At the makeup counter: a basic guide

I know a lot of people take risks buying unknown products at the drugstore just because they don’t feel comfortable at the makeup counter. It’s natural that it would be intimidating, especially in a large department store where there are half a dozen (or more) counters selling brands of makeup you don’t know anything about at prices ranging from slightly above drugstore pricing up to “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” Aside from which, matching colors for yourself can be challenging and takes a lot of practice. Even with having been a fashion addict most of my life, I still feel a bit nervous and awkward sometimes when shopping for higher-end makeup. So here are a few tips to make it easier.

1. Know a little something about your skin type. You don’t have to be able to give a full-on analysis, but know what the basic tendencies are, whether it gets dry and flaky or breaks out or gets shiny and oily, or whether you get patches of all of the above. That’s going to tell a salesperson what kind of products will work for you.

2. Be willing to be honest with a salesperson about your habits. Don’t try to BS and say that you’re a product fiend who’s tried everything if most days you’re proud of yourself for scrounging up the spoons to wash your face and put on lip gloss. If you prefer your makeup routine to be low-maintenance, tell the salesperson so, and a good rep will show you products that fit your lifestyle, rather than expecting you to change to fit the makeup.

3. If you’re looking for subtle, natural looks, brands like Clinique and Bobbi Brown will be a good fit for you. Try brands like MAC and Smashbox if you’re looking to play around with bold color choices. Look at what the salesperson is wearing, and that will give you a good idea of the aesthetic of the brand.

4. If you’re OK with having the salesperson/makeup artist put makeup on you, then you’re going to get better results than if you try to test stuff out on your hand. I’ve picked up a lot of good tips that way that have helped me with my own makeup routine. Plus, picking out colors for yourself can be hard, and it helps to have a second set of eyes on it.

5. If you get your makeup done, and you like the results, it’s generally assumed that you’ll buy at least one of the products that was used on you. If that’s not an option at the time, make sure you get a business card and a list of the products used so that you can come back for them. Most people working in cosmetics work on commission, so it’s kind of rude to know you’re not planning on buying anything, not disclose it to the salesperson, and let them tie up their time with you while they could be working with a paying customer and making money. Don’t feel pressured to buy everything that was used, but do consider buying at least one product if you can, and if you can’t at the moment, make sure the sales associate gets credit for the sale when you come back for it. That said, if you asked for a natural, subtle look and ended up painted up like a Kardashian and feeling like you’re wearing a mask, feel free to walk out empty-handed without guilt. It’s like tipping in a restaurant–it’s good manners, unless you’re really dissatisfied with what you got.

6. Don’t be afraid to voice your own opinion. It’s OK to say, “I really don’t like how that looks on me,” or “I really don’t care to try that color.” Just because you’re not the “expert” or the “professional” doesn’t mean that you’re not the one who is planning to wear the product, and if you’re the one paying for it and wearing it, then you get the final decision. The best salespeople (I have to mention Toni at the BeneFit counter at Belk at SouthPark here) will actually ask you what you think of colors before putting them on you, and will collaborate with you to find a look that meets your needs.

7. While you’re getting your makeup done, ask questions. You want to be able to reproduce the look at home. Whether it’s about the brushes being used or about how to choose a color, if you don’t know how to do something, it’s OK to ask.

I know I’m not the only one who’s been intimidated while shopping for cosmetics, but there are ways to handle it that will cut down on the stress and help you get what you need. It just takes some confidence, some basic knowledge, and the willingness to ask for help.


Where Not to Cut Corners

We all want to cut our expenses as much as possible. In this economy, nobody can really afford to spend without thinking about it. There are some areas, though, where you really do get what you pay for, and cutting corners isn’t really an option.

  • If you wear a bra, get the best you can afford, and make sure it fits you exactly. Sports bras are only for sports or sleeping, unless you’re using them to bind your chest. The best places to get fitted are upscale department stores or better lingerie stores (Victoria’s Secret is not one of the better ones). Good bras are an investment, so take care of them. Hand wash if it’s practical, and if not, wash them with the backs hooked, inside a lingerie bag, on a delicate or hand wash setting. Never, ever, ever put your bras in the dryer, because it damages the elastic, warps the underwire, and makes them wear out a lot faster.
  • If you’re going to be working out, don’t skimp on your shoes. Get a pair that is well constructed, a good fit, and appropriate for your chosen sport. I know they’re expensive, but once they start breaking down, you’re looking at a lot higher potential for injuries.
  • People will tell you that you can go to a beauty school to get your hair cut/colored/whatever, and that it will save you money. No, it won’t, because chances are, you’ll have to go to someone who has actually completed their training and knows what they’re doing to fix what the student did to it. Trust me on this one; I tried it. Total disaster, and I ended up having to pay for styling as well as a cut, because the woman couldn’t picture whether the shape she’d given my hair would match the picture I brought in unless she flat-ironed it. After flat-ironing it, she swore it looked like the picture. NOT EVEN CLOSE. Don’t do it.
  • Suits are tricky to fit, and the fit is what’s going to indicate your level of attention to detail. If it’s just “close enough” to fitting, then put it back on the rack, unless you’re going to pay for alterations. That’s one area in which those who shop in the women’s department have an advantage over those shopping in men’s, because for suit-worthy occasions, we have other, equally appropriate options that aren’t available on the other side.
  • Don’t skip steps in your skin care routine. Yes, you DO need cleanser, toner, and moisturizer. Sensitive skin? Get a non-alcohol toner. Oily skin? Get an oil-free moisturizer. Just because your skin cells turn over frequently doesn’t mean that you can neglect your skin and think it’ll be all right in a few days or weeks.
  • Cheap razor blades are cheap for a reason. They go dull faster, leaving your skin irritated, and they don’t give as close a shave. Use a decent moisturizing shaving cream or gel and a razor with at least three blades, shave immediately after the shower, and replace your razor blade often. A razor blade that isn’t sharp enough is what causes the drag against your skin that leaves you with razor burn.
  • Glue-on nails are not a substitute for getting a manicure on your natural nails. In fact, anything that glues to your own nails is damaging, and it will take months to recover. You can do a manicure yourself, but the soaking, pushing back cuticles, and moisturizing your hands are more important elements than the polish. If you’re going to skip a step, skip the color.

