All Our Questions About Natural Makeup, Answered

How to switch to natural makeup—and why it's worth it.
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Far and away from any major life change, becoming a mom has made me so much more aware not only of what I put into my body but also what I put onto it. Nowadays, everything is reframed by the question, "Would I feed that/give that to Sloan?" At this point, I try to make smart choices: I use natural deodorant and Oxybenzone-free sunscreen but, as you can see from my recent tutorials, I've been slow to adopt a fully natural routine. Despite the growing claims against conventional makeup and the fact that skin absorbs up to 100% of what we put onto it, I never felt entirely clear on whether re-hauling my entire makeup routine was necessary or worthwhile. Since I have so many questions about natural makeup—starting with why it's actually that much better for you—I decided to head to the source. I reached out to the co-founder of one of my favorite beauty brands W3ll People (who you may remember from this Find of the Week!), to ask her my top natural beauty questions. 

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While Shirley Pinkson is a wealth of knowledge on all things beauty, it wasn't until recently that she fully adopted "natural beauty" herself. As a makeup artist for nearly thirty years, working for MAC Cosmetics and then as a NARS Global Educator, she told me, "I knew how to do the best cat eye or smokey eyes, but I couldn't tell you what a paraben was. After fourteen years of working with [NARS], I'd never once read the ingredients in their products—which is nuts, but true!" Once she started doing her homework, she says, she didn't like what she saw. Around the same time that her personal clients and customers began asking her about parabens, both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer, within the same year of one another. "There was zero history of cancer in the family, it hit all of us by storm... and that lit a flame within me to create products that are truly good for people," she said. Read on to learn about natural makeup (and yes, what a paraben is!):

Cupcakes and Cashmere: What's the most common question you receive about natural beauty?

Shirley Pinkson: "Does it work?" "Am I going to get the coverage I want?" "Is it going to break me out?" The most common questions are all built on the misconception that natural products won’t work the same as conventional ones—people come in skeptical.

C&C: I have to admit, I've always assumed that it doesn't work as well.

SP: That is, nowadays, a true misconception, as technology has allowed us to surpass that. Back in the day—and I'm talking only ten years ago or so—the makeup that was available to us, in the natural food stores and in the natural boutiques, didn't really work. They were greasy, heavy, and oily; the textures weren't conducive to what we wanted to put on our own complexions, and they didn't create the finishes we are used to now. In the past, most natural products were about building a beautiful ingredient list—but the problem with that was these products weren’t performing well. 

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The biggest point of difference is who's behind these companies these days. I can speak to my line in that it’s a line that is built by a makeup artist not for a makeup artist, for the modern woman who demands simplicity and performance and integrity in her products. I want my cosmetics to perform equally to NARS or MAC or Kat von D. And, I don't want the consumer to feel any difference between the products from these companies, except the fact that one makes her feel better internally, knowing that these specific products are also good for her health.

C&C: What's changed in the technology?

SP: I don’t think there’s a specific technology; it’s the ability for manufacturers to blend truly natural ingredients together. They’ve learned how to work with natural ingredients when they previously hadn't, and the learning curve is still huge. It's not easy being good—one of the biggest issues is that they don't have plant-based ingredients readily available and they’re not used to working with them, so when I'm working with a formulator, it takes three times longer to create a good product. But what I’m finding along the way is that the research has become more refined and they are learning how to work and stabilize these ingredients. With natural ingredients, there are no preservative systems built in, so the textures can vary and get waxy. Now, I'm finding a lot of formulators are finding ways to preserve the texture and ingredients without having to make a non-natural choice. 

C&C: What's so bad about conventional beauty products? What are some of the ingredients to look out for?

I have always had this thing about staying away from saying conventional is "bad" because I don't want to put down anyone else—the skills and assets I learned while working with a brand like NARS will forever be a gift to me—and to be able to take that education and bring it to something better and more powerful for women means the world to me. 

That being said, parabens are number one. In my research, I've found that parabens have a direct, proven, solid link to breast cancer. If that isn't a red light to anybody, I don't know what is.

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Avobenzone and oxybenzone are also dangerous because all we want to do right now is protect our skin from the sun. Here, we feel like we’re doing something good for ourselves, when, in fact, we are using a sunscreen loaded with chemicals, and we think it’s fantastic because it has SPF 85 or some grand number, but what goes into these products is so bad for us. Oxybenzone is a delivery system for a sun-blocking agent, so it delivers the sunscreen agent into the tissue of the skin where it then neutralizes the UVB and UVA rays; however, our body doesn't know what they are, and it trips our system to believe they are hormone disrupters or hormones. The results are potentially cancerous and simply not good for you—period. When it comes to a sunblock, we should all focus on a block that blocks sun rays on the surface of your skin. A lot of brands are only using non-micronizing oxides so it doesn't penetrate the skin and it for sure blocks the sun rays right there on the surface without having to use avobenzone and oxybenzone

Another one that really gets me is Propylene glycol. The next time you're in the airport, look in a hanger and you’ll see a huge vat that says that [Ed note: It's used as an aircraft de-icer since it's able to lower the freezing point of water]. It's also used as an emulsifier in cream cosmetics that gives things a beautiful slip, and as a color binder. It's just so bad for you.

