Is Makeup More Harmful Than Photoshop?

It seems like over the last 10 years, more and more photographers, retouchers, and influencers have been accused of promoting distorted and unrealistic body image expectations to children and the general public. As a photographer, I was curious if retouching with Photoshop was more or less deceptive than using face-altering makeup. Today, I put my social experiment to the test. 

Everyone knows how prevalent photo manipulation is within our society. Companies from Ralph Lauren to L'Oreal have been guilty of warping and manipulating pixels beyond a reasonable level in their advertising and marketing material. Many proponents for the regulation of false and sensationalized advertising argue that by manipulating models to appear more beautiful by way of cleaner skin and thinner physiques, commercial advertisements are destroying the standards of what it means to look natural and healthy. 

In March 27th, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen introduced H.R. 4341, also known as the Truth in Advertising Act of 2014, into the 113th Congress of the United States. This bill aimed at requiring the Federal Trade Commission to come up with a strategy to "reduce the use, in advertising and other media for the promotion of commercial products, of images that have been altered to materially change the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals depicted." The bill was backed by many studies that focused on mental health of young children who continually viewed photos of people altered to look more beautiful, tall, skinny, and free of facial blemishes and inconsistencies. Ultimately, the bill did not pass, but it caused an uproar among many parents and adults asking for more accountability among corporations who use highly "Photoshopped" images in their advertising.

As a photographer who has relied on professional retouching over my career, I've always thought the idea of censoring or regulating the artistic expression of a creative was a slippery slope to walk. On one hand, I hate the idea that we as photographers are promoting unrealistic body image and possibly causing mental and emotional harm to young adults who often aspire to be as beautiful as the people in our images. On the other hand, though, if retouching and image manipulation is done within reason, I think software like Adobe Photoshop is simply a tool that allows creative people to build and execute their vision. I honestly do not know where we should draw the line that is not to be crossed, but I can empathize with both sides of the argument. 

Does makeup look just as unnatural as retouching?

In thinking about this dilemma, a completely different thought crossed my mind. Why does society shame and ostracize photography retouching like it is the root of all psychological evils, but at the same time accept or at least turn a blind eye to the idea that makeup enhances the female face in a way that is totally acceptable? Why is Photoshop bad, but makeup totally acceptable? After all, applying powders, gloss, and other forms of paint is as far from a healthy normal body image as the same results done with software.

My friend, Angel Rodriguez, who is an amazing makeup artist here in Puerto Rico, makes an interesting point in saying: "but with makeup, you can actually look like that and wear it out in public." While this is definitely true and a good counterargument to why makeup is more "real" than retouching done to digital images, the underlying concept is still the idea of creating a false reality. 

So, What Looks More Natural: Photoshop or Makeup?

Conversations like the one outlined above helped inspire this entire social photography project. What would it look like if we shot the same model both with and without makeup? The makeup image could not be retouched at all, but the non-makeup image could be retouched by one of the industry's best retouchers. Would one look better than the other? Would one look more natural? Maybe the image with only makeup would still look less than perfect without the help of digital manipulation software. 

For this experiment, I hired two different models with two completely different skin types. The first model, Aria D' Mir, has dark skin and a very clean complexion, while Stephanie Lu has a much stronger bone structure and a much lighter skin tone. Even though the point of this photoshoot was to explore makeup and skin retouching, I think a lot of people overlook just how important and misleading professional photography lighting can be on a subject. So, not only did I photograph two different women, I also lit them in two different ways that are very common in the advertising and fashion world. 

Aria comparison: no makeup (left), makeup (right)

As you can see in the image sets above and below, makeup clearly adds an unreal effect that doesn't always capture the true beauty of a person, but in its application, it is technically real and can be replicated. The images on the left have been retouched by the amazingly talented Susan Rockstraw, and although this effect may not be able to be replicated 100% in real life, I feel like it is a more accurate representation of what the models actually look like naturally. 

Before and After

For those of you curious to see how far Susan took the retouching on both of the natural images without makeup, I've posted before and after images below. In both of these cases, I feel like Susan did a reasonable and subtle retouch that did not overly embellish the natural look of the model, but simply displayed the natural beauty in a clean and respectful way. Perhaps you do not feel the same way about this as I do, though. 

