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Sponge Pockets: What is Silica and What Can it Do for Shiny, Oily Skin?

If you're struggling with oily skin, get thee a hydrating serum. Then look to silica for some mattifying assistance. What's silica? Here, we'll tell you.
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Julia Stegner by Unid_photographer for Elle_2008

Hot sticky weather has a way of bringing out the worst in some of us. I'm talking about that excess sebum that can turn one's face into a blinding oil slick. Unpretty. And uncomfortable. I frequently comment that oily skin can feel as though it's been wrapped in plastic when you weren't looking. Ick. My first move is to up skin's hydration factor -- I'm convinced oily skin is overcompensating for a lack of water. My second move involves a cosmetic ingredient that helps oily skin feel more comfortable, especially in summer. Hello, silica.

Hands up if you think silica is glass or some kind of silicone. "It's a mineral," says Debra Coleman-Nally, Director of Research and Development for Maybelline New York. "It's very, very light, it's very airy, and it feels like nothing. But it has the ability to absorb several times its weight and size. And in addition to that, it does not leave a white cast on skin."

oil-absorbing silica

Minerals are technically natural ingredients, but Coleman-Nally says she won't go as far as claiming silica as such in Maybelline's formulas. "Many of our ingredients have some processing in order to ensure purity and so on, but it is mineral derived, not synthesized." She also notes that silica particles are spherical; they absorb like a sponge (apparently without sticking together and lifting from skin the way talc's flat, platelet particles tend to).


The photo above this one is of a small jar of silica Coleman-Nally brought with her from NYC. This is the powder on my fingertips. Remind you of anything? Hold that thought.

go-go-go sponge pockets

Silica generally shows up in matifying and oil-control formulas such as:

Philosophy Total Matteness Oil-Free Mattifying Pore Eraser ($40,,, Shoppers Drug Mart), a serum that promises to make oily skin more matte with continued use. The third in a Total Matteness trio that include a cleanser/mask and a toner, this fluid also contains salicylic acid and lactic acid to help manage blackheads.

Givenchy Mister Mat Matifying Foundation Primer ($37,, which gives skin a smoother finish, contains light-reflective pigments to brighten the complexion, and extends the wear of your foundation.

Benefit Stay Flawless 15-Hour Primer ($38,, which is a little different from most primers. Rather than apply as a layer before foundation, this tiniest-bit-tinted stick demands that you swipe it over your face, put on foundation right away, and blend both together on your skin -- it gives your foundation more stick without adding stickiness and boosts coverage just a smidge.

L'Oréal Paris Revitalift Miracle Blur Instant Skin Smoother ($29.99, drugstores and mass retailers), which also employs silicones and polymers to IRL-photoshop out pores, wrinkles and uneven texture, and help foundation stay put, too.

Philosophy Total Matteness serum_Givenchy Mister Mat primer_Benefit Stay Flawless 15-Hour Primer_L'Oreal Miracle Blur_Maybelline Shine-Free Foundation

Maybelline New York Fit Me Shine-Free Foundation ($10.99, drugstores and mass retailers), a sheer stick formula that goes on like a creamy gel and dries to a powder finish; silica lives in the core of the stick.

MAC Blot Powder/Pressed ($29,, one of my don't-leave-home-without-it items (I'll buy another one if I accidentally leave it at home; I have two at the moment). This lightweight, talc-free translucent powder has very little pigment; it's mostly about silica and kaolin, a clay that absorbs oil, too. Cover FX Blotting Powder ($24, has a similar make up; here's the review post.

Make Up For Ever HD Microfinish Powder ($29,, in which silica is ingredient numero uno -- in fact the only ingredient. That explains why it works so very well as an oil-control primer alternative under foundation as per this humidity-proof makeup post. It looks just like the powder in the second and third photos above, and requires a very sparing application as per this why-all-that-white-powder post.

Are you looking for something to help an oil-slick complexion? Is a silica-laden formula already your summer bff?

Today's made-in-Canada content is MAC and Cover Fx. Opening photo: Julia Stegner photographed by Unid for Elle, 2008; via Pinterest.