How To Wear Red Lipstick - Suggestions for Every Undertone
All About Red Lips
In this guide, I will cover the proper way to apply red lipstick, which shades are best for each skin tone, how to do the rest of your makeup, and much more.
Questioning whether you can wear red lipstick? Keep this in mind: While other makeup trends may come and go, red lipstick will never ever go out of style. I'm a recent convert to the dark (erm, red) side, and I'm absolutely loving it. Because of its classic appeal, I truly think that anyone can pull it off. You might surprise yourself!
Choose Your Poison
What's your favorite lip look?
A Universally Flattering Red
Fire Down Below was formulated to be the color of human blood (and therefore a universally flattering red). The premise alone hooked me, so I got myself some.
It does not disappoint. The color seems quite dark in the tube, but it goes on brighter. It really is a nice, rich, wearable red. It's matte and requires some upkeep, but also fabulous and totally worth it.
Red Lipstick Throughout the Ages
Red Lipstick has been around FOREVER. Okay, maybe not forever, but it's been around a long time, okay:
- Ancient Egypt - The ladies and the men would use powdered semi precious gems and apply the scratchy substance to their lips. Sounds awful. Other, perhaps not so clever Ancient Egyptians, used a concoction of toxic substances for that coveted cherry pout and ended up accidentally coining the term "Kiss of Death." Ooops. Circa 50 BC, Cleopatra says "ENOUGH PEASANTS! I'm crushing bugs to make my lips red!"
- 1600s England - Queen Elizabeth I sparks the first real makeup trend in the Western world. Hip Queen E, as I like to call her, used beeswax and plants to create a red lip in stark contrast to her painted white face. Go on with your bad self!
- 1700s England - Parliament decides that lipstick + face = prostitute. Women caught wearing makeup before they are married ARE SENTENCED TO DEATH. I'm kidding. These transgressions did sometimes result in marriage annulment, because obviously only a harlot would wear makeup. Interestingly, in France, they believed the exact opposite because France is cool like that.
- Late 1800s - In England, Queen Victoria decides makeup is rude and English people swallow it hook line and sinker. In France, a French Film Star decides to (gasp) apply her red lipstick in public. You bet there were ladies fainting all over the place over that one. Meanwhile, Americans are like, "Whatever, Europe"; carmine dyed red lipstick makes it's debut in the Sears Roebuck Catalog.
- 1915-1920s - Lipstick find it's forever home in a metal lipstick tube (lipstick had been housed in paper or pots up to this point). Chanel, Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, and Estee Lauder snap up some patents. Dark red lipstick was most fashionable during the 1920s.
- 1930s - Women everywhere are told that if they love America, they'll buy lipstick. They oblige.
- 1940s - WWII made lipstick scarce, but by the late 1940s, 90% of women wore makeup. Companies such as Cover Girl, Revlon, and Maybelline start making eyes at the teen demographic.
- 1950s - Hollywood's Golden Era and saucy minxes Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor push lipstick stats up even higher. Only 2% of women go without lipstick an Red rules the roost.
- Late 1950s - 1960s - Other lipstick colors start to steal the spotlight. Pinks, Lavenders, Peach, and Frosted Tones make their debuts. By the 60's ladies decide white and nude colors are SO much cooler.
- 1970s - Cosmetic manufacturer MAC has obviously lost it's cosmetic mind and releases lipstick in every color of the rainbow.
- 1980s - Madonna is all, "I'm in Charge Here" and red lipstick makes a major comeback. MAC's Russian Red is her weapon of choice.
- 1990s - You better mattify yourself, girl. Dark, matte lips are all the rage.
- 2000s-Present - RED lips are so "in", it's not even funny. Making a simultaneous comeback are bright, deeply saturated lip colors such as magenta and orange.
Who Can Wear Red Lipstick?
Donning a bold red lip is a lot like wearing a hat. It takes a certain amount of confidence, but luckily, confidence can be faked. I myself thought that my Anime Mouth* prevented me from wearing lipstick of any kind. I'm here to tell you that regardless of how big, small, thin, plump, bubbly, pruned, hairless or hairy your mouth is, you too can do the red.
