Saturday, March 6, 2021

Tower 28 BeachPlease Luminous Tinted Balm in Magic Hour

Late last year, I got rid of my Illamasqua cream blush in Zygomatic, one of my all-time favorite beauty products, which I'd bought in the UK in June of 2014. I hadn't noticed a change in its appearance, smell, or performance, but I felt increasingly uncomfortable smearing a six-year-old cream blush on my face. Unfortunately, Illamasqua is no longer available in the United States and I don't exactly have international travel plans, so I started looking for a replacement.

That was harder than you might think. Zygomatic filled a very specific niche: it was my perfect nude blush, a slightly cool-toned beige that harmonized with my coloring and worked well with both warm and cool colors elsewhere on my face. Most beige blushes on the market lean either warm and peachy or noticeably pink. But I recently became aware of the cream blushes from the newish beauty brand Tower 28, and one of them, Magic Hour, looked very similar to Zygomatic. So when I was in Cleveland earlier this week, I popped into Sephora and was pleased to find Magic Hour in stock, and here it is! 


I knew almost nothing about Tower 28 before buying Magic Hourthat's what I get for not being on TikTok, I guessso I had to do some research for this post. Founded in 2019 by Amy Liu, who previously worked in marketing at such beauty brands as Smashbox and Josie Maran, Tower 28 made it into Sephora this past January, just a year and a half after its debut. (You might assume that Liu is a Gen Z influencer type, but she's forty-one and has a mere 1,727 Instagram followers! It's refreshing to see a new beauty brand that doesn't have a famous figurehead.) Tower 28 currently offers just a few products, all at a midrange price point: lip glosses in jelly and milky formulas, cream blushes, a cream bronzer and shimmer-free cream highlighter, and a setting spray. 

I'd describe the brand's aesthetic as "minimalist '80s," which sounds like a contradiction in terms but somehow works: slim, clear packaging, sheer but vivid color products, and California-vaporwave boxes. (Tower 28 is a lifeguard tower in Santa Monica, apparently.) That neon typeface with the squiggly W is marketing gold:

One reason why Tower 28 entered Sephora so soon is that Liu created the brand with sensitive skin in mind, so it fit nicely into the "Clean at Sephora" initiative, which pushes "clean beauty" products formulated without parabens, mineral oils, and other ingredients that have acquired a bad rap in recent years. Frankly, I find the whole "clean beauty" movement kind of silly: many of the allegations against the stigmatized products (for instance, that parabens cause cancer) haven't been scientifically proven, and the American cultural obsession with "clean" products and foods seems to me to dovetail with growing anti-vaccine and other anti-scientific sentiments. Also, the reason my Illamasqua Zygomatic lasted six and a half years without growing mold? Parabens. Since the paraben-free Magic Hour won't last anywhere near as long, I feel a certain pressure to use as much of it as possible before its inevitable demise.

On to the review! 


The BeachPlease blushes cost $20 for 4.5 grams; by contrast, the Fenty Cheeks Out cream blushes are $20 for 3 grams, so you're getting a pretty good deal with Tower 28. The clear packaging is aesthetically pleasing, but it doesn't feel particularly sturdy. I love bringing cream blushes with me when I travel (here's hoping I get the vaccine before too long and can actually go somewhere this year), but I'd hesitate before tossing Magic Hour into a makeup bag with dozens of other products. This is also one of those blushes that's a real bitch to open: you have to either jam your fingernail into the latch or yank open the compact while holding the sides. Why do I have a hunch that the hinge will break within a year?

Unfortunately, Magic Hour leans warmer and peachier in swatches and on my face than it does in the pan. Below, I've swatched Magic Hour on the left and Tarte Paaarty on the right, and Magic Hour looks more or less like a cream version of Paaarty. Not a bad thing in itself, but also not what I was hoping for. Magic Hour seems to turn cooler and browner on other people, so I think it really depends on your personal coloring. (Tower 28 describes Magic Hour as a "sun-kissed rosy nude"; I thought were no longer using the word "nude" as a general descriptor for light beige makeup in 2021, but apparently we are.)


