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CSI Sephora: New Technique Helps Identifiy Lipstick Brands From Crime Scenes

Researchers refine the way forensic technicians collect and analyze lipstick evidence

William Heirens, aka The Lipstick Killer wrote this plea in lipstick on one of his victim's bedroom walls in 1946. It reads: For heavens sake catch me before I kill more/ I cannot control myself (Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Lipstick may go on easy, but anyone who’s had the stuff on their collar, or even their teeth, knows that getting it off is a whole different situation. It’s a struggle that forensic scientists wrestle with too, but in a different context. It turns out collecting lipstick evidence at a crime scene, whether off a paper cup, cigarette butt or piece of clothing, is a difficult and tedious process. So most lipstick brands are identified while still on the object using complex techniques—an expensive and tricky process.

Brian Bellott and a team of researchers from Western Illinois University, however, plan to change this. They’ve found a cheaper, easier way to both collect and analyze lipstick, and recently presented their results at the Spring conference for the American Chemical Society in San Diego, California. 

Bellott's team first examined current methods of lipstick extraction, whittling away unnecessary steps and experimenting with new solvents. The result? A two part process in which one chemical removes oils and waxes from the lipstick and then a different compound captures the remaining lipstick residue. This residue can be analyzed using a method known as gas chromatography—which is relatively inexpensive and does not require extensive training.

Since each brand of lipstick is composed of a unique array of organic molecules, brands leave a revealing 'chemical fingerprint.' Bellott and his colleagues compiled a database of 40 different lipstick brands, which crime scene investigators can eventually use to identify the maker of lipstick marks.

“Right now we are just lifting samples off of paper, but in the future we are hoping to use different articles and media that could be found at a crime scene,” Bellott says in a press release.

Though this new method makes investigating lipstick evidence cheaper and faster, Bellott admits that it might not be used very often. “Lipstick is one of the less common trace evidences found at a crime scene,” he tells mental_floss

Still, when the analysis is needed it could place a witness or suspect at a scene, help identify a crime victim or even crack open a murder case. Bellott says his team plans on continuing its work adding more lipstick brands to its database and testing its new methods on materials like cloth, ceramic and more.    

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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