Nowadays, just about every cosmetic product on the market has a unique formula created to meet specific needs. Some are designed for people with dry skin, others for oily skin. Colors vary widely. And companies have to keep up with a constantly changing sense of style.
“We’re always looking for something new,” Hasher says. “We want to make something that feels different from what everyone else has.”
Many modern foundations start with a combination of water and silicone, a very stable type of chemical. Substances called emulsifiers are then added. They hold the water and silicone together. This keeps the ingredients from separating.
To the base, cosmetic formulators then add pigments for color. The Romans used tin oxide, Hasher says, because that was just about the only thing available. Today, iron oxides produce crisper colors.
Modern makeup companies also steer clear of ingredients that come from animals. Today’s materials come from plants instead, or they’re created in the lab.
One of the biggest advances in the past decade or so, Hasher says, involves synthetic materials called pearls and micas. These are tiny round particles that change the way light bounces off the face. The result is a soft, blurring effect that supposedly makes people look better.
New techniques that allow scientists to grind ingredients into extra-small pieces have also fed a trend toward more comfortable, longer-lasting foundations.
Londinium cream would have been thick and cakey, Hasher says. Like other ancient makeup, it probably cracked after a while and hurt to wear. Today’s products don’t have that problem.
One of the most important steps in producing makeup these days is something the Romans probably never did: Testing.
Before cosmetics companies can sell new products, they put them through all sorts of harsh trials—heating, freezing, and keeping them at high altitudes to see how they hold up, for example. The companies also hire people to wear the makeup for a while to make sure it interacts with skin in the way it’s supposed to. Sometimes, cosmetics are tested on animals to make sure they are safe for people.
And even though makeup is purely for appearance, makeup scientists draw from discoveries in other fields, Hasher says.
At Estee Lauder, researchers work with companies that study street-sign technology, for example, to find better ways to make bright colors that glow at night even in dim light. They talk with people in the car industry about the science behind paint colors. And they follow research on the eye, to better understand how people see makeup on others.
Still, despite all the advances that have changed makeup formulas during the last 2,000 years, some things haven’t changed. Just like in Roman times, many people today think that covering their faces with creams and colors will make them look better. In the end, though, the old adage is probably true: It’s what on the inside that really counts.