I Tried 36 Lipsticks to Find a True Red

Because everything looks pink on me! PLUS: A formula for devising your lips’ undertones.

Every time I put my lips to a wine glass, coffee mug, water bottle, or joint, what I thought was my super-red lipstick leaves behind a hot-pink kiss. What is it about so many reds on that market that makes them actually pink?

Join me in this type-A rabbit hole into finding the truest, reddest reds out there!

It starts with your natural lips. They're not the same color as the rest of your flesh, but a deeper, almost brownish pink, and everyone’s are different. I chatted with reigning Lipstick Queen, Poppy King and she recommends going for the opposite-toned red to your natural color to achieve a true red. Poppy notes that reds just aren’t what they used to be, literally, due to FDA restrictions on pigments used in cosmetics. The hope lies in determining your natural lip’s undertones and then choosing a red that has opposite undertones.

This is just one more of those times where cosmetics are clearly formulated with a limited idea of real skin tones. Many of the reds I tried for this piece smear to pink on a white background, let alone on my violet-brown lips.

I came up with a formula for devising your lips’ undertones, but it will take a little bit of computer know how.

  • Take a picture of your lips with no color on them
  • Use the dropper tool in Photoshop or Paint to choose a spot on your lips where there is a middle tone--not the lightest or darkest area.
  • Copy and paste the displayed color (usually in HEX format) into a converter and BOOM, you get all matching colors in Pantone, web format, CMYK, or RGB, which are all different ways for computers to determine colors.
  • Take your RGB (red, green, blue) color and subtract the green value from the red value. Then subtract the red from the blue, and you are left with your lips' violet factor. A higher blue number will turn typical pigments magenta; a lower blue number will let the red appear truer.

Armed with this knowledge, I rounded up 36 options of the reddest reds from a whole bunch of brands, some were in my collection, some are new friends.

The Lipsticks:

The Liquids/Pencils/Chubby Sticks:

The Swatches:

And here are my top lucky 13 true(ish) reds in no particular order:

1. Jouer Hydrating Lipstick in Ava ($24): A luscious formula that goes on super-easily. The color is fiery and bright, it stays on decently, and is reasonably priced.

2. Tatcha Red Silk Lipstick in Kyoto Red ($55): This lipstick is like an anomaly. Richly pigmented, it's the perfect texture--matte without drying--and extremely flattering, I found this to be one of my top three for sure.

3. Sephora Rouge Cream in It Girl ($12.50): It reads pure red on me without fading to pink later in the day. Cheap enough and easy to find, I might as well subscribe and have it sent automatically.

4. Bite Custom Matte Lipstick ($36): If you ever get the chance to make a custom lipstick, take it. Life is too short! Mine is apricot-based, violet-scented, and exactly what I was looking for. They graciously gave me a re-do when I found the original too pink, and it was the best $36 I'd spent in awhile.

5. Revlon Matte Lipstick in Really Red ($7.99): One of the only options for a non-pink non-brick red in the drugstore!

6. Glo Minerals Suede Matte Stick in Pinup ($16): This vintage-style red is phenomenally bright with a killer formula that stays put for hours.

7. TIE! Kat Von D Studded Kiss Underage Red ($21) and Marc Jacobs Le Marc Lip Creme in Goddess ($30): These babies are conditional reds. If you put them on carefully and allow to set, you will have a punchy red that is bright and won't oxidize. It's confusing, but the same pink undertones responsible for the brightness will look magenta if you smear it; however, a thick layer appears bright red. KVD is matte and has great staying power; Marc's is a bit softer and moisturizing, but stains lips for the long haul.

8. NYX Matte Lipstick in Pure Red ($5.99): This swatches pinker than it looks on lips. It's easy on the wallet and great for layering over pinker reds to correct them.

9. Make Silk Cream Lipstick in Scarlet ($25): Stays put! Love! The color is bright and rich without turning pink, and a few coats give you shine-less matte red--actually rare!

10. ANOTHER TIE! MAC Russian Red ($16) and Make Up For Ever N47 ($20): Quintessential '90s reds, these are two different finishes with a nearly identical rust red look without brown. MAC is matte and MUFE is natural.

11. Dior Rouge Dior Couture Color Voluptuous Care Lipstick in 999 ($35): Actually worth the money, this shade is a spot-on crimson. Incredibly moisturizing, my only wish was a bit more opacity.

12. L'Oreal Infallible Pro-Last Lip Color in Red Infallible ($12.50): This swatch went nowhere for two days. After dozens of swatches, you begin to notice if one stays on your hand for two days. The shade isn't too far off from what I want, so I will be working this into the rotation.

13. Maybelline Color Sensational Vivids in Neon Red ($7.49): This color was so nice, just not as opaque as I hoped. I like a lip I can throw on when only paying half-attention (or riding the train) without worrying about an indelible mark, so this is my al fresco lippy.

There were SO many that looked red and swatched pinker than Schiaparelli's Shocking Pink! I have no problem with pink lipstick, except that I want to wear red. I really feel like this is misleading to consumers and proves again that most makeup is made for the paler among us. My yellow/olive skin and slightly violet lips make things worse, but there’s no reason with all of the “reds” on the market that more is not done to clear this up. This is one place where the beauty industry at large is hella behind the times.

  • I can’t be the only babe with this problem! Who else has scoured for a red and come up pink-handed?
  • What’s your fav true red?

Top photo swatches: BITE custom shade, Dior Rouge 999, MAC Russian Red

Photos: Darnell Scott