The Mink Eyeshadow Printer is a Hoax, and Here’s Why

May 16, 2014
Is the Mink a Hoax?

Is the Mink a Hoax?

OMG! A Harvard student created a printer that makes makeup!


Or did she? I’ve been hearing all the fuss about Grace Choi’s Mink – the printer that will make any eyeshadow color you could want, at home, but I hadn’t watched the videos. Yet.


And when I did, I got a very uncomfortable feeling  – this may not be what we think. Certainly Miss Choi wants to disrupt the cosmetics manufacturing industry, which she says can control only one aspect of makeup – color. And that, she states, is the “b#ull$h!t” that makes them money and keeps you insecure. So she wants to repurpose inkjet printing to create any color you want at home, thus freeing you from the tyranny of lack of choice.


Here’s her presentation at TechCrunch Disrupt:



It seems like a cool idea – so cool I forgot to watch the whole video at first, but what is she demonstrating, actually? The hype is that she printed out an eyeshadow, and soon you will too, but I’m skeptical, for a few reasons:


  • I don’t see Miss Choi beginning with an uncolored eyeshadow cartridge – I see her waiting for the printer, then pulling out a fully formed pink eyeshadow and demonstrating that it is real eyeshadow as proof of her proprietary hardware. She then hastily puts it into a case and goes to what she says is really important, which is the disruption of the big bad cosmetic companies and their b#ll$h!t control of our color options and our self-esteem. But did the Mink prototype on stage actually produce anything?


  • Colored eyeshadows aren’t made by spraying ink onto a white cake – which would be necessary to repurpose inkjet technology for this application. And how deep would a spray of ink go into a ready-made cake of eyeshadow? The eyeshadow in the demo does not make this clear. Because it might not be an actual product made by the methods that Miss Choi is advocating.


  • If the eyeshadow is made from a “cartridge” of substrate which is colored by dyes, then she is not working with an inkjet printer, she is working with a 3D printer. Which will not, in 2014 or 2015, be available for $300 retail. And if that printer were available, would it produce powder or liquid? Both? And would it make a mess, as 3D printers do?


So is Grace Choi putting us on? Did she just pull out a ready-made eyeshadow and imply that it was made by her printer?


Grace Choi displays a keen understanding of the political arguments to be made for disrupting the cosmetics industry – she includes testimony that she can’t find colors for her “dark” Asian skin, and that asking for a black or green lipstick in a store made her feel uncomfortable and insecure, leading her to not want to raise her hand in class. This is very effective in getting us to sympathize with her, even while she talks smack about just about everyone else – the beauty industry, inkjet printer companies (who she needs but can’t name), even the inkjet printing protocols (which “developers really need to fix”).


But she doesn’t seem to have a grasp on the engineering and manufacturing necessities for creating custom makeup from inkjet technology. When asked by the panel, she’s quite vague about how the ink gets into the substrate, and only seems to understand inkjet printing itself as a “mature” technology that she’s going to appropriate by telling them “your industry is dying, so you need me.” She evades the questions about how different types of makeup would be created, except that different cartridges would be required. How would powder cosmetics be created by this printer, versus cream-based cosmetics like concealer or lipstick? No answers. Meanwhile, the men on the panel were unknowingly discussing products and processes that would require 3D printing technology.


Ok, so the Mink is set to disrupt the big bad, “b#ll$h!t” cosmetics industry by mechanics that are still not understood. But how are cosmetics manufactured, anyway?


Number one: Most eyeshadows are not pressed as powders – they are poured as liquids into pans. The colors are already mixed in.


Also, cosmetic colors are not blended from CYMK ink colors – they are mostly mineral pigments, which have their own characteristics in color blends (much like in painting) so blending a new cosmetic color is not Color Theory 101. Or computer devised. There are people whose sole job is to mix cool colors from what is currently available and FDA approved (just as there are color experts in the paint industries – keeping artists, designers, and DIY homeowners happy with their products.) Even a basic blue eyeshadow color could be composed of multiple pigment types blended  to make it either super bright or tonal.


And that’s just the Hue/Shade/Lightness aspect of cosmetic color. What about saturation? Shimmer? Glitter? Softness? Is the eyeshadow super soft like Chantecaille, or hard like Chanel? Variation in color and texture isn’t just between mass and prestige – there are multitudes of textures to be chosen from at Sephora, too.


Want to see how makeup is manufactured? I found this in 30 seconds on Google, and if you watch it, you’ll have more understanding of the cosmetic manufacturing process than anyone on that TechCrunch Disrupt stage:



And that brings up one other issue: making new makeup colors is messy work. The audience at TechCrunch Disrupt fell for the fantasy of Jetsons-style makeup customization. But whenever there was a technical question, it got shunted off.


