Color Me Red – What is Lipstick Made Of?

Published Categorized as Makeup Tips

Lipstick has been around for thousands of years, and it’s more popular than ever today! As one of the simplest and most affordable make-up products, it adds pops of color and brings any look together in a way that nothing else really can.

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But have you ever really thought about what’s in these little tubes of magic?

If you’d like to find out, keep reading!

Table of Contents

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Ancient Times – What Was Lipstick Made Of?

From the Dawn of Civilization

The origins of lipstick can be traced all the way back to Ancient Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization itself.

Queen Schub-ad of Sumer added color to her lips by coating them with a mixture of crushed red rocks and white lead. This spread to the rest of the elite classes and was used by both men and women as a kind of status symbol.

Later, it was used in Ancient Egypt in the same way.

To Ancient Egypt & Greece

The Ancient Egyptians used ochre (a kind of clay). They ground it up and then mixed it with water as their lip tint of choice. This created a few different color options for them.

Magenta, white, blue-black and orange were all popular choices but, fittingly, red was the most fashionable.

Around 50 BC, carmine (crushed cochineal insect shells) were introduced to create the red lip paint. This dye is still commonly used today and is one of the reasons many lipsticks are not considered vegan.

The use of lip paint also spread to Ancient Greece, although at first it was primarily made from sheep sweat, crocodile waste, red dye and wine, and worn by ladies of the night. For a time, it denoted that a woman was involved in prostitution, and regulations about its use were set.

Later, lip paint became more popular with Greek society’s higher classes. Romans also indulged in the practice, and once again it denoted wealth and status among men and women. They used a type of algae called fucus to add color, and it was as poisonous as the Mesopotamians’ lead or the vermillion favored by the Greeks.

Onwards to Asia & Beyond

The Japanese have also painted their lips for hundreds of years, although they did it a little more simply by crushing saffron petals. Famous Arab-Andalusian physician, chemist and surgeon Al-Zahrawi included a chapter on cosmetics, which he considered a branch of medicine, in his tenth-century medical encyclopedia Al-Tasreef.

Al-Tasreef described perfuming, rolling and pressing adhan (an oily substance) into molds, which are believed to be the earliest versions of present-day lipstick. The encyclopedia was later translated and spread through Western Europe, which may be how lip color was introduced to that part of the world. Whatever the case, lip paint continued to be a symbol of the high classes.

Lipstick’s Western History

In fact, lipstick was such a sign of prestige and indicator of society’s upper echelons that Queen Elizabeth I made her own and wore it. Though it had been used years before, it was criticized by religious institutions during the Middle Ages and only light hints of color were permissible. Elizabeth changed all that, and her signature crimson shade was made with cochineal, egg whites, gum Arabic and fig milk.

This remarkable woman is also credited with the original lip pencil, which is believed to have been invented either by the Queen herself, or by her entourage. They used Plaster of Paris or ground-up alabaster, mixed with color. Lip pencils and paints were thought to have magical powers and were so wildly popular at this time that they were often used as payment instead of money.

A little while later, it was ruled that wearing lipstick in order to entice a man into marriage was witchcraft, and its use was regulated by English parliament. During the 1600s the upper classes began to use imported ingredients such as animal fat, which created a cherry red, while the less fortunate had to stick with cheap, dangerous ceruse.

The ceruse created an ochre red, so once again lipstick was used as a way of telling which class of society a lady was from. If she had cherry red lips, she had money and privilege; if her mouth was ochre red, she did not. The art of making lip paint at home continued, although certain ingredients were outlawed in a 1724 Act that banned concoctions with specific harmful substances.

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Lipstick’s Global Evolution

Lip color was also making its way around the American colonies during the 17th century. Women got quite creative about coloring their mouths here; they tried sucking on lemons or rubbing red ribbon or Bavarian Red Liquor on their lips. Martha Washington, the first US First Lady, used a mix of balsam, sugar, wax, raisons, almond oil, alkanet root and hog’s lard.

Then, during the Victorian Era from the 1830s to 1901, lipstick grew in popularity in America while becoming legally prohibited in England. The first makeup counter in the United States opened at a New York department store in 1867, while a black market in lip paint flourished in Britain. The wealthiest women smuggled Guerlain’s lip pomade in from Paris!

