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Ah, the dreaded make-up flashback! Celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman and Miley Cyrus aren’t immune to it, even with their hordes of make-up artists:
Here’s the science behind make-up flashback, and how to avoid it.
What causes make-up flashback?
The harsh white markings are caused by silica, an ingredient in many translucent powders, particularly those labelled as “HD”. (Note: silica is not the same as silicon and silicone!) The silica used in makeup is fumed silica, a type of amorphous silica which has been processed to give it a large surface area. This means that it’s great as a microscopic sponge for soaking up oil (kind of like activated charcoal but colourless).
It’s also fantastic for diffusing light – all the tiny surfaces scatter light at different angles, giving a blurry, matte texture, making your skin look flawless on HD video (hence the HD label).
But not when direct flash comes out!
The harsh, front-on, white light of a flash is already pretty notorious for causing white patches on any mildly reflective surfaces (e.g. oily patches) directly facing the flash, without any flashback-causing ingredients.
Because silica has so many surfaces (a bit like a mirrored disco ball), if you have enough on your face, there will always be a whole bunch of surfaces ready to pick up that flash and throw it back at the camera – hence the white flashback.
Some other ingredients that are white or reflective can also pick up light and cause lightened areas, but usually to a lesser extent. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, two physical sunscreen ingredients, can cause a whitish glow (which makes sense, since their ability to scatter light is partially responsible for their sunscreen ability!) – but not always. Shiny mica, shimmer and glitter will also get shinier with a flash.
What can you do?
1. Avoid direct flash photography
It’s pretty unflattering to begin with – but sometimes you can’t control the lighting.
2. Use silica powder, zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, mica, shimmer and glitter sparingly
The obvious thing to do is to avoid these ingredients altogether, but it turns out you don’t have to! Which is a relief, because these ingredients look pretty awesome in normal light.
Ingredients: Mica, Silica, Zinc Stearate, Caprylic/Capric Triglycerides, Isostearyl Neopentanoate, Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Coco-Caprylate/Caprate, Jojoba Esters, Tocopherol, Tocopheryl Acetate, Hydrolyzed Silk, Niacinamide, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Collagen Amino Acids, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Water, Glycerin, Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Extract, Rosa Canina Extract, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Extract, Colloidal Oatmeal, Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract, Algae Extract, Soluble Collagen, Retinyl Palmitate, Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Butylene Glycol, Cholesteryl Oleyl Carbonate, Cholesteryl Nonanoate, Cholesteryl Chloride, BHT, Palmitoyl Oligopeptide, Carbomer, Polysorbate, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-7, Sodium Hyaluronate. May Contain: Mica (CI 77019), Titanium Dioxide (CI 77891), Iron Oxides (CI 77491, CI 77492, CI 77499).
Ingredients: Silica, Soluble Collagen, Retinyl Palmitate, Tocopherol, Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Phytonadione, Collagen Amino Acids, Hydrolyzed Silk. May Contain: Iron Oxides (CI 77492).
Williamspro Zero Powder
Ingredients: Certified Organic Arrowroot Flour, Kaolin, Mica (77079), Iron Oxides (177491)
Ingredients: Silica, Corn Starch Modified, Dimethicone/Vinyl Dimethicone Crosspolymer, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Mica, Methicone, Mineral Salts, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Mentha Arvensis Leaf Extract, Ethylhexylglycerin, Dimethicone, Glyceryl Caprylate, Ethylene/Acrylic Acid Copolymer, 1,2-Hexanediol, Fragrance
I also tried out the following powders and didn’t get any noticeable flashback (I didn’t bother posting a photo since it literally just looks like my bare arm):
Essence Fix & Matte (All About Matt) Translucent Loose Powder
Ingredients: Aluminum Starch Octenylsuccinate, Polyethylene, Disodium EDTA, Sodium Dehydroacetate, Butylparaben, Ethylparaben, Methylparaben, Propylparaben.
Crop Mineral Loose Powder
Ingredients: Oryza Sativa (Rice) Starch, Zinc Stearate, Undecylenoyl Glycin, Capryloyl Glycinesodium Dehydroacetate. May Contain [+/-]: Titanium Dioxide (CI 77891), Mica (CI 77019), Iron Oxides (CI 77491, CI 77492, CI 77499).
