The weather is getting warmer and sunnier even in Massachusetts, so it's time again for me to shill one of the weirdest fortuitous finds I've made at the local drugstore.

Being as I am about two shades up from typing paper, and I hate sunburns, I am a big fan of sunscreen. Unfortunately, being as I am about two shades up from typing paper, that also means that any bump, speckle, blemish and zit shows up like a tiny neon bulb, and most inexpensive sunscreens are in some kind of crap petroleum base that makes me break out like crazy. I can use most anything on my arms, legs, and neckline, but for my face, I normally need some kind of complicated expensive hypoallergenic substance made from unicorns and magic. Often I just give up and put my faith in the titanium dioxide in my foundation, and a collection of hats.

(All petroleum-based things do this to me. The only two moisturizers I know of that don't are Cetaphil and Clean & Clear salicylic acid facial moisturizer, both of which are glycerin-based. Glycerin is also a food sweetener, and Cetaphil moisturizer has macadamia nut oil in it, so if you have small animals, prepare to have it licked off of your hands repeatedly.

I can't use benzoyl peroxide to clear the stuff out of my pores either, because I'm allergic to that. Tried it as a teenager, and my face puffed straight up and turned red and prickly. This is not an improvement on acne. I use salicylic acid and retinol things instead.)

Until last year, when out of desperation, I bought a tube of something at CVS that claims to be "Age Defense Face Sunscreen, SPF 95+, photostable UVA/UVB protection". Oil-free, fragrance-free, non-greasy feel. The label says "Compare to Neutrogena Age Shield Face," so I suppose if you have something against generics you can try that. The point is that one, this does actually keep my melanin-free face from frying when I'm outside for hours; two, it doesn't make me break out in horrid blotches; and three, I've accidentally discovered it's an incredibly cheap but functional makeup primer.

Yes, there is a thing called "makeup primer". It goes on over moisturizer, but under foundation. It's often used in theatrical makeup, where it forms a barrier between greasepaint and skin, and by ordinary humans who are worried that a foundation offers insufficient coverage on its own. The function of a primer on your face is basically that of gesso on a canvas: It provides a smooth base coat for other colors to go over. This is particularly useful if you like creative eye makeup, and you don't want it migrating over the course of a warm day or a night of dancing.

There are a number of chemical sunscreen substances listed as active ingredients on the label of this thing, but the bulk of the stuff, in the inactive ingredients section, is the physical reflectant butyloctyl salicylate, a base of beeswax, and a variety of inert silicone polymers as binders. Butyloctyl salicylate is a derivative of salicylic acid, a relative of aspirin that's used as a pore cleaner, clarifier, and in higher concentrations as a light chemical peel, sometimes under the umbrella term "beta-hydroxy acid". (The stronger alpha-hydroxy acids, like glycolic acid, are used clinically for peels, and "pro-retinol" in things is metabolized into retinoic acid eventually, which has much the same effect.) The beeswax content means that, while it goes on smoothly, it will eventually sort of settle in place in a layer atop your face, over which you can paint anything you like. It's slightly tacky -- chemically speaking, not by feel -- so powders will stay in place, and both waxes and silicones are found in the base for cream and pencil formulations of things like eyebrow pencil and eyeshadow, which means that once you put those on they will also not budge. Sweating will not make everything run. Wiping away mistakes, on the other hand, just takes a Q-tip or a finger and a bit of pressure, to mechanically shift whatever you've painted in the wrong place.

The stuff contains ascorbic acid (vitamin C), retinyl palmitate (topical vitamin A), tocopherol acetate (topical vitamin E), and camellia sinensis extract (tea tree oil), all of which are generally good for moisturizing and/or cleaning crap off your face. It goes on white -- the opacifier is chemically inert silica, which also acts as a reflectant -- but doesn't remain so once rubbed in, and doesn't make me look strangely matte as other opaque sunscreen creams sometimes can. It also doesn't shine like oil, as many of the sprays do, and it doesn't smell like a public pool.

It's about $10 for a 3oz tube, which is a bit dear for drugstore sunscreen, but laughably cheap for the fancy face-saving cream is's meant to emulate. It tends to pop up in the seasonal section where they also sell small expensive tubes of waterproof, gentle, eye-safe sunscreens for babies.


  1. May I recommend starting to tunnel now before the Northern hemishpere develops Ozone Layer holes like we have in the Southern. Ordinary people sunburn here in 10 minutes, in Summer, half an hour in Winter.

    Hanging laundry on the line mid-morning you can feel exposed skin crisping :-(

    1. Phoenix is not a lot better, to be honest. Flagstaff was cooler, but at 7000ft, so there was basically no air shielding you from the sun. Boston is a tranquil paradise under layers and layers of atmosphere (and humidity) in comparison.

  2. heh, cool.

    I wanted to ask, what do you use as a primer for eyeshadow? I had a look in the chemists over here but couldn't find anything except something stupidly expensive (+£15) from mabelline or someone. Maybe I was looking for the wrong name?

    I did get a new moisturiser from Lush which is working well for my face and doubles up as a primer for my powder foundation, which is nice. I don't generally need much coverage at all and didn't like the feel of the liquid ones, but my face is some weird combination of oily and flakey/dry in the same places (my nose, worse luck)! Powder over peeling bits doesn't work so well, funnily enough.

    The best make-up tip I ever received was to roll a Q-tip on vaseline - it lets you be *really* specific about which bit of wonky eyeliner you remove. But as petroleum doesn't like your face, I guess that's not helpful. Anyway.

    Also on the subject of make-up, courtesy of one of your posts around Christmas, I switched to a dark brown mascara from a black one, and it looks so much better, especially with a brown-black pencil eyeliner. So thanks. :)

    1. I mostly just use my foundation. I wear Physician's Formula talc-free in a very light pink/ivory color. The opacity comes mostly from titanium oxide, and it dries to a powder finish. It's not waterproof, but works find in the cooler months, when I'm not likely to sweat much while walking around. (Rain involves hats. Much better for keeping water out of your eyes specifically than umbrellas, that let spray blow around underneath.) It also works for undereye concealer (you're supposed to use a shade lighter than your foundation, but a shade lighter than my foundation is blending white), and if I apply it thickly enough, it keeps me from going blue under camera lights in spots like those little indents between my tear ducts and the bridge of my nose.

      Powdering over flakes doesn't work well, no. If you're willing to upgrade to the $25 range for a liquid foundation, you could try one of the "airbrush finish" ones. They're powder and a polymer, and they're meant to dry in a smooth layer on top of your skin. It stretches, so it doesn't crack, and it doesn't sink in, which keeps it out of your pores. They're a bit touchier than regular liquid or cream foundation, but if it bugs you enough to spend the money, they do generally work.


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