Makeup Under the Microscope! Taking a Closer Look at Lipstick

Makeup Under the Microscope! Taking a Closer Look at Lipstick

I just bought a new microscope, and like anyone with a new instrument of science, I couldn’t wait to take it for a test run! After examining hair, puddles, and red blood cells, I was left wondering what else I could look at. My daughter had a brilliant suggestion – why not look at some of my makeup under the microscope? I could combine two of my favorite things – makeup and science, and check out what my new microscope could do!

Soon, I was smearing lipstick on slides and what I found was astonishing! There was a brilliant display of all kinds of colors and crystals within the lipsticks! Below, you’ll find images of the various shades I looked at. If you’re curious about what you’re seeing and why it’s there, you can find a complete breakdown of the chemistry of makeup production, and the physics of light refraction and reflection! But first, check out these gorgeous lipstick samples under the microscope!


I started with Benefit’s Dandelion lip gloss. This gloss wears as a shimmery nude and has a luxurious silky texture. Under the microscope, however, that nude is transformed into a beautiful palette reminiscent of unicorn pastels! These crystals help in the reflective properties of the lipstick, as well as give a shimmer of color depending on where the light hits on the shade!



While lipstick wears as a bright pink coral color, it was remarkable to see the variety of colors within the lipstick, as well as the fine ground pigments within the waxes and oils! With blues, greens, reds, yellows, and pinks, they all work together to create a coral shade!


This is one of my favorite everyday lipsticks, as it’s been recommended as a dupe for high-end brands like Jeffree Star for it’s all day coverage. It wears as a rich matte berry color, and lasts for hours without budging! I see a lot of these small bubbles within the lipstick, which I didn’t see in many of the other samples. These may have to do with the chemistry of “all day wear”, but I’d have to compare them with other similar staying lipsticks to know for sure.


This was one of my favorite samples to look at under the microscope, with its brilliant splashes of color, the contrast between reds, pinks, and browns and golds. You can also see some small flakes of blue and green in there! This was a gorgeous specimen, and it made me appreciate the brilliant sparkly pink shade even more!


This Tarte lipstick is one of my favorite everyday lipsticks. It wears as a rich muted pinkish purple, with a soft and silky texture. Under the microscope, this lipstick presents a lot of fine pigment details, with smaller color crystals for a perfect color combination.


This sample was similar to the benefit sample in that it was filled with beautiful crystals of pinks, blues, greens, and violets! It was a gorgeous display of shimmer, with a lot of fine pigments added to the mix!


In this lipstick, you can see a lot of pigmentation, with a lot of oil to carry the pigment to the lips. This lipstick has a very glossy texture, which becomes even more apparent when you see the oily glimmer under the microscope.


This lip stain was a long time favorite of mine with its deep pinkish purple color and long lasting wear. Under the microscope, it’s fascinating to see the fine pigments mixed with splashes of colorful crystals. Colors like these can have a slight change in color when they bond to your lips, and it was fascinating to see the crystals of color that create this lovely shade.


This ULTA lip gloss has several colors layered within the tube. Under the microscope, you can see a huge variety of colors splashed about with reflective crystals! With browns, greens, pinks, reds, and blues, this shade has a high reflective property, with lots of shimmers.


This wet n wild lipstick wears with a rich purple color, yet you can also see the pigment placement is slightly uneven. This is also apparent in the lipstick itself as it has a tendency to wear out unevenly throughout the day.


This lip paint from Tarte is fun to wear, with a lot of pigment, and a silky soft texture. Under the microscope, this becomes more apparent with fine pigments and small amounts of color crystals and variations! It’s interesting to see that a nude lipstick can have colors like pink, blue, green, and even yellow present in the shade!


All of these samples were beautiful to look at, but they left me with a lot of questions! Why were there all of these flecks of blues and greens in there? Why did the glosses have large flakes of colorful crystals, while the lipstick had smaller crystals? Why were there more colored pigments in some lipsticks, yet sparsely distributed in others? Why were they filled with so much variation, and how did that transfer to the looks I’m used to when I wear them?

To answer these questions, I had to dive into some serious chemistry, to learn the chemical properties of lipstick, and understand a bit of the physics of light refraction, reflection, and color variance.


Pigments CC Dan Brady

Every shade of lipstick is filled with pigments. These pigments can come in two varieties: inorganic pigments and organic pigments. Organic refers, not necessarily to “natural” or plant-based materials, but to molecules that are bonded through the element Carbon, which is the basis for the molecular structures of life! Inorganic pigments are often derived transitional metals and minerals found within the Earth. Almost all of them, with the exception of some plant or animal based colors, are now synthetic, made in laboratories specializing in pigment production.


Iron Oxide: These are used for reds, browns, blacks, and yellows.
Chromium Oxide: These present a green color pigment.
Ultramarines: These can give blue tinted violets, and blue-ish pink colors.
Titanium Dioxide/Zinc Oxides: These can give white pigments, and provide some protection against UV rays.

Inorganic pigments are usually opaque, solvent resistant, and give muted colors. They are usually derived from transition metals. These are interesting because the way the electrons are bonded to the atoms of the metals, allow them to jump to different orbitals within their bonds. This causes the metals to absorb some wavelengths of light, resulting in the various colors we see!


