How To Never Buy Bad Lipstick Again

Everything you have ever needed to know about lipstick textures and quality.
Publish date:
November 12, 2013
chanel, lipsticks, mac, tom ford, shopping, Dior, ingredients, YSL

As you know, I am a die-hard lipstick fan. I like how lipstick can elevate a t-shirt and jeans into a full outfit. I like how a shade can express my moods and emotions. And I like how I can be part of a luxury universe for the relatively low cost of a seasonal lipstick.

But as with all consumer products, I expect a return in performance from the lipstick I buy. I look for glorious and transmundane colors that complement my collection. But I also look for concrete elements of quality that make the product pleasant and convenient to use.

In essence, a lipstick is mix of waxes, oils, silicones and pigments. Its job is to melt at exactly the right rate so that you can transfer the product from the stick to the lips before it sets into place to create a film on the lips.

The four basic ingredients in a lipstick are:

1. Solidifiers, like wax, to set the lipstick.

2. Diluents, like oil, to disperse pigments.

3. Colorants, which are either organic or inorganic pigments.

4. Preservatives, to prevent bacterial growth.

The variation in lipstick quality comes from the balance of these four ingredient types, as well as the specific elements chosen for each role.

A good metaphor would be a cake. The four basic ingredients of flour, eggs, sugar and butter allow for infinite variations of proportions. Additional ingredients like chocolate or lemon can completely change the end result. The quality of a cake depends on the quality and proportion of the ingredients as well as the addition of any special extra ingredients.

Any line of lipsticks from a particular brand will have significant variation in formulation. Light shades, dark shades, shimmery shades--all call for different ingredients that diverge from the original formula. This is why a group of lipsticks, all from the same line and brand, can have very different levels of quality.



Cream lipsticks are a very classic lipstick texture. These tend to be the heritage products that have existed in some form or another for decades with periodic formula renovations. Cream lipsticks will generally have a hydration claim and will try to differentiate from competitors based on their hydration complex.

The universe of cream lipsticks tends to be informal, carefree, and liberated. The colors tend toward demi-tones that look good with casual clothing, like jeans. The makeup result with a cream lipstick tends to be smoothing, using oils or invisible shimmer for very slight optical shine.

Examples on the market include Chanel Rouge Coco and YSL Rouge Volupté.


Satin lipsticks emphasize long-wear above hydration and are designed to avoid fading and transfer to objects like coffee cups. These formulations have grown in importance in recent decades; my theory is that as more women thrive in the workplace, they look for lipsticks with practical, long-wear qualities. Satin lipsticks tend to be the longest-lasting lipsticks, excluding the more specialty double-ended gloss and color products.

The universe of satin lipsticks tends to be formal and fashion-oriented. The shades tend to be more intense and deeply pigmented. The makeup result with a satin lipstick tends to be less smoothing than cream lipsticks, but with more shimmer for a satin-like look on the lips.

Examples on the market include Dior Diorific, Dior Rouge Dior, Chanel Rouge Allure, and Tom Ford Lip Color.


Matte lipsticks are a young product category that has become very popular recently. Matte lipsticks are designed to reflect as little light as possible, leading to a velvet effect on the lips. They tend to be similar to satin lipsticks in terms of pigments and product universes.

This type of lipstick can be extraordinarily drying and difficult to apply. Brands compete on the smoothness of application, the level of hydration, and the relative luminosity of the matte effect.

Examples on the market include MAC’s Matte and Retro Matte finishes, YSL Rouge Pur Couture Les Mats, and Chanel Rouge Allure Velvet.


Shine lipsticks have grown tremendously since their invention in 2011. These hybrid products combine the ease of a cream lipstick with the hydration of a balm and the shine of a gloss. They tend to very moisturizing and smoothing.

They are the most casual option and can be applied in a generous gesture without necessitating a mirror. These make excellent beginner’s lipsticks.

Examples include Chanel Rouge Coco Shine, YSL Rouge Volupté Shine, Tom Ford Lip Shine, and endless dupes at the mass-market level.


Frosted, or pearl, lipsticks were popular in the 1980s and 1990s. They tend to include very reflective elements like mica or oyster shell fragments to give a strong shimmer effect. Frosted lipsticks can be dehydrating and stiff at application.