England’s ladies in lipstick were definitely rebelling against the law, but its use was taken to new heights as a suffragette feminist icon in the England of the early 1900s.

A few years later, in the 1920s, flappers adopted it for its shock value. The twentieth century also saw serious development in lipstick manufacturing processes, including the creation of synthetic carmine.
As lip color was increasingly made in tube form – Guerlain was the first big-name brand to do so – the word “lipstick” became the norm. Lip gloss and long-lasting formulations were attempted, although even with all these innovations coal tar dyes and other dangerous ingredients were still the norm. New packaging designs also saw mirrors being set into lipstick cases to allow perfect shaping.

The 1920s also brought flavored lipsticks, with cherry being the clear favorite and the first-ever indelible lipstick. Called “Rouge Baiser”, it was later known as Audrey Hepburn’s first choice. Fracy created a matchbook of disposable lip paint sticks, which was also very novel, but the most important lipstick invention in this decade was arguably the wind-up tube in 1923, by James Bruce Mason Jr.

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From Fashionable to Functional

Lip product innovation certainly didn’t slow down in the 1930s; if anything, it ramped up! Sun-protection lipstick, lip liner, shinier finishes and multi-functional cases all became the norm. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1936 stipulated that makeup could not contain any poisonous elements in dangerous amounts, to make their use safer.

With everyone focused on World War II in the 1940s, the lipstick industry’s energy was channeled into creative packaging rather than new formulas. The tubes were often disguised as binoculars or carried flashlights for blackouts, and other useful accessories.

Science Steps In

The focus was back on formulation development in the 1950s, with tweaks to make the substance feel more comfortable on the lips.

Bromo acids, beeswax and carnauba wax were cut to reduce their drying effect, and the 1958 Food Additive Amendment banned colorants linked to cancer in animals or humans. Shimmering lipsticks, often made with animal excrement, although most consumers didn’t know this, white lipsticks (using titanium to produce the white color) and liquid lipsticks were all in vogue.

The trend of more product development and regulations continued into the 1960s, 1970s, and every decade since then. Waste and fish scale were replaced by iron oxides, mica and titanium dioxide in the frosted lipsticks of the 1960s, and many formulations were changed to include baby oil and baby powder. Most importantly, a spectrophotometer was added to the coloring process.

Spectrophotometers measure the amount of light that a substance absorbs, and using these tools allowed companies to create better color ranges with more uniformity. With this development, lipstick production was increasingly seen as a very exact and scientific process. Along with all the new legislation, this led to manufacturers being far more careful about the ingredients they used.

The number of colorants fell dramatically, and this trend towards natural materials continued into the 1970s especially among feminists. Interestingly, this was also the decade where disco fever led to glossy, dark lips and flaming lipstick – running the tube of color through flames very quickly, making it melt on the outside and then harden as extra-shiny.

The FDA Step Up Their Regulations

As lip products continued to be both tools of beauty and symbols of female independence, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also stipulated that all ingredients must be listed on cosmetics’ packaging.

The importing of sperm whale oil, which up to this point had been used extensively in lipstick and other makeup, was banned by the FDA in the late 1970s. Jojoba oil has been a very successful sperm whale oil replacement. As a bonus, it doesn’t have the undesirable fishy smell!

The stricter regulations in the 1980s included self-regulation at an industry-wide level. It also caused the removal of hydroxyanisole in 1983 after it was found to strip natural lip pigmentation.

From Glow In The Dark To Going Green

In the 1990s, brands focused on perfecting packaging, and glow-in-the-dark shades were popular for a short time until being banned because an unapproved color additive, zinc sulfide, was used to create the glow. After the excess of the 1980s, the ‘90s swung back to the natural trend, and a lot of companies marketed the herb and vitamin ingredients in their products.

Natural brown and nude shades also made their way into everyday use. Although the grunge look meant plums, blacks and maroons also took pride of place in cosmetic lines. Many states also passed environmental regulations during this decade, emphasizing waste management and recycling. This has had an impact on lipstick manufacture and packaging.

