In my late teens into my 20s, brow products seemed of little importance to the face I presented to the world. My ashy brows were full and well shaped; maintenance required tweezing and occasionally smoothing down unruly hairs with a brow comb or clear mascara to keep everything tidy. In my late 20s, I began neatening the lower edges with Clinique Brow Shaper and a stiff brush. But in the last few years, my eyebrows suddenly demanded attention when I noticed hair thinning, especially toward the outer edges (the tail) and in the middle of the thickest part toward the bridge of the nose. The brow hair had also become noticeably softer, wispier, and new growth was coming in lighter—not white or grey (yet), but not the normal ash brown I'd grown up with.
Turning back to Clinique, I quickly discovered that filling in the bare patches was essential for creating a frame for the face, and that when my brows were full, I could wear less makeup overall. However, if you are cool toned (not cool neutral), be prepared to slog through multiple products telling lies about what color they are. Hopefully I can help you slog a little less.
The general rule of thumb is if you are dark haired, you should choose a brow color 1-2 shades lighter than your hair color, and if you are light haired or grey (or white) you should choose a brow color 1-2 shades darker. I say throw out the rules and try on the product. Only you will know what looks most natural on you.
For my face and level of natural contrast, my brow color must be a little darker than my light ash brown hair. My brows have always been a darker than my hair, and—unlike the hair on my head, which takes on gold and red highlights from the sun—my brows are 100% ash and cool without a trace of highlight color. And therein lies the challenge.
Clinique's Brow Shaper in Shaping Charcoaled served me well for almost 20 years. Don't think of a charcoal briquet you'd toss in the grill, which is almost blue black. Clinque's product is a mid-toned grey color with only a whisper of brown. Perfect for those of us with ashy brows, even fair-skinned blondes because you can comb out any excess to bring the saturation down a bit. Overall, it is an outstanding product, and although there are only four colors from which to choose, I would guess that 90% of us could find a decent match.
Unfortunately, Charcoaled had started to appear too dark in recent years, as my brows began to fade and thin, and especially as the dark ash blonde hair on my head began greying; though only about 5% grey, the lighter hairs are concentrated in one ashy stripe near my part. (Actually, it's more like a splotch but stripe sounds more Cruella De Vil.)
Because this change in my base hair color cooled the skin further and reduced the contrast, I embarked on the hunt for a lighter replacement in the same hue, never imagining it would be so difficult. And yet I have spent three baffling years looking for an appropriate brow color. And failing time after time after time. All the while, I have been raging inside, wondering why on earth it should be so hard.
The problem is that designers and manufacturers don't seem to understand that ASH is a COOL GREY color, whether it's wood ash, paper ash, or charcoal ash. All you need do is look at the tip of a burning cigarette, or shovel out the refuse from a wood fire, and you can see that those lightweight, flyaway particles are grey and cool, not warm or golden brown or reddish brown.
|Does that look warm and brown to you? (source)|
Yet almost every single color I purchased with the word "ash" in its name or description contained obvious red or yellow in it. Even reviews on Makeup Alley confused me. Did I have special eyes, where only I could see the warmth? I doubt it.
And so began my search in earnest, hoping to find the perfect brow color to replace the utilitarian Clinique Brow Shaper, knowing it had to be out there.
I liked Laura Mercier Brow Definer in Warm (Warm Brunette), which is strangely named because Warm is actually a mostly cool, mid-toned charcoal brown. Unfortunately, Warm was a bit too dark as my coloring began to fade.
I next tried the two other colors in Mercier's Brow Definer formula, Soft and Fair:
- Soft (Deep Blonde/Light Brunette) was a lighter, neutral-leaning brown that was too warm for me with its red undertones. It turned my ashy brows auburn, but it might be a good option for cool-neutral skin tones.
- Fair (Light Blonde) was downright warm. Whoever has been calling this color "ash" and "cool" in reviews must be looking at it in a parallel universe, not on mine. Light is a light-brown warm color with visible yellow undertones, which you can see the moment you unscrew the lid.
Other brands and colors I tried and rejected in the last couple years (just so you don't have to):
- Clinique Brow Shaper in Taupe and Wheat, both too warm. My mother, a True Autumn, wears Wheat. And Taupe is a warm taupe that is mostly brown.
- Clinique Superfine Liner for Brows in Soft Blonde — too warm/yellow. Even now I can see yellow in the product swatch, so I have no idea why I even bought it. Desperation, I guess.
- MAC Impeccable Brow Pencil, Dirty Blonde. One would think this would be an ashy color, since "dirty blonde" is often synonymous with "mouse brown," which by its definition is grey brown. And when I first pulled the cap off, I danced with joy because it looked perfect. Alas, it was not to be, as it was too warm. It looks as though MAC discontinued the color anyway.