Bonus Example

Many of you have said that the retouching above did not go far enough and was too subtle. I also had my retoucher do another edit where she applied "digital makeup" in post production to try to mimic a makeup look without actually using makeup. You can see the two images below and see which one is your favorite. I've also included a before and after image with a more aggressive natural retouch that completely removes the acne. 

No makeup, digital makeup, and real makeup

What Do You Think?

Part of what makes this experiment interesting is hearing what other people think. Which set of images do you prefer and do you think one technique, makeup or Photoshop, reduces the authenticity of the model?

I'm sure photographers will have a different opinion from retouchers and women will have a different opinion than men. Maybe even moms will have a different opinion than daughters. Whatever your background or however you identify yourself, I'm super curious to see if you think Photoshopping images is worse or better than models using makeup. Perhaps both makeup and Photoshop are equally as deceiving to the viewer. I'll take it a step further and ask if images that utilize retouching, especially those used for advertising, should have a disclaimer that the image has been altered, and if so, should advertisers also have to issue a disclaimer when professional lighting and makeup have been employed? 

Patrick Hall's picture

Patrick Hall is a founder of and a photographer based out of Charleston, South Carolina.

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Thanks Patrick...the music is too much in spots though

Are we just getting too old? I did my best to make sure everything was hitting between -3 and -6 db even with a limiter.

Geez now that you mention it...I'm always the one turning down the volume these days.

With the right type and quantity of lighting, can't these effects be had in camera and without makeup? Can't the same "distortion" be had "naturally"? I remember some years ago in the UK, I believe, there was an outcry over an image of Julia Roberts that was "airbrushed". The complaint was, "truth in advertising". The products couldn't possibly deliver such results. Well, when was the last time any product could deliver what their ads promised/suggested. Now, I understand the need for truth in advertising as it pertains to the mental/emotion health of our mothers, wives sisters and daughters. But, hasn't the horse left the barn already as far as truth in advertising?

I think this argument is made even stronger with makeup ads because they should not show a retouched version of the image if the makeup couldn't achieve it to begin with. That's another argument that is very much related to this whole over arching theme though.

I think the concept of "uncanny valley" comes into play here. For me, both the heavily Photoshopped and the "heavily made up" images turn the models ever-so-slightly "plastic" in appearance. Also, both "non made up/non photoshopped" images (seen briefly, only in the video) in this feature look far warmer and "human" (and, frankly, attractive) than the "made up/photoshopped" ones.

If I had to pick one of the two "retouched" images, I'd pick the Photoshopped one as feeling more "real." What makes it better is that the photoshopping hasn't gone too far. Retouching a pimple here, minimizing a wrinkle there is fine. However, humans have imperfections, we look "off" when they are completely eliminated; these Photoshop versions look as if they preserve imperfections to an extent. The made-up versions look like the imperfections are hidden behind a thick "layer" of unreality. Both are "unreal", but one feels less-so.

And, it's funny that I never see these "imperfections" in person! It's weird! It's only during the post processing phase do I take notice.

Same here. Sometimes I edit based off of that concept. Iv noticed a trend where people are over doing the skin texture to look more realistic. I dont see every bump and wrinkles and white head with my naked eye.

I guess that's what post processing really is: capturing what we saw and how we felt. This applies to landscapes as well.

This is a great point. Landscape photographers tweak their photos often times to show what a location "felt" like without the distractions your mind wasn't able to process on location but most definitely can process when staring at a single frame. The same is true with photographing people. How many times have you talked with a person for an hour but didn't recognize something about them in person but then noticed it when you saw a photo of them?

As a side note excessive makeup is extremely annoying. Wake up the next day and it looks like a clown slept in my bed with makeup all over the pillow and sheets.

Dont want a girl with a lot of makeup, then dont get with one. Easy.

Gotta buy dark grey sheets my friend!

Yah ive got sorta medium grey sheets. Ive woke up next to a few that were trying to get a little too artistic with their makeup though. Gotta quit letting the wrong head make the decisions. 🤪 has always been deceitful.

