked their formulas to make lipstick feel more comfortable on the lips. Levels of carnuba, beeswax, and bromo acids were cut to help reduce the drying effect that the previous formula produced.
Shimmering lipsticks were a hot trend during the fifties. Largely unknown to the consumer, these were made from animal excrements. Liquid lipsticks were also in vogue. White lipstick was another new fad – with the white pigment produced by titanium.2
In 1958 the US passed the Food Additive Amendment. This imposed a ban on colorants in cosmetics with links to cancer in humans or animals.2
Further Innovation And FDA Regulation In The 1960s
The frosted lips trend continued, but the fish scale and waste ingredients were replaced with titanium dioxide, iron oxides, and mica. Lipstick manufacturers also started including baby powder and baby oil in their formula.2
The biggest advancement in formula, however, was the addition of spectrophotometer to the coloring process. This resulted in a better color range and a more uniform batch of each shade.2
Lipstick production became increasingly viewed as an exact scientific process by the industry as the Food and Color Additive Amendments came into effect. As a result, manufacturers were more careful with ingredients. The number of colorants used in makeup production began to fall dramatically as a result.2
The FDA put forward a series of regulations that were later challenged (some successfully and others not) by the cosmetic industry.2
Disco And Natural Trends Plus Label Regulation In The 1970s
The disco fever era warranted glossy, dark lips. The industry began flaming lipstick as a result. This involved running lipstick through flames at an ultra quick speed, causing the lipstick to melt on the outside and harden as shiny.2
The natural look was also in vogue, especially within the feminist movement. Consumers increasingly demanded cosmetics made from natural products. Lipstick manufacturers developed their lipsticks using plant extracts, flavoured their formula with natural products, and focused on the alleged medicinal benefits of lipstick in their marketing campaigns.2
The FDA required a full list of ingredients labelled on cosmetic product packaging.2
Sperm whale oil was commonly used in cosmetics (including lipstick) up until this era. The FDA banned its import to the US in the late 1970s.17
Jojoba oil acts as a good substitute for sperm whale oil, with the added bonuses that it does not contain triglycerides, and it also doesn’t have the sperm whale oil’s fishy scent.
Regulation Was Central In The 1980s
Further regulation came into effect during the 1980s. This included color delistings, self-regulatory practices at an industry wide level, and new legislation in certain US states.2 For example, greater emphasis was placed around regulating cosmetics with carcinogenic or toxic chemical ingredients in California.
A harmful ingredient, hydroxyanisole, was removed from lipsticks in 1983 after the discovery that it strips pigment from the lips.2
Packaging And Ingredient Innovation Was Popular In The 1990s
Brands focused on perfecting their packaging – even on refining the *click* cap closing sound. Glow-in-the-dark lipstick became a novelty for a short period of time. It was banned by the FDA because the glow was created from an unapproved color additive (zinc sulfide).2
The natural trend was back, with many brands marketing vitamin and herb ingredients in lipstick. Some marketing campaigns hinted at hemp in their formula providing a high (or a mellow-out effect) to wearers.2
The FDA ended its ‘adverse reaction reporting‘ policy, but largely left the self-regulation and self-report system intact in the 1990s. This system operates via industry-wide ingredient tests and voluntary reporting.2
Many US states passed environmental regulations (with an emphasis on recycling and waste management) in the 1990s that had an impact on the lipstick industry.2
Formula Discussion Reaches Nobel Scientists In 2000s
Innovations continued into the 2000s, with a heavy focus on creating long-wearing lipstick and transfer-proof technology in particular.
The discussion around transfer-proof lipstick even reached elite scientist levels. The Nobel Laureate, Pierre-Gille De Gennes, described the difficulty involved in developing a transfer-proof, but also soft and smooth-finish, lipstick formula. He discussed the creation of a transfer proof lipstick with block copolymer that transforms to a gel when it meets saliva as a solution.18
A significant issue with lipstick packaging in the modern era is waste. Squawkfox estimates about 2 dollars worth of each CoverGirl Nature Luxe lip balm is wasted due to shoddy packaging!19 Brands are likely to develop more efficient packaging in the future – for the sake of both the consumer and the environment.