Magic Hour has an odd texture that I don't think I've encountered in any other cream blush: it's sort of...sticky. When I tap lightly on the blush, my fingertip clings to the surface and comes away with a sizable dab of product stuck to it. Here's a closeup of Magic Hour's texture after I swirled my finger around; I believe the tiny bumps on the surface of the pan are harmless wax bloom. (Don't correct me if they're not.)

Because Magic Hour's formula is on the thicker side, application isn't as easy as the "tap tap + blend!" (tapotez + estompez!) method advocated on the label. As with my Fenty blush, I have to exert a certain amount of force to blend the color seamlessly into my cheeks. I also have the hardest time getting the blush to show up in photos! Below, I'm wearing three layers of Magic Hour; the color is more evident in person, but still not clownish. On my face, Magic Hour reads as a slightly warm-toned (not rosy, but not quite peachy) flush; I anticipate wearing it often in the spring and summer.


Magic Hour has decent longevity on my cheeks, though I find myself wanting to touch it up around the five-hour mark. Tower 28 claims that the BeachPlease blushes have "a natural luminous finish," which I think would be accurate on skin less dry than mine. On me, Magic Hour is basically matte, though not in a bad way: it does indeed look natural. Below, I'm wearing about two layers of Magic Hour with Glossier Haloscope in Quartz, and you can tell by the finish where the highlight ends and the blush begins:

By the way, this product is advertised as a "luminous tinted balm" that works on both cheeks and lips. Tower 28 has a lot of nerve making that claim, because Magic Hour doesn't even come close to being a functional lip product. It feels gooey, clumps up on every dry spot, and emphasizes lip lines, and the color is straight out of 2009 concealer-lips hell:


Overall, I have mixed feelings about Magic Hour. I do think it looks nice on me (on my cheeks, at least; let's forget that lip swatch ever happened), and I'm sure I'll get a lot of use out of it, but I'm sad that the color isn't quite what I expected. And since I'm not a huge fan of the tacky texture, I doubt I'll buy any more shades in this formula. Most of the existing reviews of the BeachPlease blushes seem to be very positive, so here's hoping my review does a little to puncture the hype balloon! Maybe I'll just have to repurchase Zygomatic after all, and deal with the shipping charges...

Sunday, February 28, 2021

A Red for Citrus Season: NARS Velvet Matte Lip Pencil in Red Square

This week I'm diverging from the 2020 Lipstick Chronology in order to review my first new lipstick of 2021: NARS Velvet Matte Lip Pencil in Red Square!

I spent much of my January no-buy scouring the web for a replacement for Topshop Matte Lipstick in Rio Rio, which I bought and reviewed back in June of 2015. I still own Rio Rio but can't bring myself to wear it, partly because it's almost six years old, but mainly because the tube is so beat-up and gross-looking: those pretty rose-gold stripes wore off almost immediately, and the white plastic coating somehow attracted every speck of dirt in my makeup bag. However, Rio Rio was the first and, until this week, the only bright orange-red lipstick that I'd ever found truly flattering. I'd been looking for a dupe for a while and had tried on some of the iconic orange-reds, such as MAC Lady Danger and NARS Heat Wave, but most of them turned either neon or Popsicle-orange against my cool, muted coloring. 

I didn't give up the search, though, because there's always been a place in my lipstick collection for a bright warm red. Orange-reds feel as elegant as blue-reds or dark reds but a little more playful and casual, and when you really want to wear a warm red, a cool one just won't do. Warm red lipstick has been around as long as red lipstick has been around, though I tend to associate it with costumey looks from the '70s and '80s, like this one:

Photo by Barry Lategan in Vogue, 1974. Image from Martin Harrison, Beauty Photography in Vogue (1987).

My search picked up steam in January because I was inspired by the mounds of citrus fruits at the grocery storeand by my near-nightly concoctions of fresh-squeezed blood orange juice, orange vodka, and tangerine La Croix. The darker blotches on the middle right half are closest to the color I wanted:


My Googling led me eventually to Red Square, which I felt comfortable buying without swatching because I've been a fan of the Velvet Matte Lip Pencil formula since 2013. (Until the pandemic ends and it's possible to swatch makeup again, I'm trying not to buy lip products in unfamiliar formulas, since they have the potential to deliver unpleasant surprises in texture or smell.) And I'm pleased to report that Red Square is exactly what I was looking for!