I think that Grace Choi’s emphasis on the evils of the cosmetics industry – its monopolization of color, its insistence that women try to squeeze their preferences according to a narrow distribution model – is a disingenuous ploy to hide the fact that she doesn’t have the understanding of the technical processes by which makeup is made.


I wish it were not so – but the Mink is a snow job.


P.S. It turns out that Dr. Joe Schwartz, who I quoted in the “cosmetic scare stories” article, agrees with me, only he adds the issue of bacterial contamination. You can read his comments here.

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  • Michelle May 19, 2014 at 1:10 am

    From my understanding, this wasn’t a functional prototype. It was a mock-up that was meant as “proof of concept”, but she doesn’t have an actual working machine manufactured yet, or didn’t at the time of the presentation. I’m not sure what that means in terms of actually seeing this happen, but I don’t think it’s a “hoax” per se, because it wasn’t a secret that this isn’t the final product. This was a presentation of her idea.

    • Meli Pennington May 19, 2014 at 7:52 am

      I think you’re right about that, Michelle – I’m not sure she stated that it actually worked, though by calling herself a serial “inventor” and emphasizing that the eyeshadow that she pulled out is a real one, there’s an implication that she’s the person who “invented” 3D makeup printing.

      As “Proof of Concept” I don’t think she demonstrated true feasibility. Even though the idea is cool, she doesn’t seem to understand a thing about makeup *manufacturing*, which is the real process she would disrupt with this product (makeup isn’t colored by CMYK dyes). Since she’s a Harvard MBA student she’s probably more down with the business/markup side of disruption, which would be fine – if she had called a friend at MIT to do some technical work before calling herself (or getting called by a gazillion media outlets) the “inventor” of a new technology.

      • Michelle May 19, 2014 at 10:42 am

        Yeah, I’m not sure what she wants to happen is actually feasible the way she wants it to be. I was skeptical about the comment that printers and eyeshadows all use the same pigments, and also about the eye-safety of some of the colors you’d need in order to recreate some of the possible colors you’d be able to select onscreen. It’s a great idea, though, and it would be nice if this prompted a real invention along these lines.

  • Scott Trappe May 22, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    Michelle, I think you are being far more generous in your interpretation than I am about Ms. Choi’s intentions. I call hoax. She called the device on stage a “prototype”. As I understand the term, a prototype is a functioning version of an idea that demonstrates its feasibility but is not in its final “production-ready” form. This seems consistent with what she demonstrated, because the device she used on stage was a large black box, while in her slide deck she showed an image of a very different looking final product — much smaller with brushed aluminum sides and a white top (the image looked an awful lot like a stock photo of a Mac Mini with a slot drawn on the bottom front).

    If she wasn’t trying to convince people it was real, then why didn’t she ever say “my concept is” or “my vision is”? Why go through the whole routine of grabbing a pixel off of a video and pasting it into a document and then “printing” the cosmetic? She never said “this is what I hope to do” but instead presented it as already done. In fact, the printer did “print”, because one of the commentators said he saw a piece of paper come out of the printer. Why would a real prototype print on paper and the cosmetic at the same time?

    To me, it seemed transparently obvious that she had taken a conventionally made eye shadow out of its case and placed it inside the printer before the demo (she opened a large lid on the top, likely used to get access to the ink jet cartridges; there is a lot of space in there where you could secret eye shadow). The shade she pulled out of the printer didn’t even look that close to the shade seen on the screen, so even if it was real, it doesn’t really work — the color she was trying to print didn’t look very much like the color she selected.

    At best, you could call this a “pretotype”, a concept she wanted to test out with an audience to gather feedback–would people want this product? But she has as yet “invented” nothing.

    And I agree with Meli, I didn’t like the transparent manipulation of the audience — the “big bad” cosmetic companies and how they supposedly make non-pasty-white women feel bad about themselves.

    I don’t know anything about the Disrupt conference, but if this is typical of the level of screening they do for potential presenters, the event has no value–next year they could feature engines that run on water, perpetual motion machines or cold fusion generators.

    And I think Ms. Choi’s antics demean the efforts of all the real inventors out there who toil for months or years to actually create real innovations, but lacking her arrogance or hutzpah don’t ever get the visibility for their work.

  • Quora May 22, 2014 at 11:31 pm

    Has the Mink 3D makeup printer secured any funding yet?

    Worse than vaporware, really bad on the part of TechCrunch to do no checking what so ever. I’ve worked with Inkjet researchers for several years and there’s a lot more to it than she seems to realize. I Looks like makeup artists and chemists are more…

  • GB21 May 27, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    What got me is that she didn’t even have a driver GUI worked up. The “use your favorite app” to paste in a color and print to a driver with no options stood out a preposterous.

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