Marilyn Monroe, Janice the Muppet, Queen Amidala—we use lipstick to paint our faces, whether in this galaxy or one far, far away. But how should one choose the color that frames your smile? Mood-matching lipsticks make that tough decision, changing color based on the wearer—but it has nothing to do with mood. What, exactly, is in that seductive red mouth-paint? Behind every coated pout, one trifecta runs the show: dyes and pigments for hue, wax for form, and oil for smooth application.


Many so-called mood lipsticks claim to change color based on skin tone or personality, but that’s what scientists call “utter hogwash.” The manufacturer of this one wouldn’t tell us which dyes are in its shade-shifter, but the label says it “may contain” any of about twenty of them, including Red 21 and 27. These are fluorescein dyes, which do transform once applied, but that’s simply a reaction with your skin, which alters the dye’s pH and thus its hue—often producing a shade of pink, regardless of your mood. For a neutral-pH-skinned life form, this lipstick might stay lime-green. (Attention Kang & Kodos!)


Whether you’re applying lipstick at room temperature, under the heat of red-carpet spotlights, or on a frigid night, you don’t want it to be too melty or too stiff. Lipstick often gets its just-right consistency from plant-based waxes like carnauba (derived from Brazilian palm trees) or candelilla (from Mexican shrubs). Their long carbon chains give them a high melting point, ensuring physical stability at a wide range of temps.

Propylene Glycol

How can you get a waxy stick to impart a rosy sheen? Propylene glycol attracts water, so it moisturizes your lips, helping them glisten invitingly. This viscous compound is also found in shampoo.


When Little Bo Peep wants to paint the town red, she knows who to call. For a glossy finish, lipstick contains lanolin, aka wool grease. The Vaseline-like substance secreted in the sebaceous glands of sheep saturates their fleece and helps it shed water. Lanolin is extracted from the wool after shearing. While the propylene glycol in lipstick attracts that sweet, moistur­izing H2O, the lanolin seals it in.

Castor Oil

This vegetable oil is infamous for its powerful laxative properties: Mussolini’s thugs would force-feed it to his political opponents. The same chemical that, um, lubricates your bowels also lubricates the lipstick, softening it to help it spread easily.

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Sure, Mood-Matching Lipstick Is Hogwash. But Here’s What’s in It