6 Tips to Help You Navigate the Confounding Aisles of Sephora and Ulta

How to stay sane while making important makeup decisions.
Publish date:
January 29, 2016
shopping, sephora, ulta, beauty advice

The other day, a friend and I were talking about the glorious, albeit overwhelming, experience it is to walk into the makeup-lined, perfume-doused, serum-soaked walls of a Sephora or Ulta. She shared about her most recent encounter there, which entailed a Personal Beauty Advisor —attempting to be as advisor-y as possible — who actually made her more confused than when she first walked in. Something about baking foundation, applying cream outside of makeup, and talking her through a near-1200 step process that promised perfect brows.

I think we all can relate. I mean, even me, someone who writes about and researches beauty and skincare topics for hours on end as a profession, still has to give myself a pep talk before sauntering through the doors. I manage, though, and here's how.

I Come with a List

This is kind of a given, but it must be said: make a shopping list! I come with a list for two reasons. One reason is because it's so easy to overspend if you walk in and just start mindlessly tossing all the pretty things into your basket. Four products can easily amount to over $100, but that list will keep you from deviating and disrupting the feng shui of your bank account.

Secondly, staying focused on the task at hand keeps you from feeling overwhelmed by all your options. Even if your list isn't super-specific (for example, "cream blush" vesus "Brand and Product Title), you'll find that Mission Sephora is an easier one to accomplish.

I Consult the PBAs

True story: I discovered Stila Stay All Day Liquid Linerwhich has been my HG liner for years — thanks to a Personal Beauty Advisor at Sephora.

I remember swiping tester liner after liner on the back of my hand, waiting for it to dry, and then doing the smudge test. Just when I found myself exasperated and worried I'd end up spending money, yet again, on a product that ultimately left me unimpressed, I received a tap on the shoulder from a kind advisor. She'd been watching me swatch and offered me two of her favorite options. I chose Stila and haven't looked back.

Before that moment, I found myself intimidated by the staff, or worried they'd judge my makeup or try to push products on me. But for years now, one of the first things I do when I walk into a big cosmetic store is find someone to help me with my list. Sometimes I don't follow their advice — or I get confused by it like my friend did — but I typically do gain insight (or at least a finger pointed in the right direction).

I Watch Other Shoppers

OK, so this sounds creepier than it actually is. Think about this, though: how often do you see someone with hair or makeup that you admire? And how often are you able to watch them shop for the products they actually use? Only in a cosmetic store.

So yeah, if I notice someone with an impressive smoky eye or the perfect lip color, or angel-like hair, I'm going to observe. Call me a cosmetic empiricist! I've been known to straight up ask for suggestions, too. Not only is said person flattered, but I gain more confidence in the products being recommended to me.

I Look for Swatches and Reviews While Shopping

I also keep my phone handy when shopping for new cosmetics and refer to it when I'm trying to narrow down my selection. I look up swatches and read reviews primarily on retailer websites and cosmetic forums.

^.^ [Via]

Again, I like feeling confident about my purchases, and reading about other people's experiences really gives me more power in my buying decisions.

I Swatch Like a Mad Woman

Not going to say much about this, but you should try every single product before you put any money down. That's one of the best parts of shopping at cosmetic specialty stores! Consider it a time to play and test. If that means your entire arm is covered in swipes of every orange lipstick sold at the store, then so be it.

I Return the Products if They Don't Work Out

The return policies are extremely lenient at both Sephora and Ulta, which always makes me feel more at ease when shopping. Both allow you to return products within 60 days, even if they're used, for a full refund.

The items should be gently used, of course. Don't try to take advantage of their generous system or they'll give you major stink-eye. I haven't seen this in writing from either retailer, but a good rule of thumb is that at least 75% of the product should still be left. Make sure to keep your receipt for in-store purchases (online returns don't require one, obviously, but you won't get a refund on shipping to/from). Here's Sephora's return policy and here's Ulta's return policy.

  • Share your Ulta/Sephora shopping tips! I know you have them.
  • Have you ever been intimidated by the PBA's?
  • Any recent notable experiences at a big makeup store?