Article by: Kelly Dobos

Nacreous, or pearlescent, pigments are widely used in the cosmetic industry to add luster, sparkle, impart color or color-travel effects, and provide coverage. Pearls are used in many cosmetics including nail polish, eye shadow, lipstick, and blush. The adjective nacreous is derived from nacre, which is pronounced NAY-ker. It refers to the material that makes up pearls and the iridescent mother-of-pearl produced in mollusk shells.

Several types of cosmetic pearls are available based on different substrates like mica, guanine, bismuth oxychloride, calcium sodium borosilicate, and fluorophlogophite. Each substrate has it’s own advantages and disadvantages.


More formally, cosmetic micas are postassium aluminum silicate dihyrdrate. Silicates, much like silica, are based on interconnected SiO4 tetrahedra. (Yes! I finally got to use the word tetrahedra in a blog post!) However, in silicates the ratio of Si to O is greater forming silicone-oxygen anions. To form neutral solid silicates, cations like potassium are needed to balance the negative charge. There’s a great deal of hype around so-called natural mineral make-up cosmetics.

Although mineral by definition, the distinction of natural is pretty much out of the question in my opinion. The amount of processing and refining needed to make theses ingredients cosmetically acceptable, furthermore the processes and reactions used to deposit color on mica for matching various skin tones or to create other colorful effects make it pretty silly to imply they are anything close to their natural state. Naturally derived, sure, but then so is petrolatum… I digress. Micas are subject to size restrictions; particles are not to exceed 150 ?m. Other substrates are not specifically regulated for particle size.


Guanine, a common biological molecule, is derived from fish scales and provides a soft pearly shimmer. It is the photonic crystalline structure of guanine that scatters and reflects light to produce the pearl effect. Cosmetic grades are, of course, purified and often dissolved in a suitable solvent for ease of handling. Although this might qualify as a true natural pearl, cost is often prohibitive.

Bismuth Oxychloride

Though more frequently used as a filler in cosmetic formulations, bismuth oxychloride provides a silvery, white tone. The various particle sizes available allow for different levels of transparency, however larger crystal forms are supplied as dispersion because these larger crystals can be broken in their dry form.

Calcium-Aluminum Borosilicate

Because this substrate is highly transparent, brilliant sparkle effects can be achieved. This also suits clear formulations where effects are desired with less opacity. But the cost is typically more than traditional micas.


Referred to as synthetic micas, fluorophlogophites are one of the newest innovations in pigments having been on the market a relatively short period of time as far as cosmetic ingredients go. Unlike mica which carries natural impurities along with it, the synthetic version is clean and transparent. This allows for more brilliant sparkles effects.

In the second part, I’ll talk more about the physics of these compounds and how they can be made to produce different colors.



  1. Avatar
    Janelle Williams


    Can you suggest what products I would use to make a very shimmery and iridescent pigment base and how do I achieve various colors with it?

  2. Kelly

    Good luck with your sculpture, we’d love to see the end result! -Kelly

  3. Avatar
    Lowell Miller

    Thank you very much. A UV coating sounds like just the ticket! And thanks for the link.


  4. Kelly

    Hi Lowell,
    Colorants used in cosmetics vary in their degree of stability with respect to light. In general, organic colorants (FD&C dyes) tend to be less stable than inorganic iron oxides, but iron oxides are not as brilliant and are much more muted than organic colors. You will probably need to do some experimentation to determine which cosmetics work best or possibly incorporate some sort of UV protectant. I think nail polish would probably be a good starting point. And a good primier on the types of colorants used in cosmetics is the Monograph on Colorants Used in the Cosmetic Industry from the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, it’s realtively inexpensive and provides a broad overview.

  5. Avatar
    Lowell Miller

    Hey, great website!

    I am a sculptor and I’m interested in using cosmetics on a metal (bronze) substrate. I would then lock in the cosmetics using photographic dulling spray or other urethane-type finishes or varnish. Will the various kinds of cosmetics remain colorfast? In-sun, out of sun? Are there some that will and some that won’t? My range would be from powders to lipsticks to nail polish.

    Much appreciate any help you can give, or readings to which you can direct me.

    …Lowell Miller

  6. Pingback:Pearlescent Pigments Primer Part 2: The physics of nail polish

  7. Avatar

    Looking forward to part two of this post!

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