Does the universally perfect red lipstick exist?
When it comes to makeup, the color red has been an obsession since the very beginning—from the ancient Sumerians who employed crushed red rocks to give their lips a red hue, to the “Victory Red” the American military commissioned during WWII. The cult of crimson lips continues today, with cosmetic brands periodically crowing that they’ve created the perfect, universally flattering red. For everyone. Maybelline’s new “Made for All” collection, for instance, includes a universal shade of scarlet tested on 50 different skin tones.
But is this—the idea of one red, flattering to all of the umpteen shades of skin tones possible on earth—even possible?
Makeup brands have peddled the idea of a universally flattering color for years, but reality has rarely lived up to the promise. “The idea of the ‘perfect shade for everyone’ has always been defined by Caucasian beauty standards,” says James Vincent, a makeup artist and educator in New York City. “Cosmetic brands and the fashion industry have always used terms like ‘all sizes’ or ‘one shade for all’ in a very narrow way.”
As he notes, this is changing thanks to a generation of makeup consumers for whom inclusivity is paramount. Women of color are the faces (and, often, the creators) of newer makeup brands such as Fenty and Flesh Beauty, making it easier than ever to find options for all skin tones.
All this said, yes, there are shades that look gorgeous on every skin tone from fair to dark. Nick Barose, a makeup artist who works with actors such as Lupita Nyong’o, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Rachel Weisz, is a fan of Lancôme L’Absolu Rouge in 151 Absolute Rouge, Nars Semi-Matte Lipstick in Jungle Red, and MAC Retro Matte Lipstick in Ruby Woo—all true, primary reds. But it’s not just the shade and undertone to consider; there’s the texture to take into account. “A matte, opaque, liquid lipstick in a bold red shade may be too much for some people, so then maybe go for a sheerer red—something with shine,” he says.
"Not everyone has to look like Marilyn Monroe when wearing red lips."
The effect also depends on how you use it, notes Barose. “You may apply it perfectly with lip liner, so it looks classic and polished,” he says. Or, for a more casual look, create a stain effect by tapping lipstick directly from the tube and blotting it away with your finger. “As a general rule, bold bright-red will look classic and slightly retro; when it’s a darker, deeper red, it will read more sophisticated; the darkest ones will read more vampy,” says Barose. (His picks for vampy reds: Lisa Eldridge Lipstick in Velvet Jazz, Dior Matte Velvet lipstick in 760 Triomphante, Lancôme L’Absolu Rouge in Indecise.)
No matter which red calls to you, know that a shade that looks good on everyone doesn’t have to look identical on everyone. “Not everyone has to look like Marilyn Monroe when wearing red lips,” Barose says. “The same red lipstick won’t look the same on two different women. Make it your own.”
Three perfect red picks, per James Vincent:
“An orange-red that is flattering on any wearer and pairs well with today’s bronzer trend.”
“Easy to apply and easy to wear; not a traditional bullet but indeed looks beautiful on anyone.”
“This is an update of the designer’s mid-20th century shades 9 and 99. Any skin tone can have that classic French red without worrying it won’t work.”