I think when people complain about images being "retouched" or "photoshopped", I'm pretty certain they are referring to altering/reshaping of faces and body (eg, liquify). In all examples I've seen, including the ones flashed in the video, none of them had to do with makeup.

To the questions:
-- No, I don't think Photoshopping images is worst than models with applied makeup. They both deceive the viewer for aesthetics.
-- No, no need for disclaimers that professional lighting/equipment and makeup was used even in advertising. Anyone with at least half a brain and doesn't live in a cave should expect this most likely a 99% :)

If I had it my way, I'd have a makeup artist in my backpocket. I still would retouch the images. It'll just go faster.

Good retouching is an art, as is good makeup. It is an error saying all retouching is bad, but saying all makeup is bad is also an error.

I don't want to say either is bad or good entirely, but I also haven't seen these anti photoshop companies address why makeup is any less deceiving.

Id argue that if makeup was not as deceiving, how do makeup artist change acotrs for movies? Or even drag queens. They change genders with makeup.

Thanks Patrick. First model looks better with a make, second with a touch. I found make in the second instance a bit heavy. So my take home message would be: everything is good in moderation.

Sure but I'm trying to make a broader point. If you watch tv, you can see how much makeup is coating on celebrities faces yet no one acts like that is bad, strange, or misleading. Usually for film or live events, more makeup is better but it is still presenting a very misleading representation of what that person looks like.

Red carpet syndrome. Attention seeking or expecting during public appearances causes celebs to go crazy lengths, including over utilization of heavy photo-session ready make which in turn pushes that mainstream...

"Why is Photoshop bad, but makeup totally acceptable?

Let's start with makeup being used for about 7,000 years. Photoshop? 30 years.

In the hands of professionals, neither is inherently "bad," but the possibilities for abuse are relatively finite in traditional makeup, infinite with Photoshop.

Except for special effects, make-up does not alter the physicality of the model. Photoshop can create an image that does not exist in reality.

The challenge for makeup since the digital age commenced is the increased resolution exposing makeup flaws not visible in analogue film photography, one reason why film still lives and vintage lenses are prized.

Finally, makeup on the set can be evaluated on the day. Bad Photoshopping surfaces later and after the set is struck and models paid and on their way.

As to advertising, anyone who doesn't realize it is based on illusion through and through needs to turn over their finances to a responsible adult.

As a woman, that wears an 'excessive' amount of makeup sometimes(I have a makeup addiction but hardly wear it lol) being natural most of the time because I'm too lazy to actually do it... I don't find either of them bad apart from the digital makeup. That, I'm sorry to say, looks pretty bad.

I suppose because women are the target audience and main consumers our views do differ than that of men. With that said, men view makeup very differently. There was a study done on it and how much makeup men like, and it tended to be on the more natural side of the spectrum. I can see why given how nature uses bright colors as being a deterrent or showing something is deadly, so it may trigger something in the primal part of the brain. Having radiant beauty is a sign of good health, so when you look at it from purely a potential mating situation, yes less is more for men.

For women makeup is very different, it can be an extension of our personalities. It can also be a tool to shape our faces , a shield to cover acne or just something to make us feel good. We're indoctrinated into societies view of what is beautiful from the moment we understand what a magazine is.We've seen our mothers do their makeup, our sisters put it on us, and are given play-sets of makeup as kids. Same goes for the unrealistic standard of body image, with it being shoved down our throats daily. I do believe though the main difference that needs to be said is that makeup is removable, it is known and is used to alter the appearance that is not trying to intrinsically lie to us. Photoshop on the other hand has gone too far with some brands, it has carved out waists, chiseled chins, increase the bust and butts of women to achieve the ideal form of what society views as the perfect beauty. That, and the deceptive practices that some brands use to lie to consumers about the makeup they are using, or how their models look in order to sell to us.