By the way, I ordered Red Square from Sephora, and I don't think I'll be buying anything from their website again for quite some time. The package took nine days to leave their warehouse and showed up without the mini YSL lipstick I'd selected as a gift with purchase, and the facial cleanser I'd ordered was missing its cap. This is an extremely first-world problem and I feel silly mentioning it here, but it's been a long time since I've had such a bad online ordering experience.

Red Square is perfectly balanced between red and orange (I've said it before and I'll say it again: NARS makes the best reds), and I feel uncomfortable classifying it as either one (though I've been lazily referring to it as "red" this whole time, so I guess I'll just keep doing that). I can't figure out whether it has a white base; I don't think it does, but it leans slightly brighter on my face than it does in this swatch on my hand:



Here it is on my lips, where it looks a little more vivid:

As it turns out, Red Square is an almost perfect color match for Topshop Rio Rio. (Which might be a moot point, because ASOS bought Topshop this month and seems to have eliminated the Topshop beauty brand, alas.) Rio Rio is a touch darker and redder than Red Square, but the two are practically indistinguishable in the swatches below. L-R: ColourPop 7 Springs, ColourPop Dream Easy, Red Square, Rio Rio, Marc Jacobs Rei of Light.


I haven't been able to figure out when NARS launched the Velvet Matte Lip Pencils (if you know, please leave a comment!), but I'm guessing they've existed for at least fifteen years, so it's kind of astonishing to me that in 2021 they still boast one of the best matte formulas on the market. In fact, the VMLPs might have my favorite matte formula of all time, though MAC's is also a contender. There's not much to say about the formula that hasn't been said already, but Red Square is a particularly good example of why these pencils have remained so popular for so long; it's lightweight, scent-free, non-drying, long-wearing, just all-around magnificent. The one annoyance is having to sharpen the pencil now and then, but the pencil format keeps the product fresh for many yearsmy Mysterious Red from 2013 is still going strongand cuts down on plastic waste, so I really can't complain.

I wish I'd been motivated enough to imitate the Vogue look above: I'm especially fond of those big red splotches next to the half-shaved eyebrows. Instead, here I am wearing Red Square as I would on a normal day, with neutral matte eyeshadow (Pebble Beach and Boa from ColourPop That's Taupe), peachy brown blush (Tarte Paaarty), and subtle highlight (Glossier Haloscope in Quartz). I'm also wearing elf Brow Wow Gel in Neutral Brown, which I plan to review here before too long, since it's received some buzz for its alleged similarity to Glossier Boy Brow.

When I posted this selfie on Instagram a few days ago, I was surprised at how many people commented that they loved Red Square on me. I've always had this idea that warm red lip colors don't flatter my coloring as much as berry or wine reds do (I blame my mom for that assumption), but I'm starting to change my mind. A neon red like Revlon Fire and Ice will inevitably clash with my undertones and make my skin look a little dull, but Red Square actually seems to brighten my face. It also brings out the brown in my predominantly green eyes, which is interesting.

Another photo, in which I'm wearing exactly the same makeup but a different shirt, because you'll never convince me that color coordination is tacky or uncool, damn it:


I hope to return to Lipstick Chronology next week, time permitting!

Friday, February 19, 2021

2020 Lipstick Chronology #3: Revlon Luscious Matte Lipstick in Shameless

Product: Revlon Super Lustrous The Luscious Mattes Lipstick in Shameless

Date Purchased: Feb. 15, 2020

Grade: A

Revlon has made some truly bizarre marketing decisions in the last decade. The brand built its reputation on lipstick and continues to produce such heritage shades as Cherries in the Snow and Fire and Ice, yet it went about a decade without a proper lineup of matte lipsticks. When I first started buying makeup around 2010, Revlon had a smattering of mattes in the regular Super Lustrous line. Then, in 2013, it phased those out in favor of the Matte Balms (RIP Sultry, the signature shade of my mid-to-late twenties; I wish I'd bought a backup). Then, several years after that, Revlon discontinued the Matte Balms without introducing a replacement. The Luscious Mattes collection didn't make its debut until early 2020, and it did so with very little fanfare; I knew nothing about it until I stumbled upon the new display in my local Ulta. 