Lipsi Aphrodite Powder
Ingredients: Talc, Zinc Stearate, Kaolin, Zinc Oxide, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Ethylparaben, Trisodium EDTA, [+/- (May Contain): Mica (77019), Titanium Dioxide (77891), Carmine (75470), Ferric Ferrocyanide (77510), Iron Oxides (77491, 77492, 77499), Ultramarines (77007), Chromium Oxide Greens (77288), Chromium Hydroxide Green (77289), Manganese Violet (77742), Yellow 5 Lake (19140:1), Blue 1 Lake (42090:2)]
Ingredients: Mica, Aluminum Starch Octenylsuccinate, Nylon-12, Magnesium Stearate, Octyldodecyl Stearoyl Stearate, Caprylyl Glycol, Potassium Sorbate, Phenoxyethanol, Chlorphenesin, Silica, Hexylene Glycol, Tetrasodium EDTA
Essence Shimmer Pearls
Ingredients: Mica, Aluminum Starch Octenylsuccinate, Boron Nitride, Caprylyl Glycol, Phenoxyethanol, Parfum (Fragrance), Benzyl Alcohol, Benzyl Benzoate, Limonene, May Contain: CI 73360 (Red 30), CI 77007 (Ultramarines), CI 77491, CI 77492 (Iron Oxides), CI 77742 (Manganese Violet), CI 77891 (Titanium Dioxide)
Surprisingly, the only product with severe flashback is It Cosmetics Bye Bye Pores Silk HD Anti-Aging Micro-Powder. The pressed version gave almost no flashback (there’s a little at the edges where there’s some fall out floating around).
Interestingly, the pressed version doesn’t have “HD” in the name, and has mica as the first ingredient rather than silica. Innisfree No Sebum Powder also unexpectedly didn’t give obvious flashback, even though, like the HD powder, silica is the first ingredient. What gives?
It’s mostly to do with the amount of silica you put on. The first ingredient in the ingredients list is in the greatest quantity in the product, but that could be 95% or 30%, depending on the product. The HD powder, like most HD powders, is primarily silica (>90%).
The Innisfree powder, on the other hand, has corn starch as the second ingredient – corn starch is sometimes the first ingredient in a powder, so it’s quite likely that there’s a fair bit of it in the product, and hence a fair bit less silica.
The take-home message here: use less silica. Silica powder isn’t really meant to be used as a setting powder – it’s intended to be used to add an extra blurring effect after the make-up’s been set. Use it sparingly, with a fluffy brush.
The same applies to the other flashback inducers – since the flash is proportional to the amount on your skin, use less, or combine it with another product that isn’t so high in flashback ingredients.
3. Use silica powder under make-up
If you’re mostly after the oil-soaking effects of silica, you can try using it under a liquid make-up instead of on top – this will kill the white reflection.
4. Test your make-up
This is THE most foolproof method for ensuring that your makeup doesn’t flash back – check it with a flash photo before the event! It sounds obvious now, right? Do a test run before your big day (whether it’s a wedding, graduation, formal, birthday), get the camera with the biggest flash, and get snapping.
Things that don’t work well
* Using water or makeup sprays after silica powder
Silica gel goes transparent when wet, so theoretically, wetting it will make it disappear. I loaded up my arm with HD powder, then sprayed the left side with Skindinavia Make-up Setting Spray and the right side with Avene Thermal Water, with a chunk of dry powder in the middle. Check out what happened immediately after spraying, then after waiting around for 2 minutes: The flashback doesn’t change with make-up setting spray, but while the water promisingly makes the flashback disappear for a couple of minutes, it comes right back after the water evaporates. Boo!
* Avoiding SPF
Some people recommend avoiding SPF together – but you don’t have to! Most SPF products actually don’t give flashback, as this article demonstrates. I used a flash to photograph a couple of cream products containing sunscreen:
It Cosmetics Your Skin But Better CC Cream (SPF 50: 9% titanium dioxide + 6.3% zinc oxide)
Jurlique Sun Specialist (SPF 40 PA+++: 7.5% Octyl Methoxycinnamate, 3% Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane, 2.75% Octocrylene)
I have a stripe of It Cosmetics HD Powder on the right as a comparison. I dusted the two cream products with a flashback-free translucent powder before taking the flash photo to kill the shine. Not much flashback, even the high zinc oxide/titanium dioxide CC cream (though it could potentially be worse once it’s all over your entire face and it no longer matches your neck).
To eliminate the possibility of embarrassing white-dusted photos, use flashback-causing ingredients sparingly, and do a test run of your make-up under direct flash conditions. Better still, only let people take photos of you under carefully selected light conditions, and only from your good side!
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