How to Choose the Perfect Red Lipstick

Classic elegance or campy chic, ubiquitous yet elusive, the one, the only: the perfect red lipstick.

If you’re like me and you spend each and every January morning making difficult dressing decisions like black dress, grey sweater, and black shoes? or grey dress, black sweater, and grey boots? and which giant black scarf should I wrap my head in today? then there has never been a better time to add red lipstick to your makeup repertoire. Red lipstick is the perfect way to add a little pop to your winter wardrobe or indulge your inner Jessica Rabbit on occasions when it may not be appropriate to bust out –or bust out of, for that matter – your sequin dress with the slit up to there.

Red lipstick has a bad reputation (It’s just drawn that way! Sorry, I’m having a Jessica Rabbit moment here.) because it can go really, truly wrong. My good friend from elementary school got married this fall, and somehow by the end of her bachelorette party all of the attendees were wearing my red lipstick. For reasons of anonymity and the code of sisterhood that dictates you don’t post bad pictures of your friends’ fashion mishaps for the enjoyment of the internet, I won’t show you. But suffice it to say that I have plenty of exuberant, drunk photographic evidence that not all red lipstick looks good on all people. “Clown prostitute” was the phrase the bride used when she looked at herself in the mirror the next morning.

So, how to choose? As with other makeup coloring decisions, the first thing to do is to determine the color of your skin’s undertones: warm or cool. A trick to figuring this out is to stand in front of a mirror in as natural light as possible holding a piece of white paper right below your face. Close your eyes for a moment. When you open them, note the thing you notice first. If it was your face, you have cool undertones; if it was the paper, you have warm undertones.

Another way to tell is by asking yourself what colors you look best in. If you’re going by the old seasonal colors chart, Winters and Summers have cool undertones and Autumns and Springs have warm undertones. Those with cool tones will look best in jewel tones, muted tones of the same type will look better on those with paler features. Warm toned skin will look best in earthy, golden hued tones–think autumn foliage–and again, those with paler features will look better in more muted versions. Choosing a red lipstick that suits your complexion simply involves following the same rules you should follow for choosing clothes.

Consequently, cool-toned ladies will look best in cool-toned reds. Seek out products with wine-related names as they are more likely to have a purplish tinge to them. I recommend Clinique “Merlot” and L’Oreal Paris “Fired Up,” or for a bright red look that won’t overpower cool skin tones, Sephora Collection “Hot Tango.” Warm-toned ladies, on the other hand, should look for names that reference spices or earth tones. Clinique “Sassy Spice” or L’Oreal Paris “Sunset Red” would be a good place to start. Anything labeled “true” red is, as a general rule of thumb, more likely to work for a warm-toned person, but the best test is, of course, to try it on.

The best way to figure out what works for you is always to experiment. Department store makeup counters will let you test their products and have removal pads on hand in case the effect isn’t what you had in mind. Places like Target and Walgreens, however, are less generous about the free use of unsold products, not to mention if your choice doesn’t work out there’s a good chance you’ll have to spend the rest of your shopping trip looking a lot more Killer Clown than Killer Queen, and we all know that the worse you look in a grocery store the more people you’ll run into who want to chat. A good way to mimic a color’s effect on your face is to smear a bit of the color on the back of your hand or underside of your arm depending on how pale your face is in comparison to the rest of your skin. This tactic also gives you the chance to compare shades side by side.

A few other helpful hints about wearing red lipstick, whatever the shade:

  • Lip liner is your friend. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the physics of makeup, but by some power red lipstick seems to feather and fade in a way that looks worse than any other color.
  • A matte finish, rather than a shimmery one, will keep your look appropriate for both day and night.
  • A useful trick for preventing your lipstick from ending up on your teeth is to blot with a tissue as usual, then put one finger inside your mouth and pull straight out, removing excess lipstick from the edges of your lips. This looks particularly dirty when done with red. Use this power for good ““ or evil, if that’s your jam.

And if your red lipstick purchase doesn’t work out, don’t give up! There is a red out there for you, I promise. Just pass the reject shade onto someone with slightly different coloring and continue to spread the Gospel of Our Lady Jessica Rabbit.