Shameless was a total impulse buy, but the amount of time I spend contemplating a purchase doesn't seem to correlate positively with my enjoyment of that purchase: as I mentioned in my 2020 review post, Shameless turned out to be my favorite new beauty product of the year. (Incidentally, the shade shares its name with a dark purple Matte Balm, so Googling "revlon shameless" or even "revlon matte shameless" brings up a bouquet of pansy-colored pouts. Here's hoping this post helps correct the algorithm.)

I don't currently own one of Revlon's regular Super Lustrous lipsticks for a comparison photo, but the Luscious Matte packaging is matte instead of shiny, and the top of the lid is opaque black instead of clear. No complaints about the tube: not too bulky, closes tightly, doesn't attract too many lint specks or fingerprints (though it does attract a few, as you can see below). In designing the packaging for its new lipstick line, Revlon drew obvious, if half-assed, inspiration from Pat McGrath:

Shameless looks much cooler-toned in the tube than it does on my skin. In fact, it's a very '90s terra-cotta rose that unquestionably belongs in my container of warm-toned lipsticks. It does have a touch of mauve, though, which comes out on people who are warmer-toned than I am (e.g. here). The best descriptor I can find for this shade is cozy: it makes me want to put on an oversized flannel shirt and listen to Tegan and Sara. 

Incidentally, I'm surprised that Shameless has never been mentioned as a possible dupe for Lisa Eldridge True Velvet Lipstick in Velvet Muse. I haven't seen Velvet Muse in person, but I've checked out some swatches, and it looks very similar to Shameless in both tone and texture.

Here are some comparison swatches; the closest matches for Shameless are Urban Decay Ravenswood, which is pinker, and MAC Smoked Almond, which is peachier but has the same muted, slightly dusty quality. 


The Luscious Matte formula is similar to that of the Maybelline matte lipsticks: opaque in one stroke, a little powdery, not too drying, and semi-matte when first applied. I prefer Shameless to my Maybelline mattes, though, because it's completely unscented, just as the regular Super Lustrous lipsticks are. Shameless has decent longevity: it won't last through a meal, but it doesn't come off too egregiously on cups and glasses, and it fades evenly. In fact, sometimes I think it looks better faded than it does at full opacity (again, because it's cozy).

Here's Shameless smudged on lightly with a finger, then applied straight from the tube:


Shameless is truly an all-season color. Here it is in the summer, with some eyeshadows from the ColourPop Uh-Huh Honey palette and the perfect '90s vintage daisy shirt. It's a little faded here, so it looks more matte than it does when freshly applied.


And in the winter (i.e. a few days ago), with the aforementioned oversized flannel shirt, and with Boa and Python from the ColourPop That's Taupe palette. Cozy! Do we still talk about hygge, or did we leave that concept in 2018?


In short, Shameless is one of those lipsticks that I have to struggle not to wear several times a week, because I have fifty other shades that need my attention before they expire. I can invent no higher praise.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

An Interlude

Apologies for deviating from my Lipstick Chronology schedule so soon after announcing it, but the last couple of weeks have been challenging. My grandmother passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly nine days ago, at the age of ninety-six. Between processing that shock and conducting a job search in a new field, I haven't had a lot of energy for blogging, but I hope to return to regular scheduling next Friday.

It's fitting that the next review in my queue will discuss a Revlon lipstick, since my grandmother wore Revlon lipstick for most of her adult life and, in fact, bought me my first piece of real makeup when I was about twelve: a clear Revlon Moon Drops lipstick with that heavy, flowery, distinctly geriatric scent. Grandma told me once that her father, an immigrant from Lithuania, had been reluctant to let her attend a coed public high school in Brooklyn because the female students wore makeup, which suggested to him that they were "fast." But she wanted to go to that high school, and she prevailed, as she usually did—and started wearing makeup, too. 

Later, against her husband's wishes, Grandma got an MA in English at Columbia and became a high school English teacher. She and I were very different people, with very different worldviews and values, but our love of English literature always connected us (as did our shared birthday: we were both Scorpios). 

Grandma and her parents in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, c. 1940.