I now feel more comfortable in lipstick than I ever have before. It's all about finding the best color for your skin tone and the finish you like most. As I've already mentioned, it's also all bout confidence. STRUT.
* An "Anime Mouth" is my self-referential term for my incredibly small mouth. See the photo to the right for an artistic representation of my mouth.
Matte or Satin
While there are tons of varieties of lipstick finishes, for the purposes of this article (and red lipstick in general), the two you have to worry about are matte and satin. Matte lipstick formulas have low or no shine whatsoever and have excellent staying power. Satin lipstick - also called creamy - have a bit of shine or sheen and tend to glide on easier. I prefer matte because it is easier to to make matte creamier with lip balm than it is to make a creamy lip matte with powder.
Red Lipstick for Neutral Undertones
(aka Red Lipstick That Works for EVERY Skin Tone)
Since Neutral undertones are a little bit cool, a little bit warm, and super easy to match with tones, I'm including the universally flattering red tones here. These so called "true reds" look ridiculously awesome on a wide range of skin tones and undertones. These are my favorites:
A Cheapie: Revlon Matte Lipstick in "Really Red"
High End: Nars Semi Matte Lipstick in "Jungle Red"
Revlon's Really Red is another "true retro red" that was actually used on the actresses of Mad Men to get an authentic look of the 60's era. This formula has a matte finish.
NARS Jungle Red is what you might call a "true retro red" in that it is reminiscent of the red you'd see on Hollywood Starlets of yesteryear. This shade really does look great on just about any skin tone, and looks equally fantastic on fair toned redheads as it does on women of color. It's semi-matte, so if you like more shine, add a gloss on top.
Red Lipstick for Cool Undertones
The best red lipsticks for cool toned skin are blue based reds. These lipsticks tend to have a more pinkish or magenta-ish hue to them. These are my top picks for cool toned skin.
A Cheapie: NYX Matte Lipstick in "Perfect Red"
High End: Nars Matte Lip Pencil in "Cruella" (pinkish base) or "Dragon Girl" (blue-based red)
NYX is a fantastic (and fantastically cheap) drugstore brand and the Matte line is a cult favorite. I bought NYX's Perfect Red; it has nice pigmentation and is truly matte, which I enjoy. Perfect Red is a bright blue based lipstick.
NARS Velvet Matte Lip Pencil in Cruella is my go-to red. It's in my purse the most. The pencil can be used to both line and fill the lips and has awesome staying power. The nice thing about matte is you can wear it as is, or layer over it with chapstick, gloss, vaseline, WHATEVER if you want more of a creamy look. Love it.
I included it in the "cool" section because it has some pinkish undertones, but I have olive toned skin and it works quite well.
Red Lipstick for Warm Undertones
Whether you're fair skinned, medium skinned, or dark skinned, if your undertone is warm (or has a slight yellowish or golden hue), a "warmer" red will look best on you. Look for reds that have subtle brown or orange components. I have 3 picks for warm undertones:
A Cheapie: NYX Matte Lipstick in "Alabama"
High End: Shiseido Perfect Rough Lipstick in "Dragon" or Make Up For Ever (MUFE)'s Rouge Artist Intense in #42 (slight orange base)
Alabama is a brick-red matte lipstick that looks fantastic on warm toned skin.
Shiseido's Perfect Rouge Lipstick in Dragon is a rich red without any hints of pink. As such, it works best on medium toned, warm skin.
Red Lipstick for Olive Undertones
Like warm toned skin, those with olive undertones often look great in reds that have a kick of orange. At the same time, olive toned skin often looks good with slightly blue-based reds - just be careful not to get something that has too much pink in it.
Because this is the undertone of my skin, I have a number of suggestions:
Cheapies: NYX Matte Lipstick in "Pure Red" (orange/red) or "Perfect Red" (blue based red)
High End: NARS Matte Velvet Lipstick in "Red Square" (orange/red) or Cruella (slightly pink base), MUFE Rouge Artist Intense "8" (true red), NARS Semimatte Lipstick in "Heat Wave" (orange/red) or "Fire Down Below" (blood red)
NYX's Matte Lipstick in Pure Red has a bright orange-red color that looks lovely on olive skin. You can get a tube for under 5-6 bucks at Ulta or select drugstores.
