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How Beauty Pros Say to Shop for Makeup Online When You Can’t Swatch It

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Maura LynchMay 13, 2020

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Considering even pants are now optional, it’s not entirely surprising that makeup isn’t getting a lot of play right now. A report from the NPD Group confirmed as much, showing cosmetics sales slumped by 22 percent in the first quarter of the year. It’s an about-face from the days of the lipstick index, a term coined by Estee Lauder’s chairman emeritus Leonard Lauder in 2011 to explain why lipstick sales grew when the economy shrunk. You don’t need a punchy red lip when it’s just going to be covered by some mask you got on Etsy.

But—maybe you do.

“I think makeup can be a really powerful tool to help lift the spirits and to also make things feel a little more normal,” says New York City-based celebrity makeup artist Gita Bass. You don’t have to go too far down a Reddit rabbit hole to find anecdotal evidence of a good mascara’s emotional buoying. And there’s research to suggest that the way makeup makes us feel (better!) supports confidence and even cognition. A 2017 Harvard study found that students who wore makeup before taking a test outperformed non-makeup wearers. No doubt this could come in handy when you’re trying to feel put-together enough to power through another workday at your kitchen table. (Pants can also help).

However, without access to physical stores, buying makeup can be a bit of a challenge. Shopping from a site with a solid return policy is good; not having to act on that return policy is better. While certain products are a little more intuitive to select online—mascara, shadow, eyeliner, and even bronzer—others are perplexing without the ease of swatching or a perky store clerk. And even once stores do reopen, how eager will you be to help yourself to that well-worn concealer tester? Luckily, makeup pros are as rife as ever with insider knowledge, and digital experiences have come a long, long way. Here, how to make browsing for makeup via browser a little easier.

Follow your undertones

“People usually have a good understanding from past experience where they fall within a color family—light, medium, dark, etc.,” says Gilbert Soliz, Marc Jacobs Beauty Global Makeup Artist. Undertones, on the other hand, are a little bit more difficult to detect. But they’re just as crucial when choosing a variety of makeup types.

To identify yours, “observe the underside of your wrist,” suggests Bass. Generally, “warm skin tones have greenish veins, cool tones have bluer veins, and neutral tones have a bit of both.” When choosing foundation and concealer, look for shades that match this tone; the shade description will disclose it, or the shade name will be preceded with a w, n, or c (to signify warm, neutral, or cool).

Tone is also key in choosing blush and lipstick. Again, your best best is to stick with shades that match, and don’t counter, your tone. Bass says that for lips, cool tones look best with a blue-based red than an orange-based one. “Warm, olive skin will look more natural with a warmer blush,” she adds. If you have a neutral tone, lucky you—you get to color with all the crayons in the box, so to speak.

Seek out ‘buildable’ formulas

Certain formulas are more foolproof than others. And these formulas are your friends. In terms of formats, “liquids and creams are usually the most forgiving,” says Soliz, who recommends the very buildable-and-blendable Marc Jacobs Beauty Accomplice Concealer & Touch-Up Stick ($32) for this very reason. When it comes to pigment load and intensity, less is definitely more. “Sheerer textures are more likely to work because they allow more of your natural tone to show through,” says Bass. This applies across the board, from foundation to lipstick. If you apply the product and it’s not giving you enough coverage, you can always layer on more. All of this information should be provided in a product’s description—if it’s not, beauty buyer beware.

Get it custom

Foundation, which is tricky to get perfect even when you’re buying it in person, can now be made just for you: You can blend up a fully customized shade of BareMinerals Made2Fit Custom Foundation from the comfort of your couch. But there are also easy tweaks you can make at home to adjust any formula on the spot. “Makeup can always be mixed to achieve the perfect shade,” says Bass. “Shades that are too light can be darkened by mixing in a liquid bronzer, or by layering a powder bronzer over the top.” This DIY approach also works for texture. “If the formula feels too heavy or dry, mix a drop of moisturizer or face oil with it before applying.” Same goes for a too-bold lip, blush, or bronzer. ” Adding a sheer layer of foundation overtop can bring down the intensity,” notes Bass, adding that it’s better to go too bright than too pale with blush. ‘You can always soften a color, but if it’s too light, it can appear ashy,” she says. “When in doubt, I say go with Dior Backstage Rosy Glow ($37), which adds a natural flush to all skin tones.”

Do your research

Social shopping is possible, even when you’re all alone. Get recommendations from friends, from beauty editors (ahem), and from social media. Soliz suggests paying particularly close attention to product reviews and best sellers. If something is selling like hot cakes and has great reviews, odds are you will be pleased with it too.

You can also seek out your doppelgänger for guidance. Sephora has a feature in their reviews titled “Beauty Match” that will indicate if a reviewer has a similar skin tone and traits, giving you a more accurate read on whether the product will work for you. Il Makiage has a section on their website titled “Shop by Talent,” where you can choose from a variety of influencer-led tutorials, and choose from a variety of influencers to find someone who shares your features. In the videos, they lay out the exact products and shades they use, taking the guesswork out of shopping.

Since you can’t swatch right now, you can find someone to swatch for you. Long before Instagram and Youtube beauty tutorials became a “thing,” there was Temptalia. Launched in 2006, Temptalia is a beauty blog that swatches virtually every makeup launch. If you’re dying to know what the newest Becca highlighter looks like on skin, and not a white background, this is the place to find out.

Get virtual support

Who among us can resist the allure of a quiz that tells you more about…you? Many brands are tapping into them as an interactive exercise to sort your ideal shades. Fenty, Jane Iredale, Clinique, and more all have foundation finders. Sephora has separate quizzes for foundation, concealer, lip color, and even brows. NakedPoppy—an online-only clean beauty boutique that launched last year with buzzy brands including Kosas and RMS—offers a thorough three-minute personalized assessment that analyzes everything from skin type to sensitivities to tones to make suggestions for your entire makeup bag.

And then there’s the world of the virtual try-on. Far from the early aughts models (anyone else remember test-driving a hairstyle that was essentially just a cartoon cutout plopped on your head?), this augmented reality is startlingly accurate and featured on sites for brands like Maybelline, NYX, Ulta, and Estée Lauder.

Los Angeles-based celebrity makeup artist Jillian Dempsey even used virtual try-on to power her app, FYFE, which launched last month. Created as a way to provide a “convenient, user-friendly way for people to shop for beauty and grooming products,” Dempsey developed FYFE in partnership with YouCam, the leader of augmented reality in the beauty space. The app ($5.99/month) features exclusive shoppable video tutorials from Dempsey, the go-to makeup pro for everyone from Jennifer Lawrence to Kristen Stewart, and a “shade arcade” that lets you try on her eponymous makeup line virtually via your phone’s selfie mode.

At Marc Jacobs Beauty, Soliz and his colleagues wanted to replicate the intimacy that comes with an in-store consultation. Last month, the brand started offering one-on-one virtual appointments with Soliz to get personalized recommendations and a custom face chart, plus 30 percent off. It was such a hit, the team added more dates throughout May. Despite being separated by screens, Soliz says these chats have “allowed us to connect on a personal level.” It’s also shown him that people need good makeup—and good makeup technique—now more than ever. “The number one question I get is ‘how do I conceal dark circles?’” The answer is always just a click away.

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