I've been thinking recently about how beauty rituals link generations of women, even women who, like my grandmother, my mother, and me, have relatively little in common with one another. I've been thinking about W. B. Yeats's poem "Adam's Curse," in which a woman tells the male speaker, a stand-in for Yeats, "To be born woman is to know— / Although they do not talk of it at school— / That we must labour to be beautiful." Yeats isn't exactly a feminist icon, but he gets at something important in this poem: living as a girl or woman necessarily means existing in relation to beauty standards, and we each have to decide how to negotiate that relation, since we can never truly escape it. (The male speaker misses his friend's point entirely, chiming in that he knows exactly how women feel, since he has to work hard on his poetry, too: "It's certain there is no fine thing / Since Adam's fall but needs much labouring." Typical.) 

Anyway! More lipstick soon. For now, stay well, and I'll try to do the same.

Friday, January 29, 2021

2020 Lipstick Chronology #2: Maybelline Creamy Matte Lipstick in Divine Wine

Product: Maybelline Color Sensational Creamy Matte Lipstick in Divine Wine

Date Acquired: January or February 2020

Grade: A-

My mother has strong opinions about my lipstick choices, and she's not shy about sharing those opinions. She has expressed distaste for some of my favorite lip products, such as Pat McGrath Madame Greige ("washes you out, like you're not even wearing lipstick"), NARS Dolce Vita ("I know it's supposed to be subtle, but there's such a thing as too subtle"), Marc Jacobs Rei of Light ("too orange"), and Bite Prismatic Pearl gloss ("too glossy"). If it were up to her, I would wear nothing but dark reds, berries, and plums in matte or satin formulas. I agree that those colors are my most flattering, but a woman needs variety, you know? Well, some women do; my mom wore the same two shades of L'Oreal lipstick, Blushing Berry and Raspberries, every day for at least twenty years.

To protect me from my dangerous self-unflattering impulses, my mom occasionally buys me drugstore lipsticks (she also thinks I spend too much money on lipstick, of course) in colors she approves of. And that's how I acquired Maybelline Divine Wine, though I can't recall whether she gave it to me when I was visiting San Francisco last January or sent it in my Valentine's Day care package the next month. She's been wearing Maybelline makeup, mostly eyeliner, since the mid-'60s; talk about brand loyalty.



This is the epitome of the kind of color my mom thinks I should wear every day. It's a deep, slightly muted reddish berry that looks raspberry in some lights and almost brick red in others, with a soft semi-matte finish. I'm a fan of the Maybelline matte formula, which I'd describe as "dynamic": it can be sheered out or built up without clumping or streaking. In the last year or so I've developed a taste for dabbing on bold matte lipsticks as soft stains, and Divine Wine is perfect for that method, as you can see in the swatches below; you'll also notice that the more I sheer it out, the brighter and pinker it looks.



I'm sure no one will be surprised to hear that I own several lipsticks in this color family. L-R: Maybelline Raging Raisin, Smoking Red, and Divine Wine (all gifts from my mom, needless to say); MAC D for Danger and Eugenie.


Smoking Red, from the discontinued Loaded Bolds line, appears almost identical to Divine Wine in these swatches, but it's much darker on my lips: a flapper plum-red, not a '50s plum-red. The closest match for Divine Wine in this lineup is actually MAC D for Danger, one of my all-time favorite lip colors and probably the closest thing I have to a "signature" lipstick. D for Danger is lighter, brighter, and pinker than Divine Wine, and the formula is more matte, but when I look back at photos of myself wearing one of the two, I sometimes can't tell which one it is. But I do know for a fact that in the image below, I'm wearing D for Danger on the left and Divine Wine on the right:


My one issue with Divine Wine is that when I wear it at full opacity, I struggle to make it adhere to the inner part of my lower lip (as you can see in the above image). I often have this problem with the soft, siliconey matte formulas that drugstore brands are producing these days, and that's one of the reasons why MAC and NARS remain my favorite brands for matte lipsticks. But Divine Wine is still a beautiful winter lipstick, both because of its color and because it's not drying; in fact, it smooths over the rough patches that my lips always sport this time of year. 


I haven't seen my mom in over a year now, and I'm not sure when I'll be able to visit San Francisco again (this fall or winter, I'm hoping). But wearing the lipsticks she's given me makes me feel a little closer to her. And maybe, despite her talk of flattering and unflattering colors, that's what she really means her gifts to do.