The raw or natural beauty trend is to a lot of women a breath of fresh air. It strips bare those insecurities we feel, the stress to be perfect and look perfect while taking on the world. Women do not see makeup the same as over-retouching because we know that it is false,and a choice to wear it, whereas the over-retouching is a lie meant to deceive us. I don't think retouching is bad, hell I do it and have done it with beauty work. But given the current climate with the beauty industry, knowing is better than not. Neither can be bad unless it drastically alters the person you're working with that is unnatural to who they are.

"but with makeup, you can actually look like that and wear it out in public." While this is definitely true and a good counterargument to why makeup is more "real" than retouching done to digital images, the underlying concept is still the idea of creating a false reality."

Well no, it isn't a false reality. It is simply reality. It isn't "more real." Its real, its tangible, you can touch it, you can adjust it, you can change it. More importantly the subject (in almost every case outside of the context of a commercial shoot) has a say in how it is applied.

I'm not arguing against the use of photoshop. But your entire premise here is flawed. It isn't a competition. Makeup isn't more "harmful" than photoshop. Makeup is used by millions of people every single day. Photoshop is used by (in comparison) a handful of photoshop artists and photographers in very limited context.

This would have been a much better article if you had given Angel Rodriguez a platform here to make their case rather than to dismiss their opinion entirely with the wave of a hand.

If you really want to know why the only people calling for "disclaimers when professional lighting and makeup have been employed" are disgruntled photographers and retouchers its because you really aren't listening to what the other side have to say. I would suggest elevating those voices and listening to them rather than conducting what is clearly a passive-aggressive experiment.

To be fair, Angel and I are friends and I absolutely love his work (people are being very harsh on his work in the youtube comments). I'm sure I will work with him again soon.

When he was here in the studio, I actually filmed an intro with him and we gave counter arguments back and forth and it was a fun way to start the video, but because it was rushed, the overall concept of the video didn't play out well in that original intro. I didn't want to dismiss his idea that makeup is real because it is tangible in real life unlike photoshop, and that's why I published that argument in my article above.

That being said, yes it can be viewed as real but it's still deceiving in that no person looks like that day to day. Every day they will apply different makeup and look slightly different. I don't know that I can go as far as saying it's "fraud" but that word seems to have some notion of what I'm getting at. It's kind of like if you darkened your skin and claimed to identify with a different group. The truth reality is that's not your skin color. The same with wigs and other tools used to hide what you really look like. When my dad wore a wig during his cancer treatment, it was his choice and he really did look like he had hair (to some extent), but at the end of the day, even as his loving son, him having hair was still not real or the truth.

As for the lighting, that is a slippery slope in the other direction. I agree that it too is deceiving but if anything were "real" it would be real lighting hitting someone's face in a way that it hides the imperfections. You can easily go into a dressing room that has nice beauty lighting and achieve this effect with little to no outside influence. It's not as permanent as makeup or wigs or body spanks but it's something that is IMO more real than some of the other examples. You could simplify this by comparing overcast shaded light and harsh sunlight that everyone deals with throughout their day. The overcast light is going to hide blemishes significantly more than direct sunlight...but again those situations are magnitudes more "real" than anything identified above.

"I didn't want to dismiss his idea that makeup is real because it is tangible in real life unlike photoshop"

Yet that's exactly what you did do in your article. You gave him an entire sentence to present his point of view then dismissed it in the very next sentence with a wave of a hand.

I mean, you ask the question in the video "what is worse for a young girls emotional well-being: photoshop or make-up?" You had on the video two women who have plenty of experienced being a "young girl." They are professional models who probably wear make-up every single day both as part of their work and as part of every day life.

Did it ever occur to you that if you wanted an answer to that question you could have asked that question to both Aria and Stephanie instead of using them as elaborate props in a subjective and inconclusive experiment? Or did you ask them the question as well but it ended up on the cutting room floor because it didn't fit the click-bait narrative you were trying to prove?

The Fstoppers continues to have issues with diversity. I just went and checked your contributors page and with nearly 200 contributors to the site less than 30 of them were women. How women and marginalised people are treated by this industry is a really big problem that isn't going to be addressed with nonsense like this.