This matte lipstick by Make Up For Ever in #8 is a bright true red that is a popular shade amongst olive toned gals. Make Up For Ever (MUFE)'s Rouge Artist Intense lipstick is fantastic line of highly pigmented lipsticks.
Red MAC Lipstick
It's best to buy MAC products directly from a MAC Counter in a Department Store or MAC Costmetics store. These are the best red shades that MAC has to offer: Viva Glam I (an Intense brownish Blue-Red, best for olive toned skin), Ruby Woo (a "good for everyday" Blue-Red, best for cool undertones), Russian Red aka 1980's Madonna Red (a brighter Blue-Red, best for cool, neutral and olive undertones), and Chili (a matte brown toned Orange-Red, best for warm and olive undertones).
How to Find Your Skin's Undertone
Four Methods to Choose From
Skin Undertone is not the same as skin tone. Skin tone refers to the shade or pigment of the surface your skin, while undertone refers to the basic color that lies beneath. So you're skin shade may change as it tans, but your undertone will stay the same. Crazy. These are the major skin undertones:
- Cool (blue, pink, or red undertones) - Seen in all skin shades, but is most common for very pale or very dark skin. Contrary to popular belief, there is such a thing as having cool toned Asian skin.
- Warm (yellow or gold undertones) - Thought to be the most commonly found undertone. Light to Medium and Medium to Dark skin will often be Warm toned.
- Neutral (a combination of cool and warm) - since this is a combo undertone, you'll find it in all shades.
- Olive (greenish undertones) - seen in every skin tone: from very light shades to very dark. Olive is similar to neutral, but will have a noticeable olive hue, often with more golden undertones. This tone is common for those of Middle Eastern or North African descent, but also seen in parts of Europe and South, East, and Central Asia.
Is this complicated enough yet? Sorry about that. There are a number of methods for finding your skin's undertone that will hopefully clear all this up for you. Not every method will work for everyone, so try a few until you're confident you've figured it out. All methods are best performed under natural light:
- The Vein Method - The most common method you'll hear about is the vein method. Look at the veins in the underside of your forearm: If the veins look bluish, you have cool undertones. If they look greenish, you have warm undertones. If you're looking at your arm and thinking "I'm a freak! My veins look both green and blue!", you have neutral skin or potentially olive toned skin. This method works best for those with lighter to medium skin, so if you're tan or dark, and it's not working, read on.
- The White Sheet Method - Get yourself a stark white sheet or towel (make sure it's true white - off white will not cut it). Drape the sheet across your head and shoulders so only your face is showing; a white t-shirt or two can work for this as well. Look in the mirror in natural light: if your skin looks blue or pinkish you are cool, if your skin looks yellow or peachy you are warm, and if your skin looks greenish you are neutral or have olive toned skin.
- It Looks Good on You Method - Think about the colors that look good on you (both clothing and makeup). Remember to take into account both your impression of what looks good and what other people compliment you on the most. Does a blue-green look better on you or does yellow-green? What about purple or red-orange? Cool toned skin is complimented by purple, turquoise, blues, pinks, and pure white. Warm toned skin looks good in earth tones such as red-orange, brown, orange, olive green, and off-white. Additionally, think about whether silver toned or gold toned jewelry looks better on you. Silver looks best on cool toned skin, gold on warm skin, and both can look good on neutral skin.
- My Method - Think back to your experiences with choosing foundation makeup. Even when you find the "right shade," does foundation often make you look orange? If so, you might have cool skin. If foundation often makes you look ashy, you might be warm skinned. If you've had both happen, you could be neutral. If you can't seem to ever find a match, you just might be olive (Olive skin is catered to the least with mainstream cosmetic brands).