Friday, January 22, 2021

2020 Lipstick Chronology #1: NARS Sheer Lipstick in Dolce Vita (New Formula)

Product: NARS Sheer Lipstick in Dolce Vita

Date Purchased: January 4, 2020

Grade: B+

I started this blog in early 2014 with a series called Lipstick Chronology, in which I set out to review all of my lipsticks in chronological order of purchase, musing on the circumstances in which I bought them and the feelings and memories they evoked. I kept up the series for thirty-four posts; it's astonishing what you can accomplish when you're putting off writing your dissertation. Because thirteen new lipsticks came into my life in 2020 and I failed to review any of them on the blog, I've decided to revive Lipstick Chronology with a brief installment every Friday, circumstances permitting. That will take eleven weeks, since I'll be reviewing three shades from the same formula in a single post.

It's fitting that I should begin my revamped chronology with the revamped version of a lipstick that has been in my life since the original Lipstick Chronology days. NARS Sheer Lipstick in Dolce Vita has been my go-to "purse lipstick," the one that lives in my makeup bag and accompanies me throughout the day, ever since I bought my first tube in the spring of 2013. It goes with every outfit and makeup look, can be applied without a mirror, and feels as comfortable as a balm...that is, the original version did. In 2019, NARS celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary by reformulating its matte, satin, and sheer (i.e. non-Audacious) lipstick formulas. The brand eliminated several shades and introduced dozens of new ones, but kept most of its truly iconic colors, such as Schiap, Heat Wave, andto my great reliefDolce Vita. But would the new Dolce Vita be as indispensable to me as its predecessor? I had to find out.

On the fourth day of 2020, I bought Dolce Vita at the Sephora in Stonestown Galleria, the mall down the street from my high school in San Francisco. (I also bought a swirled matcha/hōjicha soft-serve cone from Matcha Cafe Maiko; the Stonestown food court has become a lot less basic since the mid-'00s.) This post thus contains four nested layers of nostalgia: 1) nostalgia for visiting San Francisco before the pandemic; 2) nostalgia for my teenage years; 3) nostalgia for wearing the old version of Dolce Vita in grad school; 4) nostalgia for the early days of my blog.

I've given up sugar for the month of January and looking at this photo is literal torture.

The reformulated NARS lipsticks contain the same amount of product that the originals did (0.12 oz, or 3.4 g), but the packaging is a bit longer and wider. The old NARS tubes, which I prefer, have slightly rounded edges, while a cross-section of a new tube would be perfectly square. The new tubes have the classic black-and-white color scheme and lint-attracting rubbery finish, but the white "NARS" is printed on the bottom half of the tube instead of on the lid. Here's an old tube next to Dolce Vita:


And Dolce Vita in my hand for scale:

The lipstick itself, in all its brand-new splendor:

The OG Dolce Vita was a fairly neutral-toned pink, exactly the "dusty rose" of NARS's description. It had a slightly waxy formula that didn't deposit much pigment on my lips but somehow made them look much prettier than usual. In my original review (strong warning for potato-quality photos), I wrote that I considered Dolce Vita "more of a lip-glow product than a full-on lipstick." However, this delicate sheerness was what kept me coming back to Dolce Vita year after year, tube after tube. 

The new Dolce Vita is warmer-toned than the original, more peachy than mauvey, and the formula is significantly wetter-looking and more pigmented. It also feels more moist and balmy on my lips, and it lasts slightly longer, simply because it deposits more product per swipe. The characteristic NARS herbal-tea scent is almost undetectable in the new formula, though it's still there if you really sniff. Here's a swatch:

With some lipsticks in roughly the same color family:

L-R: Urban Decay Lawbreaker, Dolce Vita, MAC Smoked Almond, Revlon Shameless.

I almost never plan a look around Dolce Vita; I'm much more likely to wear it on an otherwise bare face. (In pre-pandemic days, I'd put it on if a fussier lipstick had faded while I was out and I had no time for an intensive refresh, but I haven't found myself in that situation for over a year now.) So I don't actually have a lot of photos of myself wearing Dolce Vita, and most of the ones I do have are uninteresting and/or unflattering because, again, no other makeup. Here's a rare exception from last January; I believe I'm also wearing Glossier Lidstar in Slip and Cloud Paint in Puff.


