Makeup Essentials If You're Just Getting Into Makeup and You're Kind of Scared

One reader asks: "If I were just starting to get into make up, what would be the essentials I should pick up?"
Publish date:
December 24, 2013
shoppables, makeup, makeup chicken, makeup essentials

A while back, I ran a short-lived (sometimes I have a short attention span) Tumblr called Makeup Chicken -- it was a makeup Agony Aunt of sorts, one that served as a place to talk about makeup basics and crowdsource responses.

In that spirit, I recently received this email:

If I were just starting to get into make up, what would be the essentials I should pick up? Are there any particular brands I should seek out or avoid? I realize this is what xoVain is all about, but I was more comfortable asking you. Also, seriously, I have no idea what to get at the drugstore. It is scary in there, Marianne. Scary. There's like 6 miles of make up. It's frightening me. Should I even be in the drugstore? I don't even know. I'm experiencing an existential crisis.

Makeup can be pretty overwhelming if you didn't grow up a femme, learning how to wield a mascara wand at the knee of someone with more makeup experience. Femme skills are just that: SKILLS. Which means they have to be learned and practiced just like any other skill -- but they also have to be navigated in a more personal way, because makeup and presentation and "girly" all carry a lot baggage in our culture.

Here's my philosophy of makeup: I regard makeup as a fun tool, a component of my appearance but not a necessity; makeup does not determine worth or the validity of anyone's presentation. Makeup can be used by any gender and isn't a MUST for any gender either. I believe in people doing what makes them feel amazing.

(The xoJane community is SO GOOD at crowdsourcing -- from plus size wedding dresses to large size shoes -- so I'm hoping the comments here turn into a fantastic resource for folks just giving makeup a chance.)

Drugstore Makeup Versus High-End Makeup

My anon friend, you are right about the array of options at the drugstore. The makeup wall is generally the full length of the store, organized by brand. Cheaper brands and brands for women of color tend to be arranged towards the back of the store. (The reasons for that involve various -isms.)

But high-end cosmetics departments can feel elitist and gross, especially since so many high-end brands completely ignore the existence of women of color. There's also a lot of perfume smells, which can be debilitating for some people sensitive to scent.

It helps to be prepared, so what do you need to know before you go?

The primary differences between drugstore cosmetics and high-end cosmetics sold in department stores or stand-alone retail spaces can be summed up thusly: pigments and packaging.

Drugstore makeup generally uses less pigment -- this has an impact both on color payoff (whether or not the color shows up on your skin looking the way it does in the package) and longevity (how long it's going to last once you put it on your face). Drugstore makeup also skews toward the basic when it comes to packaging -- there's a lot of plastic and cardboard involved, versus the metal cases and fancy mirrored compacts of high-end brands.

A lot of people just say "quality" when asked about the difference, but I find that to be too broad an answer. If you've got sensitive skin, some high-end brands are just going to be too perfumed while some drugstore brands aren't going to be finely milled enough or are going to use cheaper ingredients. I think making the choice between drugstore and high-end really depends on you (as a wearer of makeup) and your individual needs.

Drugstore Makeup List

Here's what I ALWAYS get at the drugstore:

If you want to wear mascara (which is never a requirement no matter what you're putting on your eyes), Maybelline's extensive line of masacaras is a good place to start according to basically every beauty list ever. I like Maybelline Volum' Express The Falsies Washable Mascara. I get it in whatever black I pick up at the time but brown mascara looks amazing on folks who have lighter hair (especially blondes and redheads). You can buy more expensive mascara but Maybelline is a good balance of quality and price, especially when you're experimenting.

That balance of quality and price applies to the rest of the stuff on that list, too. I have a lot of fancy ass expensive bottles of nail polish, for example, but Wet n Wild is reliable and cheap and awesome for trying new colors. I still love their black nail polish above all other black nail polishes.

My advice for navigating the drugstore: Start at one end and take a look at the products all the way down, without stopping to pick anything up the first time. You'll get a feel for the color range and philosophy of each brand that way. A lot of their products are shockingly similar so I like to support brands that offer a wider range of colors for more skin tones, that offer the brighter colors I love, and that don't participate in animal testing.

High-End Makeup List

Here's what I ALWAYS get from a high-end (or at least a mid-range) brand:

  • Primer
  • Brushes
  • Lipstick (My go-to is MAC's Ruby Woo.)
  • Eyeshadow (Brighter colors depend on pigment quality.)
  • Blush (Again with the brighter colors.)
  • Foundation (I'm unreasonably picky about foundation but you don't have to be!)

Eyeshadow primer is one of those things that can change your whole experience wearing makeup. I don't care if the entire rest of your makeup haul is cheapie drugstore makeup, it's worth getting a nice eyeshadow primer if you can at all. The primer will help even low-pigment eyeshadows look true to color; it will also improve wear time so your eyeshadow doesn't smudge, fade, or disappear.

I swear by the original Urban Decay Primer Potion -- it works for me and I am intensely loyal when I find a product that works. I also like the Detrivore primer.

Eyeshadow primers can go on a little ashy on dark skin tones because many of them are formulated with a light wash of color. Eyeshadow primer that works for more skin tones is an area in which high-end brands seem to extra fail. (On the drugstore end, I've heard good things about the elf Essentials Eyelid Primer because there are a couple of different options, including a sheer one.)

I like to get nice brushes because cheap ones actively irritate my skin. Sometimes people suggest artists brushes instead of makeup brushes, but artists brushes can get pretty pricey as well! I think you can find a nice set, especially around the holidays, for a reasonable price. There's no need to go off the fiscal deep end here.

Makeup "Rules" (Spoiler Alert: I Don't Believe In Them)

Let me be honest with you -- I almost never wear foundation. It make me feel slimy. I mention this just to emphasize that you don't have to wear something just because makeup artists or YouTube tutorials say you have to.

You don't have to wear mascara. You can wear eyeliner without wearing any eyeshadow. You can wear lipliner and lip balm and call it the perfect color. You don't have to wear blush at all! You don't need all the things I've listed above -- just the ones that speak to you.

The only firm guideline I'd offer (and it's for safety reasons, not aesthetic ones): Don't wear mouth products on your eyes. A lot of the pigments and ingredients aren't eye safe.

Have fun, anon. Give yourself time to play and practice. Makeup can be pretty awesome and I hope you have a hell of a good time with it.

Marianne is on Twitter, talking about makeup all the time -- hit her up with Makeup Chicken questions and she'll help crowdsource the answers: @TheRotund.