How To Apply Red Lipstick
- Prime Those Lips - It's very important to prepare your lips for red lipstick each and every time you wear it. It might sound like a chore, but the number one way to make flakey lips look even worse is to dye the flakes red. You can use a toothbrush or wet washcloth to gently buff the lips, then rinse. I prefer to use a lip exfoliator or scrub; I think it works much better. I use one by BeautiControl called "Lip Apeel" - you can see details on this product below.
- If Your Lips Are Super Dry, apply a teensy tinsy itty bitty dab of vaseline or lip balm. If you apply too much, the lipstick won't adhere well.
- Apply Lipstick - You have a choice here. You can either apply straight from the tube -or- you can apply with a lip brush. Unless you're using a chubby lipstick pencil (like the NARS ones I've been frothing at the mouth over for this whole article), the lip brush will probably give you a nicer line. Carefully outline your lips, then fill them in starting in the middle. Don't go outside your natural lip line as you will end up with clown face. (If you actually are a clown, proceed).
- Try the Angelina Jolie Method - Ms. Jolie's makeup artist applies red lipstick to the center of her mouth, then has her mash her lips together to spread the lipstick. She then uses a concealer on a brush to clean up the edges. I haven't tried it yet, but apparently it allows for a less harsh look.
- Finishing Touches - As with the Angelina Lipstick method, you can use a little concealer to define the edge between you lips and skin a little more. If you are using matte lipstick and want a creamier look, apply a little balm on top (vaseline is killer for this). If your lipstick is creamy and you want a matte look, be sure to blot, reapply, then blot again.
I do not like using lip liner. While some gals prefer it, I find it to be tedious. Plus it's just another product you'd have to buy and you'd need to buy a different shade for every lipstick shade you own. Bleeeh to that, I say.
My Favorite Red Lip Primer
My aunt bought me this on a whim, but I never realized how great it was for pre-lipstick exfoliation until recently. BeautiControl Lip Apeel is a white cream that you apply to your bare lips and wait to dry (I often do it while doing other makeup). Remove it with a washcloth and you'll have some seriously smooth lips greeting you. There is a very nice light lip balm in the cap too.
What About the Rest of my Face?
Riddle me this?
Stop me if you've heard this one before: If you are wearing a lot of makeup on the eyes, keep your lips light; if you have a bright or dark lip, go easy on the eye makeup. Is it true? Yes and no. It really depends on your definition of "a lot of makeup."
In general, a heavy smokey eye or super colorful eye paired with bright red lipstick will make the face look over done. The clown look is never a good choice unless of course you're a clown (once again, if this is your case, proceed). This doesn't mean that you can't wear makeup on your eyes though. It's all about finding balance. Here are my favorite eye looks for red lips:
- Neutral Eyes - Pair a light or medium toned brown or beige eyeshadow with mascara. Use a matte or shimmer (whichever is your preference) and apply the eyeshadow across your upper lid in a soft line with an eyeshadow brush or slanted eyeliner brush. If you're feeling crazy, apply a softly blended line of eyeshadow across the lower lid, on the outer 1/3 of the eye.
- The "No Makeup" Eye - Okay, you caught me. This one actually DOES involve makeup, but not much. Use a slanted eyeliner brush to push brown eyeshadow into the root of your upper lashes. You won't be creating a line of eyeshadow, but rather filling in the space between your individual eyelashes with a matching pigment. To finish, curl your lashes and apply two coats of black mascara. Don't skip the eyelash curler - it really opens up the eyes amazingly well. The result is a very natural look, and one that I use frequently. To dress it up a little, you can add a little highlight color to the inner corner of the eyes.
- Retro Wingtip (Cat Eye) - If you want to go full glam, opt for a classic look. Use black liquid liner or black gel liner and apply a line that "wings out" at the end on your upper lashes.
Regarless of what you choose, make sure you skin looks polished and your eyebrows are nicely groomed (I always use a bit of brown eyeshadow to fill in sparse patches). If you have fair skin, be careful when pairing dark red lipstick with a modest eye look. It can sometimes wash you out. Instead, opt for either a more subtle red lip, or a slightly more adventerous (but not too heavy!) eye. Ladies with darker skin have a little more wiggle room.