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The Makeup of Makeup: Decoding Foundation

WebMD's basic guide to the history of, ingredients in, and proper color for your foundation.

Ever wonder who invented foundation, what's actually in it, and how to choose the right color? We've gathered the facts on this most basic cosmetic.

Deathly Pale: The First Foundation

Ancient Greeks and Romans wore versions of foundation containing high levels of white lead and mercury, which caused lethal poisoning. Extremely white skin remained popular into the 1800s; it represented class and privilege.

Stage Presence: Greasepaint

Modern foundation has its beginnings in the theater. Carl Baudin, a German actor, mixed a paste of zinc, ochre, and lard to hide the joint between his wig and forehead. Other actors liked his concoction so much that Baudin called it greasepaint and sold it commercially.

Not for Breakfast: Pan-Cake Makeup

In 1914, Max Factor introduced his Pan-Cake makeup so movie actors appeared more realistic in close-ups. His version of greasepaint looked more like skin and was the first makeup created for film. Factor's Pan-Cake eventually spawned other foundations and makeup for women who weren't actors.

Base Camp: Foundation Ingredients

No matter what form it's in (solid, liquid, or spray), foundation contains the same main ingredients: moisturizers, colorants, and fillers, explains Nick Morante, a cosmetics chemist in Holbrook, N.J. The base is usually water, oil, or wax. Talc is the most common filler, which helps color spread evenly and makes the product go on the skin smoothly. Pigments include iron oxides and titanium dioxide in various shades of red, yellow, and black to help re-create natural skin tone.

Dual Purpose: Using Foundation for Skin Care

Because it's on your skin all day, foundation can help treat some of the issues you use it to cover, Morante says. Foundations that contain kaolin clay and absorbent powders such as silica, alumina, cornstarch, or talc will help control oil and prevent shine. Dry skin will benefit from ingredients such as avocado oil, sesame oil, jojoba oil, squalane, or glycerides (look for them listed first in the ingredients). And acne treatment options containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide offer another way to fight blemishes.

Special Effects: High-Definition Foundation

The most recent advancements in foundation are "high-definition" products that claim to cover skin imperfections to get skin camera-ready. The main difference between these products and previous versions involves light-scattering ingredients such as mica, silicone, crystals, or quartz. Diffusing light creates an illusion of an even finish so you can't detect the flaws beneath. And often these HD makeup formulas are designed to moisturize because makeup can settle into cracks and creases, especially in those with dry complexions. The hydration also plumps up dry skin to make wrinkles and lines less noticeable.

The Perfect Match: Choosing Foundation Colors

Carmindy, the makeup expert on TLC's What Not to Wear, offers this pro tip for finding the best foundation color for your skin tone:

Find your perfect match by selecting a few shades. Apply each on your jawline, then look at the results in daylight. Foundation should blend with no noticeable pigment lines. Don't test on your hands or arm -- the color on your face will not match.

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