How to Do Red Lipstick

By Voxy  

Every woman should have two things in her arsenal against the world: a killer pair of red heels, and a fabulous red lipstick. (If worse comes to worst, you can stab people with the stiletto heels and jam your lipstick in their eye.)

I’m a fan of natural-looking makeup, I really am. But every once in a while, you just need a Red Lipstick Day. And if you can’t remember when your last RLD was, chances are you could use not just a fresh start, but a fresh tube of lipstick. I mean a really red, bold, luscious, daring, watch-out-world-here-I-come lipstick.

The thing is, of course, that you need the really red, bold, luscious and daring lipstick that tells the world to watch out because it’s you who’s coming, not someone you’re pretending to be. The red lipstick that’s right for you can give you confidence, style, and sass, but only if you believe in it. (Kind of like Santa.) There shouldn’t be a power struggle between you and the lipstick. You want to be wearing the lipstick, not letting it wear you. If the lipstick is winning, it’s the wrong shade.

Fortunately, there are approximately 39847923876 shades of red lipstick to choose from. By figuring out whether you look better in warm reds (ones that tilt towards orange), or cool reds (ones that tilt towards blue), you can eliminate approximately half of those right off the bat, which leaves you with only 19923961938. See? Easy as pie.

If you don’t normally wear lipstick, then you’ll probably want to start with some more neutral colors before you jump into reds (or explore red glosses, which aren’t as strongly pigmented). This will also help you figure out if you look better in warm or cool colors: start with corals, bronze, or brown-tinted tones for warm skin, and pinks, berries, or plums for cool skin. Some people whose coloring is balanced between warm and cool can do either, but usually can’t go to the extremes of either half.

Recently it’s been über-hip to give products names that have nothing to do with the colors they are. Don’t ask me why. So if you are browsing a list of, say, NARS lipsticks, you will see the following “shades”: Mindgame, Success, Beautiful Liar, and Christina — which are very nice but which give you no indication of the tint. Traditionally-named warmer reds will have names that include things like brick, spice, terracotta, fire, sunset, etc.; cooler reds will have names that include things like berry, wine, currant, cherry, or ruby.

The single best thing you can do if you’re on The Quest For The Perfect Red Lipstick is to buy a lipstick palette that has as many shades in it as you can manage. This is a great way to get your hands on a lot of colors for not very much money. First, test each shade separately, and write down the shade name and your impressions. If one of those little tins doesn’t happen to contain your perfect red, start mixing shades together. (This is where it really gets fun!) I would advise mixing them right on your lips by using a lip brush. Don’t try more than two or three in one session, since your lips won’t fully release the stain and soon you won’t be getting a real idea of what the mixed color looks like on you. Also, try to remember the proportions of what you used so that you can recreate it (“mostly this, with a little that, and a dash of the other thing” is good enough). At this point, if you want, you can mash the various colors together in the right proportions and put your mixture in an empty palette tin.

When you go to the store (and you really must go somewhere with testers if you’re shopping for red lipstick, you absolutely must), take your mixed-up sample with you. Also take a white piece of paper. When you get to the store, use a tester lipstick applicator to smear some of your perfect mixture on the paper. Do the same with any lipsticks you want to test. Comparing swatches on white paper gives you the truest sense of how warm or cool the color is in comparison to your mixed-up sample. It’s much easier to compare tones on a piece of white paper than on your lips or skin. Remember that you are not looking for the color that you think looks prettiest on the white paper — you’re looking for whatever is closest to your blend. Note the closest color and one or two on either side (warm/cool) and test those on your arm (which should automatically eliminate at least one) and then on your lips. The best way to hygienically test lipsticks is as follows:

Easy way: Swivel the lipstick all the way up. Most people test from the top of the tube, particularly where the lipstick is faceted. Often a lipstick that has been ravaged at the top will be completely smooth and untouched at the base around the rim, particularly on the side away from the faceted edge. Go there first. I advise putting far more lipstick on the applicator than you think you will need — in order for you not to contribute more bacteria to the tester, you should use a clean applicator every time you scoop up more product. Better to just do it once if you can.

Hard way: If someone else has read this blog ahead of you and has already mucked up the area around the base, the second-best option is to remove the top 1/16″ of lipstick from the tube and swipe your applicator over the newly-revealed section. Dental floss usually works fine for this, as does beading wire or fishing wire. If you don’t have any of those things in your purse (i.e., if you’re not on your way to a taping of Let’s Make a Deal), you can also use the part of a nail clipper that swings out and lets you clean underneath your nails. Wipe this clean first with alcohol (which the store will surely have with the testing supplies), then use the side of it to slice right through the lipstick. It should be like slicing the heel off of a loaf of bread… except don’t eat it afterwards.

I’m going on forever, and there will probably be more posts about this in the future, but I can’t end without saying that carrying off a red lipstick also requires appropriate makeup on the rest of the face. So if you’re going to the store with no makeup on, or with a soft neutral natural look, don’t judge the red lipstick by how it works with that palette. You’ll need a stronger eye to balance the red lipstick. (That doesn’t mean a lot of dark eyeshadow, but it does mean you’ll probably need liner, mascara, and a good brow.)