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And then there's mineral oil. It’s not necessarily toxic, but it's also not good for the skin. It just lies on the surface, and if you're somebody who has any skin condition that requires you to hydrate, when you use products that contain silicones or mineral oil, all it does is mask your skin by saran wrap. It does nothing to heal it and creates the illusion of hydration. And it's really bad for the environment; petroleum isn’t renewable, so any brand that claims to be green and still uses silicone is not good for you. 

I could go on and on about ingredients, but those are my biggies.

C&C: Can you explain more about the environmental impact of using unnatural products?

SP: The key is staying away from petroleum products. It creeps in in every way—just look at your mascara. If you're using conventional mascara, the fibers are petroleum-based, so it can whittle its way into every piece of your cosmetic routine: When you wash your face, it goes into the watershed, which goes into your system; when it goes into the watershed, it just doesn’t leave.

C&C: Is it more important for some makeup to be natural over other products? For example, is it more important to use foundation / mascara or are they all really important?

SP: Down to the nitty gritty, go with the foundation and the concealer, whether a cream or a powder, that’s natural. It’s so important that you know what you're putting all over your complexion. Foundation is a big deal, it covers the most of our skin and we absorb as much as 80% of what we put on our skin. So, I’d argue that it takes priority over some other products, like mascara. 

C&C: Is natural makeup regulated?

SP: The FDA does not regulate what goes into cosmetics—they’re just now starting to step up, but the word "natural" gets thrown around left and right. What a woman needs to do is stop taking the marketing at face value and really read the labels. We need to educate ourselves in order to do the right thing for ourselves and our family. 

C&C: Is there a difference when it comes to natural vs. organic vs. vegan products?

SP: They don't go hand-in-hand. In terms of organic—if you’re claiming a product is organic, it must be a certain percentage of organic, therefore it doesn’t mean that a so-called “organic” product is 100% organic. You can't claim a product is organic unless there are 70% organic ingredients, actually. 

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When it comes to saying a product is a natural product, there are very few actually natural products. Is it naturally derived or natural because it contains a few delicious sounding ingredients? I feel like that word gets really taken advantage of—the definition is seemingly ambiguous, which is why it’s important to do your research before you buy. 

In terms of vegan, to me, a nail polish can be vegan because it doesn't contain any animal byproduct, but what does it contain? All chemicals. When they say vegan, this doesn’t mean it's good for you; it just means there’s no animal byproduct in the product. This is how they trick people. They trick them by attempting to convince something is good for them, but these ingredients may actually be harmful chemicals under this “natural” guise. 

C&C: If I've been using conventional makeup my entire life, is it too late to reap the benefits of natural makeup?

SP: First of all, if you feel like you’re stressing yourself out and panicking that you've been doing the wrong thing for the past 20 years, I’m all about the "here and now" and balance. Trust me, I love my glass of wine or two, and life is all about creating balance where you, yourself, feel good. It's the same with makeup.

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I can tell you when I run into my old counterparts at NARS, they always say, “God you look good and your skin looks good.” I feel there’s not a specific timeline in making this better choice for your skin. You can make this choice whenever. I feel our main goal—yours and mine—is to have beautiful-looking skin. Our skin can only start to improve when we do something good for ourselves by making that switch from conventional cosmetics to clean cosmetics, and you will begin to see incredible results from doing so.

What are your tips for transitioning to natural makeup from conventional? 

SP: The biggest rule of thumb is to switch out the products you use everyday because those are the products that carry the biggest burden in terms of chemicals and ingredients. Switch out your favorite blush or concealer or bronzer—whatever you use the most. 

C&C: Will it take time for my skin to adjust to it?

SP: Honestly your skin will react if you're switching either way, so a reaction may not be because it’s a healthy plant-based product; a reaction could be a result of switching to another conventional product. It won't take any longer than if you were switching to any other product.

C&C: What's the best way to find good natural makeup products?

SP: My advice is to go to a location where you feel confident that you're speaking to someone who understands makeup and has makeup artists, not just an esthetician, so that they can understand why you are breaking up with your foundation. 

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Make sure to take samples home, and when you ask for samples, ask for a supply of at least five days of use, so that you have a trial period of time to decide if you like it. Most places also have a flexible return policy, and foundation is important whether you use concealer or foundation or both, so you really have to try it before you buy it. And don't give up! There are so many brands that are emerging right now and so many extensions of categories to existing brands, so we can find your match. Most of all, go to a place that's reputable and speak to somebody who will hear you out.

C&C: Finally, what does “clean beauty” mean to you? 

SP: Clean beauty for me is healthy beauty. I look at beauty from a toxicity perspective, so there are cosmetics that truly look good on you and are cosmetics that are not harmful for you. The best products seem to do both. We’ve partnered with the Environmental Working Group and the Skindeep Database in order to decipher this boundary. A lot of women use the Skindeep Database for buying beauty because they don’t want toxic products near them or their children. Using this information we can essentially single out these “clean products,” which for me are products that are truly good for you from a toxicity perspective.

Back in the day when I was working at Barney’s, I was doing a makeup chair and my client would say, “I want Gwen Stefani's latest look,” and she feels fantastic on the outside. But now it's such a gift because I can sit down with a woman and speak with her a lot of the time. When anyone walks in, they're walking in because they want to make a better choice or they are celiac or have cancer and I feel so fortunate to be a part of a woman's journey.

C&C: Thank you! 

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