In the 2000s, most innovators’ attention was turned to formulating long-lasting, transfer-proof technology. Even Nobel Laureate Pierre-Gille De Gennes weighed in with his thoughts on the matter!

As we continue to develop and demand better standards for our own health and the environment, lipstick ingredients, production and packaging should keep getting better and greener.

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The priorities for lip products today are as follows:

  • Edible with a pleasant smell and taste – remember it’s going on your mouth and you’re likely to ingest at least some of it
  • Dermatologically safe
  • Stick to your skin
  • Sweat- and waterproof
  • Easy to apply
  • Have strong color payoff

To achieve all of these objectives, lipsticks are formulated with a wide range of ingredients found in makeup including waxes, oils, emollients and pigments. Dye can be carcinogenic and is used much less today than it once was – you should definitely try to choose products that contain pigment rather than dye. Most commercial products also contain preservatives.

Key Lipstick Ingredients

With lipstick having been around for so many years, the ratios of these base ingredients are what is at the core of most product enhancements – developers mix several different types of oils, waxes, emollients and pigments together and create superior-performing lipsticks. The formulations that we see today come from all the innovations, trial and error that we’ve seen in the past.

Different ratios also create distinct and varied textures in the finished products. So you can choose what kind of effect you want your modern lipstick to have. Fewer emollients mean a more matte finish, crème formulations contain more oil than others. Glossier products use softer waxes and more emollients.

While pure beeswax was once used, now this product by our little buzzing friends is combined with carnauba. Sometimes it is also omitted and replaced by a blend of carnauba and candelilla. Carnauba melts at a higher temperature than other waxes. This means lipsticks containing it are less likely to run in the heat. Since wax is what gives the tubes their shape, this higher melting point is especially important.

Adding oils and emollients to lipsticks allows manufacturers to create better textures, along with lip moisturizing and antimicrobial effects. Petroleum and lanolin (from sheep sebaceous glands) oils were once regular ingredients. But they have been shown to cause allergic reactions so modern products contain much higher ratios of:

  • castor oil
  • mineral oil
  • vegetable oil
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More Than Just Makeup

Collagen, aloe vera and sunscreen are often added to modern emollients. They’re protective and anti-aging as well as hydrating and softening the skin.

In the 21st century emollients, nylon microspheres are added to replace water. These have better moisturizing and staying power than ever before. To create lip stains, emollients are specially designed to evaporate quickly.

Lipstick color is down to its added pigments made from animal, mineral, vegetable and synthetic ingredients. We’re lucky today because we can buy almost every shade imaginable.

Natural carmine is still often used to create a rich red color. But for those who want vegan products or are allergic to the insect shells, lipsticks containing synthetic carmine are available and equally beautiful.

Other allergens can also be present in modern lip color. Lipstick is actually the most common cause of inflammation around the lips following exposure to an allergen (officially known as allergic contact cheilitis).

From the early to the mid-1900s eosin (a red fluorescent dye) was often responsible for this reaction. But now that we know that and have found replacements, it’s hardly used anymore.

Can Lipstick Still Be Harmful?

Unfortunately, other ingredients still often found in lipstick can also cause allergic contact cheilitis. These include lanolin, coconut, olive and almond oils. Propylene glycol is used because it dissolves certain substances better than oil and Vitamin E. This prevents mold growth is also found in many brands.

If you have any reactions to a specific brand or type of lipstick, it’s suggested that you read the packaging’s FDA-mandated ingredients list. This way, you’ll know what to avoid in the future.

Of course, in some cases a mild reaction that causes lips to plump up has been actively sought-after, with current fashion trends for full, pouty lips being a driving motivator.

Capsaicin, the compound responsible for spiciness in chilies, is a minor irritant and sometimes added to lipsticks for this very reason. However, we recommend using any of the plumping tools that have become popular in the last decade or so to achieve the same effect without the discomfort.

A Metal Issue

More serious concerns have been raised over harmful metals in lipsticks, including lead and asbestos. In 2007, lead was found to be in a lot of popular lipstick brands, albeit at very small doses. Insiders say the levels of lead are not dangerous. But other experts agree that lead can accumulate within the body. Strict safety exposure levels are not known.