This is one of my perfect reds. I’m one of those people who can go either warm or cool with most makeup colors, but reds are still hard for me. I have a few that I like. This is one of the bluer ones — it’s Styli-Style’s L3 lipstick/lip gloss combo (though the lipstick is really more like a lip stain) in a color called Red Hot. The pigment goes on matte, and then you put the gloss on top. In the below picture, the gloss I’ve used is actually a clear Smashbox lip gloss, just because I like it better than the one that comes with the product.


This was taken in natural light and not retouched. It really looks like I missed the bottom center of my lower lip with the gloss, but that’s just a weird camera thing.

I’ll show off some other good/bad red lipstick choices in future posts.

Opening photo: / CC BY 2.0

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  1. avatar marigolds
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 8:31 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Now I completely want the DuWop reverse liner. I have been wearing MAC’s Ruby Woo ever since my quest for the Perfect Mad Men Maquillage, and it’s very retro (matte and really, really true red – I guess if it tilts either way it’s a hair blue, but it’s very primary.) But it makes my teeth look yellow – which they ARE (too much coffee) – and I notice that in the accompanying photo your teeth look uber-white. How do you achieve that? Bleaching? Fewer vices than me? Really good brushing?


    • avatar Voxy
      Posted October 26, 2009 at 8:41 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Oh, good, so either you or Epi (or both!) can review the DuWop liner! :)

      My teeth really are *not* uber-white — not even close. We don’t have particularly good teeth in my family and I would actually like to get some cosmetic work done on the bottom, but it’s way too expensive. I also still have some old silver fillings! Those are getting replaced with tooth-colored ones as they wear out, but still.

      I have used some OTC whitening products, which have been OK, but the biggest maintenance-related thing I did was getting a sonic toothbrush. It helped significantly (although I got it for dental health reasons, not cosmetic ones).


  2. avatar Indianalitchick
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 7:36 pm | Permalink | Reply

    DuWop has a lipstick called “Private Red” that is supposed to change to the red perfect to you, kind of like mood lipstick. It is $22 on their website. When I’m employed full-time again I may splurge and see how this works.


  3. avatar Inthelab
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 6:36 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Oh I’d like to hear about the DuWop liner.
    I have a “reverse”liner from Becca that’s “meh.”


  4. avatar Inthelab
    Posted October 25, 2009 at 1:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    What color lip pencil does one use for RLD?


    • avatar Voxy
      Posted October 25, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Hmm… I’d say something that’s between your natural lip color and the red you’ve chosen. If you have a blue-tinted red lipstick, I’d avoid an orange-tinted red lipliner. No darker than the lipstick, though.

      DuWop has an interesting “reverse lipliner” that I’m curious about but haven’t tried:

      (Oh, I should post that to Epi as well)


  5. avatar Epi
    Posted October 25, 2009 at 11:01 am | Permalink | Reply

    Okay, I’ll admit it.

    I’ve never worn red lipstick. Never had one that worked.

    I’ve had other strongly pigmented shades (there was a time when I practically lived in this dark berry shade), but red is scary, and I don’t have a Vox handy. And I haven’t even really worn lipstick in years, so I’m used to more neutral/light shades.

    Plus… well, I think I’m too old for red lipstick. I already hate my mouth, and it seems putting stronger pigments on my lips just accentuates the lines and saggy skin and, in the proper light, the whiskers.

    (Did I mention that getting old really sucks?)


    • avatar Voxy
      Posted October 25, 2009 at 2:15 pm | Permalink | Reply

      With your coloring, I think you could do a lovely neutral red that is on the darker side — I don’t mean Goth-dark, but not bright traffic-light red.

      Or, a sophisticated red gloss would work on you, and be less traffic-stopping. And glosses also make your lips appear bigger/plumper!

      I don’t wear red very often, myself, because it *is* bold, but every once in a while it’s fun.


    • avatar Voxy
      Posted October 25, 2009 at 2:20 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I just thought of this for Inthelab’s comment and realized you might be curious about it given what you said about lines around the mouth — DuWop has a “reverse lipliner” that’s gotten some interesting reviews.


      • avatar Epi
        Posted October 25, 2009 at 2:47 pm | Permalink | Reply

        Ooh, that sounds very tempting! I may have to buy some, also because I just discovered a tube of MAC lipstick that I’d lost a couple of years ago, and had completely forgotten about. It’s a pretty dark shade, more of a brick red, and I bought it on a friend’s recommendation. It might meet your definition above of neutral yet not Goth-dark.

        Maybe the universe is telling me I need to rediscover lipstick…

        Meanwhile, I will console myself with my awesome red shoes, even though you hate them. ;)


        • avatar Voxy
          Posted October 26, 2009 at 12:12 am | Permalink | Reply

          It’s true; I lack the Fluevog gene. Alas. ;)

          And “wear lipstick more often” was one of my New Academic Year resolutions, so you are not alone.


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