- Chantecaille Brow Definer in Ash Blonde. This pencil looked extremely promising, but the online color swatches shown below were completely misleading. In fact, if this pencil doesn't put out a golden blonde color, I will eat it. Or I would if I still had it, but I sent it back immediately and without guilt for being completely misleading.
- Anastasia Tinted Brow Gel in Granite. Satisfactory in hue, Granite was too dark. Moreover, gel products deposit color on the hairs, like mascara—they do virtually nothing to fill in bare patches, unless you want to poke wet color onto the skin and brush it out with the wand.
- Becca Brow Powder, Fair. The online color looked very promising, but it was not correct. The second I lifted the lid I could tell it would be wrong, and it was, indeed, too warm and golden brown against my skin.
- Three Custom Colors Brow Powder, #2. The product writeup says "ideal for ash blondes or those with light ash brown, gray or salt and pepper hair." OK, maybe if you want orange/yellow-tinted brows.
- Prescriptives Groom Stick for Brows in Clove. One of the best I tried, but my skin projected the whisper of red undertones, so it was not an idea product on me. It's also too dark, but I do have one of these in my dressing table and I still use it occasionally.
Failing with traditional brow products, I next experimented with non-conventional items (e.g., eyeshadow) as brow color:
- Bobbi Brown (matte) eyeshadows in Cement, Grey, and Slate and the Long-wear Cream Eyeshadows in Cement and Slate ... all turned yellow on me, much the way they do on my eyelids—although Slate comes closest to being acceptable in hue but too high in chroma.
- Maybelline Color Tattoo 24 Hour Eyeshadow in Tough as Taupe. Not bad, but I didn't care for the crispy eyebrows the cream shadow created.Also, just too dark.
- MAC (matte/matte2) Eyeshadows in Coquette, Wedge, Omega, Mystery, and Concrete—all too warm and sludgy. Copperplate was the best of the MAC eyeshadows I tried in my brow hairs but still a tiny bit too warm.
- Prescriptives U-Pick eyeshadow, Pewter. Almost identical to Clinique Charcoaled with less staying power.
- Chantecaille Lasting Eye Shade in Zinc and Patchouli. Colors were wrong, and the powder blew away when my cat sneezed across the room.
All failures. I am sure there were many other attempts and failures, but I have forgotten them.
And yet, the news isn't all bad. You didn't think I was going to just write a post about how nasty the choices are and how we ash blondes/browns are left in the dust, did you?
There does seem to be a almost-good-enough solution: Yves Saint Laurent Eyebrow Pencil 004 ... in Ash. And it really IS ash; in fact the online swatch at Nordstrom is very realistic.
The texture is interesting, hard, similar to Shu Uemura's hard brow pencil formula but not quite as hard. I immediately thought of Shu when I first swatched 004 on the back of my hand and noticed it deposited almost no color, that I had to sweep back and forth several times until the pencil deposited enough color I could see. It showed up better when I applied eye primer before swatching.
The following two photos are comparisons (in different light) of the standy color I've worn for years, along with some recently tried-and-rejected products. All are compared to YSL Ash for color context.
You can see how Laura Mercier's Fair and Soft clash against my pink undertones. Even Shu's Seal Brown has warm red undertones I'd never noticed before. Mercier's Warm isn't bad and Clinique's Charcoaled is a near-perfect color, but both are too dark. YSL's Ash (which I had to gunk on heavily to get it to show up) was the winner, but it it is far from perfect because of its yellow undertones.
|Natural indoor lighting|
I am still in arranged-marriage honeymoon phase with the Yves Saint Laurent Eyebrow Pencil, and since pencils have never been my first choice, I have one product left to try, which is on its way to me: Anastasia Brow Powder Duo in Ash Blonde/Cool Taupe. Dare I hope they mean what they say when they say "ash?" It looks very promising, and if the reviews are to be trusted, it really is cool toned, but the product image ... .well, let's just say I have my doubts..
The above Nordstrom swatch makes the duo appear warm, but when I see it in context with Anastasia's Golden Blonde duo, it looks much less warm.
Bottom line: The YSL pencil is, so far, the best new color I have come across in years for purely cool-toned skin that is fair. Yes, it's a pencil, but beggars can't be choosers.
UPDATE: The Anastasia product was a complete disappointment, as I found nothing ashy about it whatsoever. Also, over time I discovered that I'd turned a blind eye toward the YSL Ash pencil, which proved wrong for me, as well. The product I have been using for the last few weeks is an eyeshadow: Inglot 349M, a lighter and cooler version of MAC Omega. Perfect in hue, right chroma, and good staying power. Search over.
Laura Mercier, Chantecaille, Clinique and YSL, and Anastasia product images from Nordstrom. Becca and 3CC from Dermstore. MAC taken by me.