Since lead is sometimes found as a natural contaminant of the pigments used in lip color, you won’t find it listed in the ingredients.

However, it is possible to avoid it quite easily by searching for lead-free products and recommendations online. As a general rule, with the public more aware of harmful chemicals, manufacturers have started to move away from them.

Taking Out The Talc

Asbestos has been found to be present as a contaminant in some forms of natural talc because the minerals are often very close together in the earth. Recently, this has been linked to various forms of cancer, including ovarian cancer and mesothelioma in the lungs. It has also led to several talcum powder lawsuit claims. The issue is still hotly debated.

Manufacturers maintain that they carry out all reasonable checks to make sure that the talc they use is asbestos-free. There have been some huge settlements worth several million dollars in these lawsuits. But the companies concerned say this is mostly because they don’t want the negative publicity and impressions to continue.

The FDA still hasn’t definitively ruled that talc can cause cancer, but asbestos is definitely known to do so. If asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can give rise to incurable mesothelioma. Many health experts say that if talc is used in feminine hygiene the particles can travel into the body. When they lodge in the ovaries they can create cancerous growths.

With so much public concern, a lot of big brands have removed talc from their body products. They replaced it with cornstarch or other alternatives. Once again, the levels in lipstick are very low and the talc is not in a powder form, so the risk is unclear.

However, it seems safe to assume that it’s minor. No links or cases relating to oral cancer caused by talc-containing lipstick can be found.

Smart Buying Tips

The FDA regulations that we mentioned earlier are designed to protect and inform consumers. In an ideal world no potentially harmful substances would be used in lipsticks at all.

We’re closer to that ideal as manufacturing processes and technology improves. However, a lot of the power rests with you as the buyer.

Demand clear information, and only purchase products when you are happy with the ingredients.

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If any one thing should be clear by now, it’s that lipstick is definitely here to stay – and we couldn’t be happier!

As consumers become more aware of their own health and their impact on the planet, there are sure to be more innovations that make using lipstick better for us and for mother earth. While we can’t say exactly what the future holds, we do have some ideas.

High-Tech Cosmetics

Innovative 3D printing technology has taken many industries by storm, from medicine to mechanics.

Recently, investigators have explored the idea of a 3D printed lipstick applicator. This would mold to an individual’s lips and become completely personalized.

You’d be able to create a perfect shape every time, without having to use a mirror.

Healthy Herbal Ingredients

Today’s lipsticks don’t contain the harmful lipstick ingredients used in yesterday’s products, but tomorrow’s lipsticks could go one step further. They won’t just be safe and non-toxic but might actively boost your health.

For example, experiments with anthocyanins (both acylated and nonacylated) as colorants have been carried out.

Known for their antioxidant effects, anthocyanins are pigments that naturally occur in many foods. They are often used in herbal medicine. They are also believed to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects, and to be able to help fight free radicals.

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Herbal lipsticks have been made with a variety of ingredients, including:

  • paraffin
  • beeswax
  • beetroot juice
  • castor oil
  • Shikaki fruit powder
  • vanilla essence
  • orange essence

These herbal formulations may be a mainstream solution for consumers who don’t want to expose themselves to chemicals.

A Cosmetics Icon

Whatever the wonderful world of lip color holds for the future, we’re excited to see and use the products. An important part of culture in the past and present, it’s sure to maintain that status for years to come.

We hope this post helped you get to know lipstick better!

By Ellis James

We design luxuriously glamorous bags, organizers and life essentials for you. At Ellis James Designs, it’s all about YOU. Your bag, Your way. Our exclusive designs are timeless, indulgent and most importantly inspired by you. What will be your first Ellis James Design?


  1. Interesting, lipstick has such a long history and I didn’t really know any of this. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Oooh thank you so much for this breakdown!! I had no idea and the history of it is pretty interesting too!

  3. We’re happy to hear you found this post informative, Geraldine! Thank you so much!

  4. That was a very informative post, I did hear of lipstick shades coming from crushed insect shells in the past. I didn’t know the color or shade of it was used to tell someone’s status!! Thank you for all this research you did!

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