Examples include actual product lines like MAC Frost finish, but also individual shades in cream or satin product lines.

Elements of Quality

Color and Color Intensity

The most important consideration in the quality of a lipstick is the color. A line of lipsticks should have a pleasing balance between the different color harmonies The color range should tell a story about the brand and its universe. It should represent an idealized lipstick wardrobe.

Color should be appropriate to the product texture. A deep color in a shine formulation should appear translucent and casual. A light color in a satin formulation should have the same intensity and boldness of the darker colors.

On application, the color should be homogenized and even. The color should have depth and sophistication, but most importantly, the color should express a story or an emotion beyond its inclusion in the group. It should have individuality.

Pliability and Wear

Lipstick formulas have to get that perfect balance between stiffness and smoothness. The product needs to be able to spread comfortably onto the lips without being so liquid that it slides around.

Some lipsticks, especially matte textures, can feel unpleasantly like you are scraping a candlestick over your lips. At the other extreme, some overly oily formulas can “feather” off your lips onto the surrounding skin.

A good balance should be a smooth application with enough flexibility in the product to be able to smooth the contours with a finger.


Packaging is one of the external clues of price positioning. If done well, the packaging should be able to communicate to the customer the universe of the brand as well as the quality of the product inside.

A lipstick’s packaging should help design a beautiful gesture in the application of the product. The consumer should feel herself transported to the universe of the brand.

There is also a practical component to lipstick packaging. The product must stand up to the wear and tear of daily use, especially in rough environments like a woman’s handbag. Under no circumstances should the product leak in a purse. Nor should the bullet of the lipstick break. Some lipstick packaging can age in an unpleasant way, looking beat-up and flaky in a short amount of time.

Flavoring and Fragrance

Lipsticks are almost always perfumed and often, they are flavored as well. Selective brands tend to perfume their lipsticks with floral, traditional perfume-type fragrances. Mass-market brands tend to use sweet food flavors and often add sugar to make the product taste sweet.

Preferences for flavoring and fragrance are as unique as the individuals that buy lipstick. There is no right answer to flavoring and fragrance, although there are certain perfumes that are more likely to appeal to a broader group of consumers.

How to Shop for Lipstick

When you shop for a lipstick, there are a couple of ways to help make sure that you’ll get a product you like.

First of all, take your time. You are a potential customer and you deserve the freedom to research and test the products in a reasonable way. Don’t feel pressured to buy anything, and remember that you are completely free to visit the products multiple times before a purchase.

Before you get to the point of sale, online reviews can be helpful to help you get a feeling for products with a good reputation. Once at the store, you should feel free to test the bullet of the lipstick on your hand or arm to get a feeling for the smoothness of application and homogeneity and depth of the color. There should be some alcohol solution available for sanitizing the bullet before you use a lip brush or other applicator to try the color on your lips.

Check for the fragrance and flavor of the lipstick to see if you find it pleasant. Try rubbing the contour of the lipstick to see if you can push it into place with a finger or if you need the control of a lip liner. Press your lips together to feel for the immediate sensations of hydration.

You can then wear the lipstick out of the store to experience how it evolves over time. Look out for problems like feathering and sinking into lip lines. Try drinking a coffee to check for transfer and keep an eye out for fading during the day.

It’s a good idea to try to keep the lipstick on for at least four hours, since many brands use four hour tests in their clinical studies in order to make their claims for their products. If the lipstick claims to be hydrating, ask yourself if your lips feel better after four hours than they did before application.

One tip for finding the best lipsticks in the store is to ask for the shades featured in advertisements and model visuals for new products or seasonal collections. These are the shades that outperformed the rest during the development phase in both formula and color and were thus chosen to visually represent the launch. These model visuals vary per region, so you will see the one that was deemed highest potential for the specificities of the market in which you live.

If you start to follow new launches, you’ll notice that some brands excel in formulas and others excel in color expertise. The trick is to then identify the most beautiful shades in a line with excellent formulas and vice versa to get the best of both.

Remember that your personal preferences override all other considerations when it comes to choosing a lipstick. If you like it and it makes you happy, you got your money’s worth.