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White Face with Color Smears, New York, 1986. Conde NastPhotography Irving Penn

Rose-Marie Swift: your make-up could be making you ill

The make-up artist and RMS founder reflects on the benefits of clean beauty and why toxic ingredients in our make-up could be making us ill

Rose-Marie Swift is sorting out my life. In the time since I sat down with her she’s fixed my eyeshadow, taught me the best way to make up my hooded eyes, and advised me on the colours to avoid given my pink-toned complexion which she’s colour-matched to the shade 000 (“Honey,” she tells when I express dismay that a shade named 00 is too dark for me, “you’re a pale, pale little munchkin”). I’ve also been advised on what to do to improve my problematic skin (probiotics, prebiotics, and digestive enzymes although I’m warned about the bloating and gas it will, at first, cause), been told to ditch my current eyelash curler and recommended the right one to buy (MAC as it uses the hardest rubber for the cushion) and have been talked through how to make my stubborn, downward sloping horse-eyelashes stay curled.

Rose-Marie first got started as a make-up artist doing the faces of the strippers at the burlesque club in her hometown of Vancouver where her sister worked. She took the job to help fund the microphone she wanted to buy for her punk band Insex, whose claim to fame is opening for The Ramones and Siouxsie and the Banshees, but began to get booked for other jobs and was soon working with everyone from Gisele, Miranda Kerr and the other Victoria’s Secret models to Paloma Picasso and Cindy Sherman.

It was during this time, however, that Rose-Marie began experiencing health problems and after extensive testing discovered high levels of chemicals in her blood often found in cosmetics (barium, lead, mercury etc). This started her on a health journey that led to the founding of, a website dedicated to debunking beauty industry myths, in 2004 and a few years later her own line of natural, clean cosmetics, RMS. Built on the premise of non-toxic ingredients, RMS avoids all chemicals that are hormone disruptors or mimickers, as well as synthetic fragrances, parabens, and genetically altered ingredients. It is also cruelty-free and uses only recyclable glass packaging. While these features are now quite commonly found among beauty brands, at the time it was radical. We spoke to Rose-Marie about why she founded her own line of make-up, why we are demanding clean beauty more than ever and how she pictures the future of beauty.

How did your experiences growing up inform or influence the way you approach beauty and your aesthetic today?
Rose-Marie Swift: My mother, by trade, was a fashion designer so I was exposed to fashion and beauty at a very young age. I was obsessed with my mother’s vanity table. On it there sat a fascinating tube of red lipstick and a face powder with white marabou feathers ‎overflowing from the jar. Through my involvement in the punk scene, I learned the power of one’s individuality was to impact one's strongest feature. Play that up. Don’t try to be what you aren’t or play up what you don’t have. Best advice ever right there. When I’m creating a make-up look I have no process – that makes it sterile. I visualize the look intuitively and jump from feature to feature….whatever calls me.

Was there a specific look that you did for the girls at the Burlesque club in Vancouver?
Rose-Marie Swift: Back in those days the girls actually did shows with different themes, so I had to be very creative and come up with many different make-up ideas. I really got to play with different genres of make-up and even some prosthetic make-up (which wasn’t my thing at all). I wanted to make women beautiful. I actually learned a lot about different types of skin and various bone structures which have played an important role in my make-up artistry and cosmetics.

How did you come to found your own make-up line?
Rose-Marie Swift: I became an advocate for cleaner cosmetics when my own health deteriorated years ago, and through my research and various tests, I realized that many of the chemicals that were in my body were used throughout the beauty industry.  I started my site in 2004 to expose some of the more dangerous chemicals in our cosmetics. I started studying ingredient labels in depth and learned the extent to which unregulated chemical ingredients were being used. I became very well versed in what chemicals are in our beauty products can have long term health ramifications.

The beautytruth site created a lot of press for me, and I realized that pointing out the problem wasn’t sufficient: I also needed to create a solution. Women need skin care, colour cosmetics, and toiletries that are as pure as possible. They need lines that create a solid foundation for anti-ageing and long-term beauty without having to compromise one’s health. This was the foundation for creating RMS beauty and will always be the core of the brand.  

Why do you think it is that more than ever we are demanding clean beauty?
Rose-Marie Swift: We all want clean air, water and food! Why would we not want cleaner beauty? I started studying ingredient labels in depth and the extent of the use of unregulated chemical ingredients (sorry to inform you but the FDA does not regulate our beauty industry [note: EU regulations bans over 100 cosmetic ingredients that are unregulated in the US]). The cosmetic industry is self-regulated by the actual people that are using all these ingredients and deeming them safe. In fact, many ingredients are downright harmful. Some ingredients, like phthalates found in synthetic fragrances and nail polishes, are known to disrupt the hormone system and are a factor in reproductive diseases and breast cancer. Sadly, the list of harmful ingredients in your personal care products is long – and we continue to use them daily. It begs the question: are short-term results now worth the risk of ugly health consequences later? Even with the natural claim, one has to be cautious. It all comes down to chemistry: when a raw material is processed for use in cosmetics or other beauty products, it typically undergoes a lengthy process. I was surprised to learn that the majority of ingredients even used for so-called natural cosmetics are fractionated, adulterated and literally made into synthetic chemicals. This means they’re not natural ingredients anymore – they are now equivalent to man-made chemicals. Complicating matters more, the heating processes strip away all of the nutrients that make natural ingredients beneficial to skin and health. I find it so funny how people will dismiss alternatives for a healthy lifestyle. Some refuse to even acknowledge them. I have come to the conclusion that people are very set in their ways and they cannot admit to themselves that they might be wrong. It would mean that all the pesticides they have eaten on their everyday processed food, all the hormone disruptors and potential cancer-causing ingredients in their everyday beauty products, cleaning products, toxic air fresheners all over their homes would mean that their whole way of living is wrong. I think that would cause a lot of guilt mostly if they have children. People do not want to change so they dismiss new ideas and the truth about the reality of the seriousness of our toxic world.

What is the biggest beauty industry myth?
Rose-Marie Swift: That cosmetics are completely safe for you. Then why is it that 100’s of chemicals banned in many countries for cosmetic use are still being used in our beauty products

What are your views on sustainable packaging and cruelty-free products?   
Rose-Marie Swift: That is such a loaded question. There is so much more to learn about sustainable packaging. One aspect is sustainable while the other might not be. The more you research, the more roadblocks and different aspects come into question. The same goes for "cruelty-free" as that is the biggest greenwashing term being thrown around so freely right now.  Many consumers think that when a product is labelled “cruelty-free” it is clean and healthy. That is far from the truth because it can still be full of synthetic and debatable chemicals. In fact, most labs that are actually making your beauty products, do not make the actual ingredients used. In many cases the labs that make the ingredients test on animals.

What beauty products are in your bag right now?  
Rose-Marie Swift: Mostly all of my very own RMS products. My RMS Red Wild With Desire Lipstick and Lip Liner, “un”cover-up #22, Lunar Eye Polish, Living Luminizer, Cle de Peau mascara, and you’ll also find some money, a phone, Frankie's collar (my little Yorkie that has passed) and the keys to both my NYC apartment and my home in Savannah.

What is the future of make-up?  
Rose-Marie Swift: The future of the beauty industry is definitely going in several directions. One being naturals vs the chemicals, natural beauty vs enhanced beauty (plastic surgery). As we continue to pollute the world I feel the only control we will have in making a change is to do so within ourselves and for ourselves. Food is going through this change right now and next are beauty products. People demanding cleaner and more transparent information regarding ingredients and even packaging are increasing. It will hopefully be a natural metamorphosis towards a cleaner beauty industry.