Putting on make-up is not "deception." And as a brown person myself it is insulting for you to compare "darkening your skin and claiming to identify with a different group" with what millions of people do every single day which is to put make-up on to (often) make them feel good. Make up isn't even close to "fraud." And it differs from photoshop because the person wearing the make up has agency where with photoshop that agency is up to the "creative whims" of the "artist".

I'm sorry your dad had cancer. That's a horrible horrible thing. :(

But I would hope that while he was wearing that wig you never walked up to him and said "that wig isn't real, it's a deception and almost fraudulent. It might make you feel better, but your feelings aren't important." Because that is essentially what you are doing here. There are a hundred different reasons why people choose to wear make-up. They may need to do it for their job, they may do it to feel good, to please someone else or to please themselves. To compare that to the harm that the beauty and fashion industry have done (in a myriad of different ways, not just retouching) is just tone deaf.

We hire based on the portfolios of people who contact us about writing for us. Women are always welcomed at Fstoppers and we have had many women write for us.

By "many" women you actually mean less than 30 out of a contributor base of just under 200. And that doesn't say anything at all about what proportion of articles women have contributed to this site. If you wanted to increase the diversity of voices here at Fstoppers there are ways to do that that. You could do a better job at moderating the comments here for starters.

But again you are kind of missing the point. Why would you write an article that sought to answer the question ""what is worse for a young girls emotional well-being: photoshop or make-up" without seeking any feedback from women, even when two women were prominently featured in your video? Did it honestly just not occur to you?

When I say that Fstoppers has a problem with diversity its this that I'm talking about. You are talking about a serious problem in the industry and you treated it like a joke. It wouldn't have been difficult at all for you to reach out to get some additional perspective.

I love natural faces but I think I preferred the slightly photoshopped images. I think makeup if it is done well is a great tool for women - but I would prefer the woman to be applying makeup to herself for her own satisfaction rather than to satisfy the want of men or the markets directive (and therein lies the problem.) For me, I tend to be photoshopping snot from a kids nose for a school photo, milk off a babies mouth and lessening the acne that the lighting in my small studio has left visible. If I do this carefully, my photos are more likely to sell. Photoshopping makeup on an already beautiful model to create a 'perfect' image is so far from my world...

Speaking as a woman who wears makeup, who's moving into the glamour portrait world, is now a half century old and a mother (of two boys), although there are some problems with images out there of unrealistic portrayals of women, the real issue is that as a society, we have to do better to treat girls equally with boys. We have to bolster their self confidence and self image, teach them that they are good enough as they are, and they can work hard to achieve anything they want in life. Teach them what my mother taught me: Don't rely on a man for financial support. Be able to support yourself no matter what happens to your marriage (from her personal experience and learning lessons).

Teach them to be independent thinkers and treat them as equals. Even in the 21st century, my high schooler has a classmate whose father doesn't allow her to attend parties (unless the parents go too) or go out because he's over protective of her. How will she learn life skills to know how to handle herself socially? In another instance, a friend's 22 year old step daughter is embarking on a 6 month long travel around the world with her boyfriend, except to Brazil. He's going there without her. Why? Because he says it's not safe for her and he doesn't want her to go. Seriously? Why is he choosing for her? More importantly, why is she allowing him to? In another instance, a father won't allow his daughter to cut her long blond hair short, even though she's wanted to since elementary school. Does he own her? The list goes on and on.

This is how women/girls are treated. Like they're incapable of making decisions for themselves, like they're fragile flowers to be guarded over by a man. If they're treated this way from day one, that erodes their confidence and image, makes them dependant on others and in a way forces them to look for validation elsewhere. This is the real issue. Not some magazine picture of a gorgeous woman wearing makeup.

I have no issues in photography with makeup put on before the shoot, or added in post. Photography is art, and this part of it. If an everyday woman wants her image taken by me so that she looks as beautiful on the outside as she feels on the inside, that can be very empowering. I think average people are really surprised how beautiful they really are in photos when taken well.

I think it will be more convincing to do this comparison under nature light, both sunny day and cloudy day :). We don't live under strobes.

No but most advertisers use strobes for their photo campaigns.

Send the images off to me for retouching. Might be able to produce some better results.

No offense. But, no, you couldn't.