How Does “SmartShade” Cosmetics Work?

Posted on Jul 6, 2011

Q from RainbootedRobot: Almay makes a foundation called “SmartShade” that is supposed to magically change to match your skin tone. It comes out of the tube looking white with little black specks in it, but as you rub it into your skin, it turns to a fleshy colour. What kind of sorcery is this?

A: This is a very interesting question!  As a background for readers of the unfair gender, foundations are skin coloured cosmetic applied to the face to create an even, uniform colour to the complexion — usually to cover flaws.  That is…

What foundations do

What foundations do

The problem is, if the color of the foundation doesn’t match the skin, then you get the Miscolored Girl Syndrome.

Miscolored Girl Syndrome

What this “SmartShade” is supposed to do is to match any skin tone – like magic.  But how does this work?

What Consumers think it does

Since this is so wonderful, it must be patented, and your gentle friendly chemist went on a patent search.  In a patent called “Makeup compositions and Methods“, it was claimed that the new invention includes

Emulsion makeup compositions for keratinous surfaces which change color upon application, emulsion makeup compositions that match a variety of skin or hair shades in more than one skin tone category [...]

This patent was filed by Revlon, the parent company of Almay, and the date and content are both consistent.  Ladies and gents, we’ve got a match, so let’s dig in and see how the magic works.

To understand the magic, it has to be compared with non-magic.  In normal foundations the pigment (which gives the color) is blended with the rest of the ingredients into a paste:

Normal foundations have pigments all blended in.

…but NOT in SmartShade.  Using pretty interesting chemistry, the hydrophilic pigments are blended into a hydrophobic carrier to give an emulsion – this is like making oil-droplets in water, but reverse (water droplets in oil).  The technological challenge was to keep them like this all the while it’s traveling from the factory to the shelf to the makeup bag.

Smart shade's "water in oil" formulation

When you put it on, the hydrophilic pigments goes, SWOOOSH, right to your skin and spreads out evenly.  It looks as if it’s switching colors to match the skin tone.

“But, but – ,” I hear you protest, “That’s smoke and mirrors!  It’s not what I thought it claims to do!”  Yes, and it really is only smoke and mirrors and the manufacturers know it.  Let me quote from the patent — straight from the horse’s mouth:

In the case of a composition applied to skin such as foundation makeup, the development of the color directly on the skin from a non-skin matching color to a skin matching color gives the consumer the impression that the composition is “smart” and capable of changing color to exactly match her skin tone.

It’s not doing any matching.  Which explains why these “smart” foundations comes in different colors, and reviews about its color-matching abilities are rather mixed.  Is Almay going to be the subject of a class action?  Probably not – their marketing materials are misleading, but very carefully so.  Phrases like

The lightweight formula starts out white and adjusts to right.

is indeed itself adjustable to right.

Got a science question?  You can post requests to me, or ask one of the panelists at the AskScience.

  • Caitlin

    Hey, thanks, this was interesting! I’ve been wondering about this!

    • http://www.jkwchui.com Jon

      I had fun finding out about it too – I started out thinking the color-matching was real though :/

      • X

        A person uses a foundation of cosmetic chemistry in order to get some chemistry from another person. unsuitable foundation => camouflage => wrong chemistry

        it is really not necessary to do makeup…

  • ZelKwin

    Aww man, and here I was thinking it was doing something COOL like using refracting crystals to amplify the color of the skin beneath. I feel cheated out of a science moment I could have shared with my girly friends. >:

    • http://www.jkwchui.com Jon

      It’s actually pretty cool that they could do something like that. I wonder if there are other ways these emulsions could be switched, like with a magnetic field or light. It would be the coolest special effect ever if you can get skin to change color by waving a magnet over it :)

  • Reena

    This is an incredible article! Thank you so much for writing it, and for explaining the effect so clearly. You are so cool for making a whole blog about science and chemistry. I run in VFFs too!

    • http://www.jkwchui.com Jon

      Thanks for the kind words Reena. I haven’t decided on the direction of the blog yet – I’d like to use it as an incentive for myself to draw, write, and take pictures, but I somehow feel as if more technical matters would be more “useful”. For the next little while I’ll probably be experimenting with the content.

      And yes, VFFs are fun to run in… I constantly feel the urge to jump up ledges and benches while running with them. But then, my runs are usually only 2-5k, and I suspect if I run longer distances I might lose the inclination to jump benches ;)

  • Rebekah

    Thanks for the explanation. I had some “SmartShade” makeup and figured out how it worked— it’s much more obvious when you own the stuff than when you’re hearing hype— but it’s amazing how many people seem to think it’s really magical. I’ll point those people to your blog! =)

    • http://www.jkwchui.com/ Jon

      Apologies for the late reply (just returned to civilization after crossing the Atacama). Happy to help demystify, and feel free to ask sciency questions whose answers are hard to come by!

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