Walking into a cosmetics department or a store like Ulta or Sephora can be incredibly intimidating if you’re not used to it. Where do I start? What do I need? Hey, what does this do? Was I supposed to already know this? It’s hard to get a feel for what you might want without a game plan already in place. So I’m going to break down what I consider to be the bones of a good makeup collection. Feel free to add or subtract according to your comfort level, but this is what I’d consider to be a good makeup wardrobe. (That’s “wardrobe,” not “wear them all at once.”)
- Primer: This is your first layer, and without it nothing’s going to blend as smoothly or stay on as long as it would with it. There are several I really like, but the one I currently have is Lancome La Base Pro ($42, Lancome.com). I know it’s tempting to skip this, but it really makes a difference.
- Foundation: get one that works for you, in a color that’s an exact match. It’s usually best to get some help matching your color (though don’t be afraid to question–people always try to put me in a shade that’s much darker than I prefer, assuming that I’ll tan, and despite my Native heritage, I don’t. Ever.) because it’s hard to see on yourself. I’m partial to Clinique’s liquid formulas, myself.
- Concealer: match it to your foundation. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, as long as it’s not cheap crap that will block up your pores. All it needs to do is cover over some flaws that the primer can’t smooth out, before you put on your foundation.
- Blush: get one that’s just a bit darker than your base skin tone. You’re adding color, not painting up like a clown, so you don’t want something that looks unnatural. The idea is to look like you’ve got a slight flush to your cheeks, not to look like you’re painted. My current favorite is Mary Kay’s mineral blush in Sunny Spice ($12, MaryKay.com).
- Bronzer: I use a good matte bronzer for contouring under my cheekbones and along the sides of my nose. (It sounds a lot more complicated than it is.) Basically, I load the brush up and sweep it from under my cheekbones in a big C motion up onto my temples, then do the other side and finish it off with a narrow, well-blended stripe down either side of my nose to create shadowing and visually narrow my nose and sharpen my cheekbones. My go-to is Nyx Matte Bronzer in Light ($9, Nyx Cosmetics).
- Black mascara. I’m currently wearing Make Up For Ever Smoky Extravagant Lash in Black, but I’m not crazy about it. I’m seriously considering ditching it and going straight to the CK One Signature I have stashed, because the brush on this leaves a lot to be desired. I’m not a big fan of small, “defining” mascara brushes; I want big and plush brushes that give lots of volume, because length I’ve got. I’m also being sorely tempted by the “dial up” mascaras from Ulta and from Rimmel, but I haven’t given in, mostly because I like being able to say that I never pay for mascaras. It’s an ego thing.
- An eyeshadow palette in neutral shades. Be sure to get one that’s not too dark or too light for your skin tone; the idea with this is to enhance your features, not to show off your warpaint. I’ve been using Rimmel London Glam Eye Shadow Quad in Royal Tea ($5.99, Ulta) as my go-to lately. Love the colors, but with this one it’s super important to use a primer, or it wears off too quickly.
- An “evening out” eyeshadow set that adds a little more drama. I like to do a nice smoky eye with a Victoria’s Secret eyeshadow quad I picked up a few months ago. The color has been discontinued now, but you can also get a good smoky look with Maybelline’s Expert Wear Eye Shadow Quad in Natural Smokes ($4.99, Drugstore.com).
- Eyeliner. I keep a deep chocolate brown to wear with the neutrals and a black that goes with everything. I like cream or gel liners for the way they feel, but I find it a lot more convenient to keep a self-sharpening pencil in my makeup bag. Try Nyx’s retractable eyeliner in Black and Brown, $4.49 each at Ulta.
- A lipliner in a color that closely approximates your natural lipcolor. The point of lipliner isn’t to match your lipstick. It’s to define your lips and give your lipstick something to adhere to. Mine is almost embarrassingly cheap. It’s Jordana Easyliner in Tawny ($2.19, Walgreens).
- A “your lips but better” lipstick color. I’ve been really impressed with Make Up For Ever Rouge Artist Natural in N9, a gorgeous coppery pink. I got it at Sephora as part of their birthday gift, but I’m definitely going to be dropping the $20 to get a full tube when this is gone.
- A perfect red lipstick. What shade that’s going to be depends on your skin tone; for me, Kat Von D Everlasting Love Liquid Lipstick in Underage Red ($19, Sephora) is so much the ideal red that when I’ve worn it, other women have stopped me on the street to compliment my lipstick and ask me where to get it. It’s highly pigmented, very long-lasting, and smudge resistant, and it doesn’t dry my lips out. I can’t recommend it enough.
- An eyebrow filler. I like Benefit’s Brow Zings in Medium ($32, Benefit), but less expensive brands have equivalents that work–I’ve also used one from Wet’N’wild, until I got this one as a gift. The trick is to look at the shade you think you need based on your eyebrow color, and go one lighter, because it’s always going to go on just slightly darker than it looks. I definitely recommend a kit that includes powder and wax, rather than going for just a pencil.
- Good makeup brushes. They don’t have to be expensive; my $1 Elf brushes from Target work just fine. It’s more a question of getting the right brushes and keeping them clean (washing them once a week is my usual standard). I keep a foundation brush, a big powder brush, a bronzer brush, an eyeshadow brush, and an eyelash/eyebrow brush.
I know this sounds like it’s a huge amount of stuff. Bear in mind, though, that this is a complete wardrobe. Your needs may vary according to your individual situation, but this covers all occasions for me, and anything else I pick up is just for fun.