Red Lips 101: Choosing A Lipstick

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Last month, I asked a question on Instagram: What’s stopping you from trying red lipstick?

Turns out… a lot of things! Readers had a ton of great questions, and between those and the many conversations I’ve had over the years with friends who are like “I wish I could wear red lipstick, but…”, I know there are a million of you out there who would love to try red lipstick but are either too overwhelmed, too intimidated, or too unsure to try!

Enter Red Lips 101. I love a red lip myself, and even I sometimes struggle with how to find the right shade, how to remember to reapply, and alllll the other fears that are keeping my friends from sallying forth with a bold lip. So I’m sharing what I’ve learned in this series of posts, starting with the most basic question: How do you pick the right red?

What’s Your Skin Tone?

Some guides out there will start off by saying something like “If you have fair skin, you should wear…” If you see this kind of general advice, click that “back” button, stat.

It’s not the shade of your skin that is important to picking the right red — it’s the temperature. What matters isn’t fair, medium or dark; it’s cool, neutral or warm.

Not sure what temperature your skin tone is? There are a few ways to check whether your undertones are more blue, yellow or neutral. Illamasqua has a great, easy-to-understand rundown on the various ways to figure it out. Here’s another one from Beautiful With Brains.

My skin is fair with cool pink/blue undertones, so cool, blue-toned reds are most flattering on me. Honestly, though, I wear all kinds of reds in all kinds of tones, but I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to color cosmetics. If you’re trying a red lip for the first time and you only want to buy one color, start with one that is likely to flatter your skin tone. In general, that means blue-toned reds for cool skin, and orange/yellow-tinged reds if you fall toward the warmer, peachy-yellow end of the spectrum.

Find Your Perfect Red

Sometimes you can look at a lipstick and easily tell whether it’s blue- or yellow-based (corals, rusts and fuchsias tend to be pretty easy to place), but the differences between reds can be subtle, especially if you’re shopping online. On Sephora and Ulta’s websites, you can hover over each shade to read a description of the color, and you’ll usually find clues there. Sometimes they’ll explicitly describe a red as “blue” or “orangey,” and other times you’ll have to make an educated guess based on the photo and the description (“brick” reds, for example — you’d think they’d all be warm, but sometimes you get a bluish outlier). Read reviews, too, especially on, where you’ll find a lot of detailed customer opinions.

If you live near a beauty or department store, your best bet is to go get matched by a pro. Even though I do most of my shopping at Ulta, I find Sephora staff are generally more knowledgeable. A MAC store or counter is another great place to start. Start there even if you’re not interested in shelling out for a prestige lipstick. You can get your recommendation and then Google “(your lipstick shade) dupe” to see what the blogosphere has to offer as a cheaper substitute. (Although as long as you’re taking a risk on a red lip, I say go big or go home. Splurge on that designer lipstick! Just wait until bonus points season.)

Finish & Formula

Sheer or full-coverage? Matte or gloss? Even once you’ve narrowed down a shade, picking a formula can be just as overwhelming.

Personally, I like a classic, full-coverage lipstick in a matte or semi-matte finish. It’s easy to apply and reapply, and you can set it with powder to make it last longer. Note that matte finishes can be a bit drying, so if your lips tend to be on the drier side, maybe start with something else.

Liquid lipsticks have been having a huge moment for the past couple of years. If you have a favorite liquid lipstick that you’ve been wearing in a more neutral color and you’re comfortable with its application and wear, try it in red. But if you’re newer to lip color, I wouldn’t start with a liquid lipstick. They can wear strangely and require more frequent reapplication than advertised. You don’t want your first red lip to be high-maintenance.

DOES IT HAVE TO BE THIS COMPLICATED?! you may be wondering, and the answer is: No. Pick a lipstick with a satin or cream finish. It’s exactly what you think of when you think of a classic lipstick.

No-Fail Red Lipsticks

OK, I probably shouldn’t say “no-fail.” I once got my mother to try on Clinique Black Honey, which supposedly looks good on everyone. Turns out it does not look good on everyone. So there’s really no such thing as a failsafe beauty product.

That said, there are some “true” reds out there that tend to look good on many people. Here are a few almost-sure bets if you want to buy a red lipstick without having to do research.

MAC Ruby Woo (Plus here’s a roundup of how it looks on different skin tones)
Maybelline Red Revival
Revlon Fire & Ice
Dior 999

Red Lips 101 | Below Freezing Beauty

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