And here's Dolce Vita worn with just some concealer and damp hair, on a road trip shortly before that:

Does anyone else feel like their face aged significantly in 2020? I swear I look so much more tired now than I did in these photos taken a year ago.

Unfortunately, I don't love the new version of Dolce Vita quite as much as I loved its predecessor: I wish it were a little cooler-toned and a little less pigmented. These quibbles ring a bit hollow when you consider that I've used up almost half the tube in the past year...


...but once I've finished Dolce Vita, I might look for a replacement that's closer to the original. (I think the new NARS Cruising could actually be a match for the old Dolce Vita; pity it's named after a notoriously lurid film that was picketed by gay activists on its release in 1980.) Or maybe I'll just repurchase Dolce Vita and accept that, like so many aspects of our lives post-2020, it's good enough but not quite what it was.

Friday, January 15, 2021

My Ten Most 2020 Beauty Products of 2020

No, that's not a typo in the title. I started this post intending to write a list of my favorite new beauty products of 2020, but soon got bogged down in a Carrie Bradshaw-esque question: what did it mean for a beauty product to be good, let alone a favorite, in 2020? Pre-pandemic, I considered a product good if it lasted all day and looked nice in person, but those two criteria aren't applicable to my current life, in which my only activities outside the house are shopping for necessities and taking one or two walks a day around my practically empty town. (I haven't left Ohio in just over a year.) The products I bought in January and February got subjected to the vicissitudes of normal life, but the rest of my 2020 beauty purchases occupied the same climate-controlled, antisocial bubble that I did. 

Since the pandemic hit, I've oscillated between shopping for my current reality and shopping for my past and future realities. Conventional wisdom dictates that we buy clothes and makeup for the unemployed, flannel-clad person we are now, not for the stylish, financially stable, literary-award-winning dynamo we might be in a year. However, maintaining the vision (illusion?) of a post-pandemic existence has been crucial to my mental health. I need to believe in a future self who is once again working, writing in coffee shops, meeting friends for drinks, and (a prerequisite for everything else) living in a place where I can find ground cumin at the grocery store. Did I need to buy a black velvet blazer and a mini tube of MAC Breathing Fire, a matte hot pink, for that future self? Not really, but I did anyway. But because those future-self products didn't get a fair test, I couldn't justify putting them them on a favorites list.

Meanwhile, the products I bought for my present self weren't especially interesting. For instance, I discovered that CoverGirl Lash Exact is an acceptable but not mind-blowing dupe for Glossier Lash Slick, and I've been wearing it almost every day since late summer. Does it deserve a place on a best-of-2020 list? Were the best products of 2020 the unglamorous ones that improved the days I actually lived through, or the exciting ones that got less wear but made my imagined COVID-free future a little more tangible? Or should I try to split the difference somehow?

After several weeks of cogitation, I decided to throw out the entire idea of a traditional favorites or best-of-year post. Instead, this post will celebrate the products that helped define, or that were defined by, my 2020. I enjoy all of these products, and some could indeed qualify as my favorites of the year, but others stand out to me less because of their high quality than because they remind me of specific moments or phases from our shared annus terribilis. As always, I've listed them in roughly the chronological order in which I bought them, though in a couple of cases, I've bundled together multiple shades of the same formula purchased in different months and counted them as one "item." I've photographed all the items in their current state to give you a sense of how much I've worn them. 

1. Revlon Super Lustrous The Luscious Matte Lipstick in Shameless (February)

Shameless was one of my pre-pandemic purchases, a rich Crawfordian brownish rose that I bought completely on impulse at Ulta. Warm brownish and pinkish lip colors can go very wrong on my cool-toned complexion, but Shameless just works (and works especially well with the amazing '70s paisley blouse I found on Etsy):


Revlon's new Luscious Matte formula has that slightly powdery, siliconey feel of many drugstore mattes, but it's not so powdery that it doesn't adhere securely to the lips. It looks equally great applied at full strength or dabbed on and smudged out, and it's completely scent-free. Shameless earns a place on this list because I wore it constantly in February and March, when I was still teaching in person. Can you believe my students used to come to class sick and cough on me and one another throughout the session and that was just...normal?