Any other tricks, suggestions or heroines of the Red Lip Guard you feel deserve mention?

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(e)Kelsium

Kelsium lives in Southern California with her partner and collection of almost (almost!) kill-proof plants. She enjoys the beaches, but finds the lack of acceptable bagels distressing. She considers herself an expert in red lipstick and internet rage.

9 thoughts on “How to Choose the Perfect Red Lipstick”

  1. I haven’t had very good luck with drugstore reds*, I know that both L’Oreal’s “Target Red” and Revlon’s “Fire and Ice” (which is supposed to be some sort of classic) both came off as rather orangey on me. I’m fair-skinned with naturally ashy-brown hair, so I stick with cooler colors. While I’ve yet to find the perfect bright red lipstick, I’ve had luck going a step darker, almost more of a brick red, to get a good classic red lip. I walked into Sephora one day, collared a saleswoman, and said “I’m willing to spend anything, I need a good red.” Instead of attempting to upsell me to Nars (which I would have done!), she got me a $12 Sephora brand lipcolor in Passion Red, which has worked out perfectly and garners tons of compliments.

    Finding a good lipliner for reds is hard, you want one that blends with your red. I’ve given up on trying to find one and have just gone with Too Faced’s Lip Insurance, which is a primer/base coat that keeps lipstick around forever.

    (*That being said, I just saw a red I want to try in a drugstore brand at Ulta last night and now I can’t remember the name or the brand, but they were touting it as America’s #1 red lipstick and now I regret not buying it.)

  2. I don’t wear red that often. When I do it usually edges toward the plum-brown end of the spectrum. And I prefer sheer to full, matte red. I have dark hair and eyes, and light-medium skin with very little natural cheek color. Most big, bright reds look hideous on me. Right now my favorite red is Burt’s Bees lipgloss (the one in the tube) in Zesty Red.

    If you’re doing the seasons thing:
    Flattered by cool dark colors = winter
    Flattered by cool light colors = summer
    Flattered by warm dark colors = autumn
    Flattered by warm light colors = spring

    I’m an 80s kid who grew up with her mom’s Color Me Beautiful. It’s over-simplified and if you get an updated copy, they’ve broken in down into a few more categories (like for winter, which I probably am, true, dark and bright winter).

    1. I loved thumbing through my mom’s Color Me Beautiful as a kid! Another thing to keep in mind is whether you’re attracted to muted or saturated colors. Winters and Springs generally favor saturated colors colors, while Summers and Autumns find softer colors more flattering.

  3. Here’s where I get confused. I look good in earth tones (browns, oranges, dark greens, etc.) and also jewel tones (purples, teals, etc.). I have no tone identity!

    And to add to it, I also have rosacea so my cheeks are always, always red, even under make up (saves on buying blush, which is a plus).

    I have yet to find a red that works for me and make-up counter people haven’t done so hot either.

    Any suggestions on specific colors (i.e. the actual name of the lipstick, you know like tarty harlot or something)?

    1. I second Sara B in saying that if your cheeks are pink, a more purple red will probably be better for you. Clinique has a shade called “Vintage Wine” that might be good, but it’s a bit dark. Intern The Goddess Foo recommends M.A.C. “Russian Red” for a true red that might work with your medium skin tone.

      I suggest parking yourself in the Macy’s makeup department and trying them all until you find one you love!

    2. Russian Red by MAC, Barcelona by Bare Essentials (Buxom line), and Rich Red by Estee Lauder. I literally swear by those. I am a medium toned person, think light olive, so I do all the colors you have listed. Plus I also go crazy with crazy colors like Fuchsia…I have no qualms about trying colors with makeup.

      1. I second Barcelona like whoa. I also look best in jewel AND earth tones and have rosacea, but instead of light olive skin, I am kind of…very pale bluepink, like the shade of blueish pink where a red snapper’s fish belly runs into its reddish scales, with dark blond hair and light grey-blue eyes.

        Barcelona is mad flattering on me.

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