Friday, January 20, 2012

How to Avoid Choosing the Wrong Lipstick Color

Has either of these scenarios ever happened to you?

Scenario 1. You head to the makeup counter to buy a new lipstick. You select a few tubes whose innards visually appeal to you and swatch them on the back of your hand. One in particular makes your knees buckle, so you whip out your wallet like a smoking gun out of a holster for a shoot-down at the OK corral. You get home, and with butterflies in your stomach, rip off the packaging and apply your new color. And ugh. It looks awful. Did they give you the wrong color? You look at the box. No, it says what it's supposed to. Oh, wait, was the wrong tube inserted in the box? No, the names match up. You sit there staring at your mouth, which mocks you like two slabs of raw salmon reeking in the hot sun, and you wonder how such a pretty color could turn so bad. You had swatched it to make sure the color complemented your skin tone, after all.

Scenario 2. You head back to your favorite counter, but this time you test the lipsticks on your lips. How else will you know? When you're about to spend anywhere from $14 to $45 you want to be sure. So you begin trying the lipsticks on your mouth, but after the second or third color you test, your lips are so flushed and so stained with pigment, and the skin around your mouth is so red from rubbing the color off, you can't tell what looks good, so you leave the store with nothing. Or worse, you make another bad purchase.

What if there were a way to improve your chances of going home with the perfect lipstick where the only prerequisite is to go to the store without any lip color on your lips?

Alas, I don't have a foolproof method. Existing lip pigment, bad lighting, lipstick formula, and other conditions conspire against us, but here's how I minimize the risk of picking a dud:
  1. Select. I choose between 3 to 5 colors from the display. Like wine tasting or perfume sniffing, I can suffer from sensory overload so I try to keep the contenders to a minimum. This means I go shopping for a specific range: red or rose or pink or nude; I try not to go bonkers over the entire lipstick display.
  2. Swatch. Swipe my selection on the back of my hand or on a sheet of plain, white paper. This is the best way to first see if a color will complement my skin tone and let me examine the lipstick's undertones, which lip pigment will mask. It's also easier to write the color names down on the piece of paper, and if the counter person looks at me like I'm a weirdo, I mention that I'm trying to avoid a return. That proves to be a conversation stopper.
  3. Examine. Walk the swatches over to the store entrance and examine the colors in natural light. Anything too (fill in the blank*)  is immediately disqualified. I am ruthless at this point as I remind myself: Why look good when I can look great? (*For my coloring I reject anything warm or colors with obvious undertones of peach, coral, brown, or beige.)
  4. Fingertips. Take my final 2-3 choices and swatch them on a fingertip. Huh?? Yes, my fingertips are almost the same color as my lips when I force the blood into them. See for yourself right now by using your thumb to press firmly just below one of your fingertips on the same hand--between the first knuckle and the fleshy bit. See the blood flow into the tip. When testing in stores, I swipe the color there (making sure I continue applying pressure); then I walk over to the natural light again. (Tip: If you smoke, swipe the fingertips on your non-dominant hand so your skin is as free from overtones as possible.)
  5. Test pt. 1. Now with choices narrowed down to 1 or 2, I can try the lipstick on my lips. I never use lip pencil unless it is clear--not flesh toned--clear like Lipstick Queen's. I start with the lightest color and work toward the darkest. To remove a previous color, I use an oil-based remover and gently blot to avoid making the lip area red. 
  6. Test pt. 2. When I have the lipstick I think I am going to buy, I put it on my lips and ask for a hand mirror. I hold the mirror over my head and tilt my head all the way back so I am looking directly at the ceiling with the mirror over my face. This position helps ameliorate some of the awful  department-store lighting by cutting down on the shadows.
Using the above method usually helps prevent lipstick fails like those shown below, which were all pretty enough for me to buy them, but which did not look good on my lips once I got home:

Shu Uemura Rouge Unlimited BR 710
A cool, clear pink in the tube but my lips EAT the pigment into oblivion
Ellis Faas Glazed Lips L301 (Ellis Red)
I love most EF lipsticks, but this version of Ellis Red is too warm
Chantecaille Lip Chic Zinnia
Do you see any color there? Cuz I don't
Ellis Faas L307
Color failure on me--would look great on a warm-toned redhead
Laura Mercier Sparkling Pink
So pretty swatched and in the tube; corpse lips on me

Do you have any near-fail proof lipstick-testing tricks?

Photo credits: (1) Lipstick Tubes Fine Art Print - Garry Gay; (2); the last 5 are mine


  1. Uh, yeah. I take DD, who has a good eye and no scruples about telling me I look awful. Any young, unsentimental person would do as a shopping partner.

    Also, I keep the receipts and return the fails without shame.

  2. Wow! Guess it took you some bad lipstick purchases (and lots of money spent) to get to this method!
    I don't think I would be patient enough to test as much as you do. I always go with a specific color in mind, and most of the times I don't find exactly what I want so the choices are limited.
    That's not the best, as it means that sometimes I miss on lipsticks that could look great on me but I disconsider them form the start.

  3. You told me this! Very sound advice! But did I follow it? No,no, no. Had to try everything on the lips! I did end up with a suitable shade though, which is unusual. And rough 'n raw lips by the end of my efforts.

    Next time I will know better! Shopping partner sounds good, but my usual sidekick is a 4 year old, whose sole motivation is to get out ASAP!

