Revealing the Secrets in Concealer

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Have you ever wondered what's in that teeny ingredient list on your eye shadow? Or whether there's any difference between a drugstore compact and the $50 one from Bloomingdale's? Stephen McNeil, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of British Columbia in Okanagan, explains what's in makeup.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This week on Science out of the Box, we rummage around in the mysterious depths of my makeup bag.

(Soundbite of zipping)

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Have you ever wondered whether that fancy department-store makeup is any different from the stuff down at the drugstore? Is it worth shelling out 35 bucks for mascara with vitamins in it, or would you do just as well with a cheap tube? It turns out only a few chemicals are approved for use on your face, and the same ones show up in just about every kind of makeup.

Stephen McNeil is an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. Hello there, professor.

Professor STEPHEN McNEIL (Chemistry, University of British Columbia, Okanagan): Hello there.

SEABROOK: So I'm looking at this pile of makeup in front of me that I dumped out from my bag, and I wonder…

Prof. McNEIL: It sounded quite large.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: I wonder if you can tell me, what is in the mascara? What's in there?

Prof. McNEIL: Well as you were saying, there are a very limited number of chemicals that are out there that have been approved. Getting new substances approved for wearing on your face for a prolonged period of time is a very costly process, so they just tend to recycle the ones that are already out there.

In a typical, you know, like a mascara or an eye shadow or something, you're going to have some talc, you're going to have some mica, you're going to have some kale, and these are all sort of silicate minerals that serve as the base for it, and then there's going to be things in there to provide the color. Titanium dioxide is in everything, including Oreo cookies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. McNEIL: There's probably…

SEABROOK: Is that the white stuff? I've seen titanium white paint.

Prof. McNEIL: Yeah, that's the white stuff. That's the white stuff that's in paint, the white stuff that's in Oreos, the white stuff that is in absolutely everything in your makeup bag.

SEABROOK: Huh.

Prof. McNEIL: And there might be some liquid or near-liquid waxes and skin softening agents, things that come from petroleum products, things like acetyl acetate or isopropyl laurate or - there's a whole list of chemicals, and they all sound like blah-blah-yl, blah-blah-anoate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. McNEIL: And those are all emollients. Those are liquid waxes that help keep the skin smooth and help provide the right texture for the product as well.

SEABROOK: Let me just read some of the ingredients of this eye shadow here. It's a lovely little compact with kind of a rouge and a green and kind of a gold color.

Prof. McNEIL: It sounds delightful.

SEABROOK: You let me know if there's something in here that you think is interesting: talc, mica, zinc stereate?

Prof. McNEIL: That's just a smoothing agent. It's a derivative of animal fat. It provides a nice, smooth texture.

SEABROOK: So this isn't vegetarian?

Prof. McNEIL: No, it's not.

SEABROOK: Dimethacone isononyl isononanoate.

Prof. McNEIL: Okay, so there's one of your blah-blah-blah-yl, blah-blah-blah-anoates.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Right.

Prof. McNEIL: So that's an emollient. The dimethacone is a silicone oil.

SEABROOK: What about PTFE?

Prof. McNEIL: That would be Teflon.

SEABROOK: Really? There's Teflon in my…?

Prof. McNEIL: Absolutely, and it's not going to be plates of Teflon the way you'd find it on your frying pan. It's going to be little tiny spheres of Teflon, probably, to help keep it smooth and shiny and provide some of that texture.

SEABROOK: Well let me ask you this. Is there any difference between this, which I will admit is a drugstore brand, and this other stuff I have over here, which is fancy-pants Lancome department store brand?

Prof. McNEIL: The first thing I would say is to point out the irony of asking a science professor about a product designed to enhance personal appearance. I don't know how many science professors you've hung out with, Andrea, but personal appearance is not high on our agenda.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. McNEIL: These chemicals are almost - they're going to be very, very close to the same stuff. If all you're trying to do is enhance your personal appearance, if you think that one makeup actually does a better job at that than the other one, knock yourself out.

SEABROOK: Chemistry professor Stephen McNeil. Thanks so much for talking with us.

Prof. McNEIL: Thank you very much for having me.

SEABROOK: Stephen McNeil talked to us last year about the different kinds of soaps, and believe it or not, you can wash your hair with dish soap. There's more on our Web site, npr.org.

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