AZO colorants:
these are used for the basis of red and yellow colors.AS
Triarylmethane: this is used as the basis for a lot of blue and green colors.
Xanthenes: These dyes are used for staining, they give vibrant red and orange colors.
Anthraquinone: this is a green colorant derived from plant-based compounds.

Natural Colorants:
These can include things like cochineal extracts (extracts from ground beetle shells) to give a vibrant red color, caramel colors, and carotenoids (these are pigments found in leaves that give an orange or yellow color!). These materials, while more natural in the traditional sense, have limited longevity in wear, and can have occasional odors. Aromatic compounds are usually used to mask these odors to give the wearer a more pleasant experience in application.

Organic pigments are used when a vibrant, bright color is desired. Bright red and pink lipsticks usually contain a significant number of organic pigments. However, the trade-off for bright colors is that they tend to wear out faster when exposed to sunlight, weathering, or dust particles. Therefore, they will often be combined with other fillers to help promote longevity in wear.


CC Wikimedia Commons

Fillers and filler pigments are used to even out the pigments in lipstick and extend the duration of color on the lips. They can also add a desirable texture (like the smooth and silky feel of lipstick) while adding interesting effects like shine and shimmer. They can be inert, with no visual impact on the lipstick, used to add a bulk to the makeup, or functional, creating a desirable reaction with the makeup itself.

Mica: Mica is a gorgeous silver glass-like mineral, commonly found bonded to rocks and crystals. Mica flakes are used to create shine and shimmer in glosses and lipsticks. When this filler is added to lipsticks and glosses, it can produce a range of colors when light hits it from different angles.

Bismuth Oxychloride: Bismuth is another beautiful shimmer crystal that can either be found naturally occurring in the Earth or, in the case of cosmetics, cultivated within a laboratory setting and used to create a gray or silver pearl effect to lipsticks and glosses.

Talc: This common mineral is used in small quantities to soften lipstick to create a pleasant texture. It also absorbs moisture and reduces transparency in lipstick so that it retains a full-bodied look.

As light hits these crystals, the light waves refract (bend), causing a shift in the colors, and the shimmer we see in the makeup. The intensity of the shimmer effect is determined by the size of the crystals. The larger the crystal, the more reflective and “shimmery” the lipstick or gloss will be. Conversely, the smaller the crystal, the more muted the shimmer will be.


CC Maja Dumat

These make up the bulk of the lipsticks and glosses we use, as they hold all of the pigments, fillers, fragrances and other materials together. Waxes are especially important, for they provide the shape and primary consistency and texture of lipsticks. Oils can be useful for glosses and liquid lipsticks, to give a base for the rest of the ingredients to mix into. Waxes and oils are often used together, and a variety of combinations can be found in different brands and colors.

The most common waxes and oils are:

Beeswax: Used to bind oils and liquids together in an emulsion, and prevent moisture loss.
Carnauba Wax: Used for a solid structure, as well as a high melting point, keeping lipstick intact for longer periods of time.
Candelilla Wax: This is also used as an emollient while providing a soft feel and a shimmery look.

Castor Oil, Olive Oil, Coconut Oil, Lanolin, Mineral Oil, Cocoa Butter, and Petrolatum:
 These all can give a hardness to lipstick when it dries, improving texture and longevity. They can be added to various lipsticks and glosses to provide the bonding of various chemical compositions in the creation of the makeup while adding a softness to the lips, and an easy application with the gliding of lipstick onto the skin.


Finally, there are many different fragrances that can be added to a variety of cosmetics, including lipsticks to give a pleasant smell to the makeup. This serves an additional purpose of masking the unpleasant odors of the chemicals themselves that are used to make them. Even unscented lipsticks have fragrances in them, makeup chemistry is a smelly process!

Finishers can be added to seal the color into the lipstick after application, and some products like cinnamon or capsaicin can be included to stimulate the skin and give a “plumping” effect of the lips!

Perhaps most interestingly, some ingredients, like eosin, can even change color when it’s added to your lips! This compound reacts to the proteins in your skin, and through a chemical reaction, can turn to a darker shade of red after application!


Looking through all of these lipsticks and lip glosses under the microscope was a fascinating experience. So many gorgeous colors, so many pigment variations, and so many beautiful crystals could be seen under the lens! After learning so much about the chemistry of makeup, I now have a greater appreciation for the lipsticks I wear and have a better understanding of how they work once I apply them to my skin! Makeup and science are perhaps my two greatest passions beyond my family, and it was a fascinating adventure in microscopy that allowed me to combine these two loves, and chase the curiosity of how it all worked!

If you have a microscope at home, I encourage you to try this out with your favorite shades! Try higher end makeups and compare them against drug store varieties. Try glosses and compare them to full bodied lipsticks! See what sparkling wonders can be found in your lipstick drawer!

Happy Exploring!

Looking for exciting science experiments to do with your kids? Pre-order my new book, Pop Sizzle Boom! 101 Science Experiments for the Mad Scientist in Every Kid!


Cosmetic Chemistry – The Compounds in Red Lipstick

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1 Comment

  1. How do olive oil, mineral oil, and castor oil give hardness to a lipstick when they are not either not saturated fats or contain very little saturated fat (which is what causes solidification of fats)? Their use as emollients and/or occlusives absolutely makes sense, I guess I'm just failing to see how they help the hardness of a lipstick?

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