The Future of Lipstick | What’s New and What’s Coming Up
Lipstick is one of the cheapest cosmetic products to produce, and also one of the most popular makeup products among consumers. Rest assured – we can expect a ton of innovation in this lucrative market in the future.
It’s difficult to predict the future of innovation in the world of lipstick cosmetics completely, but recent research gives us a hint of what’s to come.
Health Benefits And Antioxidant Effects
Even though harmful ingredients were used in the past, most lipsticks today are safe to use. However, the ingredients evolution is continuing. Soon our lipsticks will contain ingredients that are not only harmless, but also have health benefits!
Scientists have experimented with acylated and nonacylated anthocyanins as colorants in lipstick.20 Anthocyanins are pigments naturally found in many foods (giving food a rich color), and are known to provide antioxidant effects. They are typically used in herbal medicine. Anthocyanins also have reported anti-cancer & anti-inflammatory effects, and help to fight free radicals.21
Another study investigated the antioxidant effect of purple yam anthocyanins when used as lipstick pigment. Placing the anthocyanin into the lipstick weakened (but did not eliminate) the antioxidant effect.22
Innovations In Packaging Tubes And 3D Printed Lipstick
Some recent lipstick inventions haven’t really taken off – did you know a vibrating lipstick was patented in 2004?23
In 2016 a patent application was submitted for a special push-or-pull lipstick tube. It features a lid-operated control unit to prevent the tube lid from falling off.24
A recent study investigated the feasibility of a 3D printed, personalised lipstick applicator. This special applicator would mould to the exact shape of lips – removing the need to use a mirror when applying this lipstick.25
Only time will tell if these tube and 3D print innovations can dominate the lipstick market in the future.
With the full-lip look rising in popularity, lip plumping tools have become increasingly popular in the past 10 years.
Herbal Lipsticks With Safer Ingredients Could Be The Future
In 2007, there was a scare in relation to lead found in lipsticks.26 Even with the leaps and bounds made in terms of lipstick safety, we must be cautious and consumer aware. Some researchers have assured that a customer would need to eat 1000s of lipstick tubes in order to develop lead poisoning.3
As a result, consumers have demanded more natural and safer lipsticks to ensure they’re not ingesting any harmful ingredients.
Researchers have developed herbal lipstick by combining castor oil, paraffin and bees wax, beet root juice, Shikaki fruit powder, lemon oil, orange essence, and vanilla essence.27
Another paper examines the efficacy of a herbal lipstick made using essential oils and plant pigments as an alternative to chemical-laden lipsticks.28 Not only is this herbal lipstick safe, it also has health benefits, freshens breath, and prevents lip chapping.
Did you know lipstick has less of an impact on our perceived attractiveness than a full face of makeup and eye-only makeup? Check out our review of the research on the difference between our before and after makeup faces to learn more.
ARE YOU CAUTIOUS ABOUT THE INGREDIENTS IN YOUR LIPSTICKS? ARE YOU EXCITED FOR FUTURE LIPSTICK INNOVATIONS? LET ME KNOW DOWN IN THE COMMENTS!
. 1. Patent: Fluorescent Brightening of Cosmetic Compositions, invented by Berthiaume et al. (1995 onwards)
.2. Reading Our Lips: The History of Lipstick Regulation in Western Seats of Power, Schaffer (2006)
. 3. Cosmetics, categories, and the future, Draelos (2012)
. 4. Patent: High-gloss, high-shine lipstick, invented by Edmundson and Jacks (1988 onwards)
. 6. Introduction to Cosmetic Formulation and Technology, Baki et al. (2015)
. 7. Effect of various formulation on viscosity and melting point of natural ingredient based lipstick, Bono et al. (2006)