Cosmetics innovator Lydia O’ Leary turned adversity into triumph when she created a makeup product that could help people with embarrassing facial blemishes. Born with a large raspberry-colored birthmark that covered half of her face, O’Leary was used to getting strange looks on the street. After graduating from college in 1921, she searched for work as a sales associate at New York City department stores. Despite her qualifications, stores rejected her from front-counter jobs because of her blemish.
Eventually, O’Leary took a job painting cards. This experience provided the “a-ha” moment that led her to create Covermark, the first makeup product designed especially to hide facial blemishes. It is the first and only foundation makeup product to ever receive a patent.
One day, O’Leary was painting a flower on a bridge scorecard using purplish paint, and she painted one petal too dark. She touched it up with a lighter shade of the same color, and it covered her mistake perfectly. She wondered if she could do something similar to disguise her birthmark. She immediately went to the mirror and covered the mark with oil paint. The wheels in her head were turning.
O’Leary began experimenting with ingredients that she had at home or could buy in a drug store, including water, zinc powder, and glycerin. She sought the advice of a chemist as well, who helped her to create new versions of the formula to correct problems such as drying and cracking and staying in place. Within months, O’Leary had come up with the perfect product. She applied for a patent, and her application was denied. The courts failed to see how her makeup product was different from other products already patented and on the market.
O’Leary appealed the decision, and sitting before a courtroom with her Covermark on her face, she was able to astonish and convince the judges that she had indeed created something new. She received a patent for Covermark in 1932. Hers was the only makeup foundation to ever have been granted a patent by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO). The Covermark invention was also significant in that it was the first product within what has become to be known as the "cosmeceutical" field.
O’ Leary started a company to begin marketing her invention, hoping to help others who could benefit from it. Today, Covermark products are sold for the face, legs, and body that are water-resistant, smudge-proof, easy-to-apply, and have sun protection. People with birthmarks, burns, scars, and other imperfections benefit greatly from O’Leary’s invention. It allows them to lead more normal lives with less self-consciousness and fear of embarrassment.