A Beginner’s Guide to Red Lipstick, part 1: Buying the Best Bullet

Photo courtesy Renee.

Photo courtesy Renee.

There are few cosmetics items more beloved and simultaneously maligned than the red lipstick. A beauty staple since cosmetics were first invented, bright red lips have had a number of associations: a berry flush was a sign of youth and good health in the medieval era, but the hallmark of a prostitute in Victorian times. Over the past century, the red lip has undergone a number of resurrections and transformations, from the dark, berry bee-sting lips of flapper girls and silent film heroines, to the glossy red pout sported by Marilyn Monroe, on to the ever-popular “Parisian” look which features a strong lip color and little else. Finally, we’ve embraced the rouge!

…well, sort of. While some ladies consider red lipstick their makeup signature (and you can count me in on that group), others are confused, frustrated, or just plain terrified by red lipstick. Perhaps they can’t seem to work it in to a modern-day look, or maybe they’re having trouble with finding the right shade of red.

Whatever your issue with red lipstick is, I’m hoping to address it! The second half of this guide will answer some very frequently asked questions about red lipstick, provide some suggestions on how to what to wear with your lipstick, and give you a few pointers on making your lipstick last. This post, however, is about the fundamental first step: picking the right formula and shade.

 Distinguishing Undertones

If you aren’t used to differentiating the undertones in a certain color, phrases like “warm red” or “cool pink” can be downright migraine-inducing. The difference between a warm color and a cool color is easily stated: a warm color has more orange in it, a cool color has more blue in it. This means that, if you lined up your red lipsticks on a color wheel, the cooler reds would be closer to the blues and purples and the warmer reds would be closer to the yellows and oranges.

warmcool2Cool shades on the left, warm shades on the right.

Now, that’s all well in good, but if you’re like most people–including me when I first started wearing makeup–you uncap a red lipstick, tilt your head, squint your eyes, and say, “Well, it’s just…red.” It’s much easier to spot the difference between a cool red and a warm red if you see them in action:

Photo courtesy Renee.

Photo courtesy Renee.

MAC Kanga-Rouge versus MAC Lady Danger

Both of the lipsticks in this picture are obviously very bright reds. Both are opaque formulas. Both are produced by MAC. But look harder: aren’t they a little different looking? Doesn’t that top lipstick have a more blue-ish, berry tinge to it? And doesn’t that bottom lipstick seem smidge orange?

The difference between a warm red and cool red is even more noticeable when said lipstick has been applied. Take a look at these four makeup looks; the looks on the left feature cool-toned red lipsticks, while the looks on the right use warm-toned lipsticks.

Photo courtesy Renee.

Photo courtesy Renee.

LEFT: Chanel Dragon and NARS Cruella; RIGHT: NYX Indie Flick and MAC Lady Danger

 Warm or Cool: Which Suits You?

Now that you’ve seen the difference between a cool red and a warm red, it’s time to figure out which undertone suits you best! Conventional wisdom holds that people with cooler undertones in their skin should stick to cool makeup, and visa versa for those with warmer skintones. And for many, this is a good starting point. I, however, find it a bit restrictive and limiting. When it comes to choosing a red lipstick, there’s far more to consider than your skin tone!

Think about this: what sort of look are you going for? Is it the glossy, All-American Girl warm red of the 1940s, or perhaps the deep, matte brick red that rose to popularity in the 1990s? What about everything else on/around your face–do you have cool, blue eyes, or are they a warm, golden hazel? Is your hair a cool, ashy brown or a warm, caramel blonde?

It seems overwhelming, but all it boils down to is: how do you like to look? In my case, I like to wear warmer reds because I have pale, somewhat cool-toned skin and very light blue eyes, so the orange in a warm lipstick provides an interesting contrast to my coloring. That contrasting, “so wrong it’s right” look feels very modern to me. But I also like to wear cooler reds because they compliment my cool tones and sort of “soften” them, and they tend to look quite classic and grown-up. My personal recommendation is to try both a warm and cool red lipstick and see how they suit you. As a general rule: if you want more contrast, pick a red lipstick with an undertone that’s the opposite of your skintone (ie, warm skintones wear cool reds, cool skintones wear warm reds). If you want a complimentary color, choose a red lipstick with undertones similar to those in your skin.

Now, there is a universal truth when it comes to choosing between a warm and cool lipsticks. Any lipstick with blue in it will make your teeth look whiter, while any lipstick with orange in it can make your teeth look yellow. If you’re uncomfortable with the coloring of your teeth to begin with, a warm red might not be the best option.

A final point of contention: some claim that redheads can’t wear red lipstick of any kind. I think this is absolutely preposterous, as women like Jessica Chastain, Julianne Moore, and Christina Hendricks look downright STUNNING in a red lip! If you’re worried about having too much red going on between your hair and your lipstick, I recommend going all out with your lips–choose a very bright, bold red or a darker, more vampy shade–and keeping the blush and your outfit quite simple.

