How clean is your lipstick?

It’s not hard to find a “clean” lipstick on the market these days. There are tons of brands popping up, especially after the “lead in lipstick” scare a few years ago. In fact, it’s pretty simple to replace petroleum, synthetic preservatives, and chemical emulsifiers found in conventional lipsticks with plant-based oils and waxes. A typical natural lipstick recipe usually includes

Castor oil, jojoba oil (plus other oils like avocado, pomegranate, or sunflower), butters (like cacao, shea or mango), vitamin E oil, beeswax or vegan wax, and fruit extracts.

But that’s just the base formula. Natural cosmetic companies are still presented with the challenge of adding pigment, which can be extracted from a few sources: minerals, plants, synthetic formulations, and bugs (Yup, bugs. Insect-based ingredients can be listed as carmine, cochineal extracts, Natural Red 4, or E120).

Before “clean beauty” became popular, you’d be lucky to find a natural lipstick that wasn’t a dusty rose, coppery brown, or nude. That’s because these lipstick formulas were truly natural and only contained mineral and plant pigments. The recent rise in demand for clean beauty products has companies trying to meet consumer demands by producing natural lipsticks that still look and feel like their synthetic counterparts. Until recently, conventional makeup products were the only option when seeking vibrant, richly pigmented colours like bright red and magenta.

Can you have bright shades without synthetic pigment? 

It’s difficult (or near impossible) to create bright reds and other vibrant colours only using naturally occurring compounds. Tata Harper, (founder of the popular natural skincare line) has divulged in interviews that it’s a huge challenge to get the same vibrant shades as conventional brands. She says that in her Tata Harper lip and cheek tints she won’t use synthetic dyes, which are often listed as FD&C or D&C and created using either petroleum or coal tar.

When Sasha Plavsic – the founder of natural lipstick company ILIA Beauty – formulated her lipsticks, she decided to include small amounts of synthetic colours in all but one lipstick shade. According to her, ILIA lipsticks contain 0.1-0.3% of synthetic dye in order to rival conventional brands in the most natural way possible. She’s admitted “it was a tough call, since some people may have a known adversity or allergy to some synthetic colour.” In the end, the goal was to create an option for both. She created one lipstick shade, ‘Nobody’s Baby’ with natural pigments and is 100% iron oxide–based.

Iron oxides and titanium dioxide are the most common pigments used in natural lipsticks. What’s not often considered is that iron oxides and titanium dioxide, like many ingredients from the earth, can contain traces of heavy metals naturally found in soil and rock. This means that at least some contamination may occur with the mineral ingredients used in cosmetics. That said, pigments made from chemical and petroleum-based ingredients, especially coal tar dyes, tend to be more heavily contaminated than those sourced from plant and mineral ingredients.

Things to consider when shopping for lipstick

Are companies being transparent and open about the pigments they’re using?

What level of “natural” are you personally comfortable with?

For me, it’s hard to live without vibrant shades of lipstick; I just love them so much! Since I’ll never give up lipstick and only wear sheer lip balm (which is probably the best way to avoid all contamination), I must weigh my options and choose transparent brands. ILIA deserves credit for being completely transparent about the choice to use synthetic pigment. There are probably many organic cosmetic brands that also use mild synthetic colours but choose not to list them in their ingredients.

Do your research, get to know cosmetic brands, and trust your instincts to make conscious decisions about what’s good for your own health.

Try these clean lipstick brands!

Here are a few of my favourite lipstick brands that provide beautifully pigmented lipsticks with the cleanest ingredients possible:

Tata Harper
W3ll People
DaLish – Nude Lipstick

Note: Many popular lipstick brands use titanium dioxide, which has been deemed safe when it doesn’t contain nanoparticles that can be inhaled. Additionally, many companies are using an inorganic compound called manganese violet, rated a 1 (or low hazard) by the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.



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Seanna Cohen is a certified Skin Care Therapist and founder of the Clean Beauty School, an online destination to learn skincare tips & tricks, shop the best clean beauty products, and get personalized advice. As a trusted skincare expert, she inspires others to take a holistic approach to beauty and find sustainable practices through her skincare coaching, webinars, and classes.