Cosmetic close-up: Make-up now comes in high-def

Makeup sellers seeking to stand out amid crowded cosmetic counters are expanding into a niche once confined to those living under the scrutiny of the lens: high-definition makeup.

The cosmetics, once used just for newscasters, models and actors, are becoming more popular among women who want to appear like they would in HDTV: lifelike, flawless and picture-perfect.

Initially, professional makeup artists used HD cosmetics on celebrities filming in the new system so precise that every detail is magnified more than on standard television. Now, the makers of HD cosmetics are focusing on expanding their use among regular makeup wearers — although not everyone is convinced that consumers should be using HD makeup every day.

The cosmetics, which work when particles in them reflect light instead of absorbing it, are one of the latest trends to hit the industry as companies vie for market share. Morningstar analyst Michelle Chang says there is a "push for innovation" because the industry is so saturated with products.

"There's always companies trying to find a niche that they can fill," Chang says. "This is probably one of them, much like how mineral makeup took off in the past two years."

That form of makeup gained popularity with consumers seeking cosmetics made with natural ingredients, versus preservatives and other chemicals.

More makeup artists are learning how to apply HD makeup in advance of February, when the nation's broadcasters switch from analog to digital transmission. While not all digital broadcasts are in HD, even standard-definition programming looks sharper when it's sent digitally.

The better the image, the thinking goes, the more exquisite skin needs to look.

Cosmetic companies are already reporting a rise in the number of makeup artists coming for training on how to apply HD cosmetics by airbrush, a technique that gained popularity decades ago when MGM used it to paint extras as tan Romans for Ben Hur.

"The airbrush applies the makeup to the surface in a dot pattern and replicates the pixels that HD uses," says Samantha Mandor, a spokeswoman for cosmetics company Temptu. "With traditional makeup, you can see brush strokes; it really shows every flaw."

Temptu's HD makeup graced the runways at New York Fashion Week this month, its vibrant hues of purple and yellow on the eyes of models fitted in evening wear by designer Joanna Mastroianni.

Before the show, artists poured liquid makeup into little spray guns, and then airbrushed the silicone-based HD makeup on the models in a fine, colorless mist. It smelled a bit like paint when first applied, but the result was an odorless, light foundation as the silicone in the makeup absorbed the skin's natural oil.

Mandor says the prices are comparative to traditional department-store makeup. A 1-ounce bottle of the company's Hi-Def S/B makeup, which can be applied by airbrush or hand, is $25. By comparison, Clinique's Perfectly Real foundation is priced at $22.50, while a drugstore brand like Cover Girl's TruBlend Whipped foundation costs around $10.

Other lines of HD makeup come from Christian Dior and Cargo, a Canadian cosmetics company. Cargo's line, named "blu_ray," was created for makeup artists filming in HD television, but began selling at retail this spring.

Smashbox cosmetics, a unit of Smashbox Studios — the photo and film company founded by the great-grandsons of Hollywood cosmetics legend Max Factor — rolled out its HD makeup in March, and has seen it become one of the company's top-selling products.

Cosmetics sales overall have held up relatively well despite the weaker U.S. economy. Deutsche Bank analyst Bill Schmitz Jr. said in a note to investors that sales of color cosmetics rose 1.2% year-over-year for the four-week period ending Aug. 10.

At a Sephora in midtown Manhattan, several women gathered around Makeup Forever and pawed through the brand's HD cosmetics. Sara Gomez picked up the $30 HD Microfinish Powder, stuck her finger in the sample and rubbed the powder between her fingers.

"It's very silky. Fortunately, they're out of it, so I can't buy it!" said Gomez, chuckling. "I guess that makes sense, with everyone wanting to look perfect these days."

The widespread acceptance of HD makeup in Hollywood and in the fashion world may explain the interest among shoppers, experts say.

"We are seeing a huge demand for it," Mandor said. "Their favorite celebrities are getting airbrushed."

Sales of the company's HD makeup, created in 2001, have doubled over the past year, and Temptu plans on rolling out an airbrush model to the consumer market next year.

Still, not everyone is sure that the HD products are ready for the mass market.

"I sit in the middle," said Shana King, an Atlanta-based makeup artist and co-founder of adesign makeup brushes who wears HD makeup herself. "I feel like there's a place for it — in photos, on television or even special events. It's just that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon," says King.

King says there are a lot more steps involved in the application of an HD foundation, and that some of the HD face powders are heavy and cause dry skin. "I just feel like we have to be careful," King says. "There needs to be more consumer education."

University of Southern California sociologist Julie Albright says HDTV, which makes every little wrinkle visible, has put more pressure on women to be beautiful.

Albright, who wore HD makeup once when appearing on a television news show, says women feel "beauty anxiety" when shown images of young, attractive actresses and newscasters, and thinks HD makeup offers a solution to help relieve some of the tension by making them "a little more perfect."

"The pressure is really on, and the beauty bar is being raised," Albright says. "It's going to be interesting to see how women off-screen adjust to this."