Photo courtesy Renee.

Photo courtesy Renee.

If you’re looking for a bold red, try NARS Matte Velvet pencil in Cruella (cool) or MAC Matte lipstick in Lady Danger (warm). If you want a red that’s still bold and beautiful, but has less orange/blue and is therefore a smidge more “neutral,” consider Elizabeth Arden Color Intrigue lipstick in Poppy Cream (slightly warm) or Lancome Rouge in Love lipstick in #181N (slightly cool). For less opacity and more shine, go for a sheer product like a Revlon Lip Butter in Candy Apple (warm) or Red Velvet (cool).

Photo courtesy Renee.

Photo courtesy Renee.

Secret Formulas

Lipstick has long been the most popular, most purchased cosmetic item in the United States, and cosmetic technology is more advanced than ever before. So it’s no surprise that there are endless brands and formulas for a consumer to choose from. If you’re new to makeup or on a limited budget, picking just one red lipstick, and getting it in a formula that works for you, can be a daunting task. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most popular lipstick formulations. Bear in mind that these are just general guidelines; Brands A and B may have a liquid lipstick that performs quite differently from Brand C’s.

Photo courtesy Renee.

Photo courtesy Renee.

Good Ol’ Fashioned Lipstick: the classic product, formulated as a creamy stick of waxes, oils, and pigments and housed in a bullet. This is the most common formulation and, for most people, it’s the best place to start. The real issue here is that bullet lipsticks come in a wide number of finishes, which can be a little confusing to newcomers. While this will vary from company to company, most companies make lipsticks in cream, frost, and matte finishes.

– A cream finish lipstick will be smooth and rich, and it may look slightly shiny or “wet” on the lips due to the richness of the formula. EXAMPLES: Shiseido Perfect Rouge, Revlon Super Lustrous

– Matte lipsticks are generally much drier and more opaque, as they contain more pigment and fewer moisturizing ingredients. This means that they lack shine and can be quite bold, but also a little drying. EXAMPLES: MAC Matte, Makeup Forever Rouge Artist Intense (Matte or Satin finish)

– A frost lipstick contains some kind of shiny pigment or oil that literally makes the lipstick look somewhat metallic on the lips. EXAMPLES: MAC Frost, Revlon Moon Drops (Crystal/Frost finish)

Photo courtesy Renee.

Photo courtesy Renee.

Liquid Lipstick: Liquid lipsticks are products that look like gloss in the tube, but apply with the opacity and wear-time of a lipstick. Most apply wet and glossy like a lipgloss, but dry down to a more satin finish. Liquid lipsticks tend to be incredibly long-wearing and opaque, and they are often the best option if you want a product that lasts through eating and drinking; however, they are also drying and can be a bit difficult to apply due to their runny consistency. EXAMPLES: Armani Lip Maestro, Shiseido Lacquer Rouge

Photo courtesy Renee.

Photo courtesy Renee.

Lip Butters and Tinted Balms: If you’re terrified of overdoing your lipstick, drying out your lips, or walking out of the house with a super-intense lip color, lip butters and tinted balms are the way to go. These are sheer, slick formulations that add just a hint of color to your lips and plenty of shine. Some formulations are also quite moisturizing and soothing. This is a great option for people who want a more sheer red or a product that’s acceptable for everyday wear, but be forewarned: the amount of moisturizers and emollients in these products cuts down on their wear time, and you will have to reapply regularly throughout the day. EXAMPLES: L’oreal Colour Riche Balm, Dior Addict

Photo courtesy Renee.

Photo courtesy Renee.

Stains: As the name suggests, stains are products specifically formulated to sink in to your lips and stay put. Most are thin liquids that you spread on to your lips with an marker-tip or brush applicator. Stains tend to work best when applied directly to the lips, with no lipliner or balm impeding them. Some people do, however, use a stain underneath a lipliner and lipstick to ensure that there will always be some bright red coloring on their mouth. While lip stains are a great option for long-wearing color, they are generally very drying and somewhat sheer.  Also, people with a lot of fine lines on their lips or around their mouth may find that the incredibly thin formulas tend to exaggerate those lines. EXAMPLES: theBalm Stainiac, CoverGirl Outlast Lipstain

Renee is a former English teacher and forever makeup addict currently caught in retail Hell. She learned most of her makeup “skills” by reading Kevyn Aucoin books, browsing internet forums, and forcing her friends to pose for photoshoots. Her favorite makeup items include obnoxiously bright lipsticks, super-shiny highlighters, and foundations that actually match her oh-so-white skin. When Renee’s not scanning produce, she’s buying tacky clothes, sending out job applications, and posting more drivel to her blog, “Bad Outfit, Great Lipstick.
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