Beauty PI: The Surprising (and Kind of Ugly) History of Foundation
Our Beauty P.I. series is where Makeup.com editor Alanna delves into the history of various makeup products — where they originated and how they’ve evolved. Next up on the list is the conception of foundation.
I’ll put it plainly: It’s important to address that not all makeup has a pretty history — and one of the products that falls under this ugly umbrella is one of beauty’s most common: foundation. To be honest, it’s pretty horrifying to realize that the formula I stipple on my face every day has an appalling past, and that’s why it’s so important that we urge the beauty sphere to focus on inclusivity. Because foundation’s problematic history is rooted in the exact opposite.
A Past Rooted in (All Kinds Of) Poison
Foundation’s grisly origin can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. To make their skin appear more “fair,” the Grecians and Romans painted their faces with a poisonous chalk, also known as white lead, New Beauty reports. Unfortunately, this makeup trend continued through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and eventually became a staple in Queen Elizabeth I’s beauty cabinet. Coined as Venetian ceruse, this ghastly combination of lead and vinegar was used all over her face to cover up smallpox scars, and to give a more “pallor” appearance. Even worse, the toxic lead formula had side-effects including hair loss, rotten teeth and permanent skin discoloration, according to National Geographic.
Because white lead nearly killed most individuals who used it, this kind of makeup changed in the nineteenth century, and complexion liquids were made of zinc oxide, glycerin and even calamine lotion. Again, this face makeup was used to cover up imperfections and discoloration — and it only came in white, pink and red shades. The extremely problematic product greasepaint (a primitive form of stage makeup) was also born around this time, and was heavily used in the theater and on the silver screen.
Powder Foundation is Born
When technicolor film was finally introduced in the 1930s, Hollywood makeup entrepreneur Max Factor was not pleased with how greasepaint looked on screen, so he decided to develop a new powder formula, aptly named Pan-Cake. This powder was pressed onto the skin, and was meant to create a more natural finish as opposed to the heavy greasy coverage that was commonly used. It was water-based and contained a myriad of pigments and oils that were dried and crushed to create a loose powder, according to Cosmetics and Skin. The OG formula is still manufactured today, but it definitely declined in popularity as liquid foundations improved in the 1940s to 50s and beyond.
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Liquid Foundation Comes Onto the Scene
And it wasn’t just the birth of powder product that came about pre-World War II: Liquid foundation also came to fruition during this time, and in an unlikely manner at that. In an effort to rid stockings from their wardrobe, women of the 30s and 40s turned to leg makeup to even out and “cover up” their legs. This leg makeup formula actually played a large part in the synthesis of what we know as liquid foundation, Cosmetics and Skin reports.
This “leg film,” was formulated to be rub-resistant, sweat proof and non-transferrable, and eventually evolved into liquid tinted bases for the face in the 40s and 50s. In 1952, Coty came out with Instant Beauty — a tinted foundation formula that sat lightly on the skin, which was free from grease and promised to never over-dry. It came in six shades and was packaged in bottles similar to those we know, use and love today. It was official — liquid foundation formulas began to dominate the beauty empire with Revlon, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and more following suit and creating their own versions.
Today’s foundation formulas vary from powder to oil-based to water-based to silicone-based ingredients and everything in between. But it’s vital to note that although the formulas have dramatically improved over the years, foundation still has a long way to go when it comes to inclusivity — and that’s where inspiring innovators come in.
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Cue: L’Oréal chemist Balanda Atis, who leads the L’Oréal Multicultural Beauty Lab in Clark, New Jersey. “Growing up, my family and my friends were always struggling to find makeup that matched their skin tone because the colors were often too red, giving the skin a bruised look, or too black, making the skin look muddy,” Atis says. “I personally struggled with the same issue: trying to find foundation products was always a big concern.”
That’s when Atis knew she wanted to do something about it and proceeded to get her master’s degree in cosmetic chemistry, ultimately joining the L’Oréal lab team. “At the time, I remember thinking: There has to be a way to fix a problem that affects millions of women,” she recalls.
Soon after, Atis’s team found that a unique ultramarine pigment held the key to creating shades for all types of deeper skin tones. “Creating foundation shades for women of color involves understanding the colors that make up individual skin tones and finding the right colrants to address those skin tones. In our case, this colorant was ultramarine blue — a blue pigment that has the ability to create deep, pure colors without sacrificing the final look,” Atis notes.
It’s this very lab that created some of our modern-day well-wearing and inclusive favorites, including the the Lancôme Teint Idole Foundation Collection, which comes in 40 shades, and the Maybelline Fit Me Foundation Line, which is available in a whopping 48 shades. “I’m excited about every product I’ve worked on,” Atis says. “But I think the work with Lupita Nyong'o and creating her shade 555 for Lancôme’s Teint Idole was truly groundbreaking.” It’s these lines of products that represent a great start to a diverse, comprehensive and personalized foundation future — and I’m so glad to be here for it.
It’s our time more than ever to change and redefine foundation’s place in the beauty world and industry, and to keep pushing our favorite brands to be more inclusive — who’s with me?