  4. Interesting, I'll have to give that fingertip a try :) I am forever buying the wrong shade instore, I think its partly due to having to make rash choices as I just seem to get really hassled by the SA's and they really seem to get upset by me swatching the products.

  5. Once I get to the point of trying on my lips, I've learned to wear it around for 30 minutes or so before purchasing. I find some lipsticks either fade, turn color, or intensify on me. And I've learned not to let them put blush on me ("just to balance you out!") as it can affect how the lip color looks or mask a color that's wrong.

  6. Sarasotagirl, Mr. Petals can be coerced into helping me decide once I get home but only if I wheedle and bribe him with food. He has an incredible eye for color, even if he disdains the whole thing.

  7. Diana, I probably made it sound way more complicated than it really is. I have developed a good eye for what looks good, and I rarely made mistakes ... until I became a blogger and was exposed to so many different colors and trends that look so good on everyone else. Like the nude lip look.

    I am an extremely decisive person, so once in the store, I can quickly pull a handful of contenders from a 50-unit lipstick display in minutes because my eye won't even land on colors obviously unsuitable (orange reds, bronzes, browns, peaches). I generally choose a lipstick in under 5 minutes, but if I am being really methodical, maybe 15.

    I did make mistakes before I understood the skin swatch versus how it looks on my pigmented lips, but I am pretty good in person. The only mistakes I make nowadays are for the stuff I buy online, but then my whole testing theory goes out the window. I have a different technique for testing makeup at home. ;)

  8. keridaren, do what ya gotta do! If makeup shopping isn't fun, there's no point to it. (And taking along a 4yo might drop the event a couple notches on the fun meter.)

  9. Replica, I can't imagine dealing with SAs like that. I might encounter a pushy one, but no one ever minds my lingering at the display and swatching. I suppose if I did this every day and never bought anything, they'd feel differently, but I can hang out at counters from Chanel to Clinique with hardly a boo. What a bunch of meanies in your city.

  10. deja pseu, an excellent point! I do tend to make the lipstick stop my first and wear it around. (I do the same thing with foundation--especially foundation.) And never ever ever will anyone "even me out" with blush or anything else.

    I don't have a lot of rules around makeup except one: the item, whatever it is, MUST stand on its own. If an eyeshadow requires layering, or a lipstick requires lip pencil or gloss to make it less pigmented, then it won't come home with me. In fact, trying a new item on an, otherwise, naked face is the best way I know of to test if it's complementary. It's hard to go out in public without my eyebrows on, though. ;)

  11. Blogger gave us in-line reply and screwed up the escape character for the apostrophe.

  12. I just learned about the fingertip swatching the other day. Never knew that one! I think that will help me since my lips are so pigmented.
    Great tips!

  13. These are great tips! I also only shop for one color at a time (erm, usually, unless I'm hitting a new release and there were several I had my eye on) and even though part of me cringes when I do this, I try to apply it on my lips - after getting the SA to wipe it down with alcohol, of course. I like to get a second opinion (usually S., since he's usually with me), though I have found that most SAs are honest about whether lipstick flatters or not.

    The other thing I usually take into consideration, is keeping my makeup complimentary to the shade I want. Swatching bright pink lipstick when I already have bright makeup on, for example, never works out for me. It also kind of helps me determine the base tone of the lipstick; if my eye makeup is cool, and the lipstick looks out of place, then it's too warm for my purposes. Does that make any sense at all? I could just be crazy. ._.

    Sorry for the essay!!!
    This is where I need to remedy my method, though, because then I usually just buy it or not. I should probably debate it some more and wear it around outside, but gosh that's difficult. I also feel like the SA gets ruder the longer you debate about it (but your tip about saying you want to avoid a return is brilliant! I need to remember that one) and I hate confrontations.

  14. Tracy, I don't know about you, but lip pigment is another thing that goes downhill after 40! But my cheeks got rosier, so there's a silver lining, lol.

  15. Larie, I think keeping your makeup complementary to the lip color you're searching for is an excellent idea. But this thing about rude SAs ... I haven't encountered anyone getting rude or annoyed with me unless I am blocking out a bad memory. Most are very nice and very helpful (maybe too helpful, ha ha). To be sure, I've been looked down on, though I don't get that at all because if we really want to get snippy we can sword fight about our jobs and salaries, but for the most part, they'll just ignore me as I toodle around. I am the customer and it is their job to wait on us or leave us be if asked. Period. I've been in retail, so the rude and snooty ones just need to get over themselves or maybe find a job where they are more ideally suited. Like prison guard.

  16. Holy smokes, you are amazing! I don't put anywhere near as much effort into choosing lipsticks. I do linger a long time at the counters but that's just out of my own enjoyment and not because of meticulous shade-choosing. :) I don't mind the SAs unless they're being overtly rude, and often they'll just turn away and leave me alone if I don't need them but want to rummage. I just avoid the overly brown (too dated), overly pink (doesn't suit my yellow undertone), overly pale (corpse lips) and overly bright (scary). Hmmm... no tip at all to offer, sorry. lol

  17. Lol, Liz, isn't the best advice sometimes what not to do?

    I SWEAR, people, this test method is not too complex! Look, swatch, dash to light!

  18. That was awesome! genious! Thank you for this very useful post!

  19. Great post and I actually like the LM on you, but maybe it looks different in the context of your own face. It's truly a matter of trial and error & as most lipstick testers are less than hygenic, usually an expensive experiment!

    Nic x


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