There are ways that you can trim time or money from your budget and still look and feel put together. But in some areas, it really does show. Save where you can, but don’t be afraid to spend where you need to.

Fragrances: On trying before you buy

Buying fragrances can be tricky. Even a scent that smells gorgeous on a friend won’t necessarily smell the same on you, because each person’s skin chemistry is different. And those little paper strips they give you to spray at the mall? Forget it. Nothing will really tell you how a fragrance smells on you without actually wearing it on your skin. However, there are ways to try a fragrance at home, outside the jumble of smells that is the fragrance counter, and see how it dries down on your skin before making a purchase.

The first option, obviously, is to see if your sales rep has a sample you can take home with you. The best retail store for this, by far, is Nordstrom. They have a generous sample policy, and their customer service is fabulous.  The one in Charlotte actually leaves out little vials that you can fill yourself. Their selection runs heavy on high-end niche scents, though, so if that’s out of your price range, your options there may be a bit limited. Second choice retailer would be Sephora. While they don’t load you up on samples the way Nordstrom does, they’ll give you a sample or two if you’re debating between two  or three fragrances, and they give you a selection of samples to choose from when you’re ordering online. (And I cannot say enough good things about fragrance shopping with Ryan at the Sephora at Northlake Mall. Seriously, if you’re local, go talk to him.) Sephora also has sampler kits available. The way that works is that you buy the sampler, and it has 10-12 different fragrance samples and a voucher for a full bottle of the one you choose. If you’re going to do this more than once, be sure to read the fine print, because sometimes there will be overlap in the samples included in different sets, and you may end up with duplicates of fragrances you don’t particularly like.

Depending on what scents you’d like to try, sometimes the manufacturer will send samples to you. I’ve gotten lovely samples from Hermes, where I got the samples I’d asked for plus one I’d never heard of but ended up really loving, and from Nest, which was amazing–they sent me samples of their whole line! (And this was before I had the blog, so I know it wasn’t just to get a plug here.)

If there are specific scents you’re wanting to try, ordering samples is an option, too. If you’re wanting to try out expensive niche fragrances, then check out LuckyScent. For a more diverse collection, websites like Surrender to Chance and The Perfumed Court have a broad selection to pick from. And there are always samples to be had on eBay.

If you’re going to order from Yves Rocher, they don’t sell sample vials (and the free samples that come with your order will probably be those awful damp towelette things–not worth bothering!), but their “travel size” fragrance minis, at $5 for a 7.5ml/0.25oz size, are a great way to try out their scents, and cheaper than some of the 1ml samples from other sites (depending on what it is, of course). I’m still angry with Yves Rocher for discontinuing Iris Noir, though. I’m a sucker for a good iris scent, especially one that doesn’t smell too soapy.

I’ve made the mistake of buying fragrances untested before, and I know better, but I’ll probably do it again at some point. These days, though, who can afford it? Especially since it’s so easy to try them out first.

Great shoes that won’t break your ankle

I know, I know, the five-inch spike heels are gorgeous…in theory. In reality, very few people can walk in those, and even at 28, I’m looking at them and thinking, “My poor feet are too old for that!” I can wear heels, if I add enough padding under the ball of my foot, but I’m usually a lot more comfortable in low-heeled or flat shoes. So here are a few really cute choices that won’t cause you an epic faceplant moment. (Not guaranteeing that you won’t fall on your face–I’ve joked for years that it would have been a sad, sick joke if my parents had named me Grace–but if you do, it won’t be the shoes’ fault.) Please note that the styles here are for inspiration, and that nobody’s expecting you to go out and drop a mortgage payment on a single pair of shoes if, like me, you don’t have that kind of money just lying around.


D’Orsay flats are huge for this spring, and it’s a good thing, because the d’Orsay cut (with the toe done as one piece and the back that comes up towards the ankle) has traditionally been related to very awkward high heels. (In fact, a d’Orsay high heel is number one on my “I love it, but I’d break my neck if I tried to wear it” list.) The pointed toe on this pair by Eileen Fisher ($195, Dillard’s) makes them great for peeking out from under a pair of boot-leg jeans, while the ankle strap makes them unique compared to the hundreds of d’Orsay flats available this season.


Here in the Charlotte area, we’re getting the first tentative hints of an attempt at spring. It’s coming early this year–usually I joke that our seasons are summer, winter, April, and October–but it’s still not warm enough for these. Once spring is actually here, though, these smoking slippers from Tory Burch ($285, Neiman Marcus) will be great for lightening up a work outfit.


This Steve Madden bootie ($159, Nordstrom) would be good with jeans, but it’s also an unexpected touch paired with a short dress for a night out. The strap detail keeps it from looking too much like a cowboy boot.

Milla - Flamingo

You can get a cute, pointed-toe skimmer flat anywhere. But what I love about this pair by Loeffler Randall ($325, Piperlime) is the wavy detailing at the opening, as well as the fantastic shade of pink.


I love the way these oxfords (kate spade new york, $278, Zappos Couture) blend the classic menswear styling of an oxford with the cutout detail that gives a touch of femininity. Wear these with a blouse and crisply creased trousers for work.

Towering heels are sexy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a great pair of shoes that leave your feet firmly planted on the ground. Sensible doesn’t have to mean ugly!