2. Urban Decay 24/7 Eye Pencil in Jolt (March)

This eyeliner stands out to me not only because it's chartreuse and chartreuse is roughly two-thirds of my personal brand, but also because I bought it in Cleveland on March 1, 2020, on my last visit to Sephora before the lockdowns began. Jolt was part of Urban Decay's spring collection, which also featured three other neon eyeliners, five shades of Wired Lip Chemistry tints, and an eyeshadow palette similar (but, everyone seemed to agree, inferior) to the legendary Electric Palette. I'd come to Sephora specifically for Jolt, but I couldn't resist picking up a Lip Chemistry tint in X-Ray, a dark plum. I actually tried on a tester of X-Ray, which seems unthinkable now. I remember wiping down the applicator with alcohol and contemplating the new coronavirus, which supposedly hadn't reached Ohio yet (it had, in fact) but was certainly on its way, and reflecting that using a tester of a lip product was possibly a bad idea. That Sephora visit belongs to a different world now, and my memory of it has a fin-de-siècle quality: I can't imagine when, if ever, communal testers will return, or when I'll feel comfortable using one again. I miss wandering the aisles of Sephora, alone or with a friend, and comparing swipes of pink and dabs of glitter. Yet another innocent pleasure that fell victim to 2020. 

The good news is, Jolt is a great eyeliner. I wore colorful eyeliners more than ever in 2020: they were a quick, easy way to brighten my look and my mood. Jolt is a very '70s green, a nice match for brownish lip colors like ColourPop Gallop (below). I find that I need two passes for full opacity, but it glides on smoothly, doesn't clump up when layered, and lasts all day without fading. 

3. Bite Beauty Crystal Crème Shimmer Lip Crayon in Molten Chocolate (March)


Bite decided last year to embrace the bullshit concept of "clean beauty" and discontinue all of its existing lipstick, gloss, and lipliner formulas. I ordered Molten Chocolate at a sizable discount early in the pandemic, when I was vulnerable to stressed-out impulse purchases and not yet inured to the sale prices on almost every shopping site. Buying a metallic burgundy-brown crayon in March, when I knew I wouldn't feel like wearing opaque dark lipsticks until October, somehow seemed reasonable. Luckily, I reined in my impulse spending before long. Also luckily, Molten Chocolate is one of my most flattering lipsticks, if I do say so myself:


In both color and finish, Molten Chocolate reminds me of the long-discontinued NYX Simply Vamp Lip Cream in Enamored, but Bite's formula is far superior (I had to toss Enamored because it was so drying). Molten Chocolate is as moisturizing as the other Bite lipsticks I've tried, but the pigment actually stays put instead of sliding around my lips and face. What a shame that Bite got rid of this excellent formula in the name of becoming The New Face of Clean (TM).

4. Imaginary Authors Cape Heartache (April, though I started wearing it regularly in November/December)

Last month, the New York Times ran an article summarizing beauty trends during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, lipstick sales declined, while skincare, haircare, and nail polish became more popular. So did perfume: a Saks Fifth Avenue vice president noted "a dramatic increase of sales across our fragrance category that has been consistent since the beginning of the pandemic, and shows no sign of softening.” It makes sense: fragrance is a quick mood booster, reminding the quarantined wearer of more pleasant times and surroundings. And whereas a red lipstick or a sparkly eyeshadow looks odd when worn with an old sweatshirt, fragrance looks like nothing, and so suits any outfit. 

I wonder, too, if the new craze for fragrance has to do with the fact that loss of smell and taste is one of the most common COVID symptoms. Surely I'm not the only person who, terrified that my nose might stop working at any moment, developed the habit of compulsively sniffing every fragrance-emitting object in my apartment.

Cape Heartache was one of the three surprise samples that Imaginary Authors included with my order of Saint Julep, which I'd smelled and loved in San Francisco in 2019. Saint Julep is a warm-weather fragrance, its mint, lemon, and vanilla notes reminiscent of a hipster ice cream shop. But in the fall and winter, I started wearing Cape Heartache almost daily. It's a sort of gourmand pine; it makes me feel like I'm eating a stack of pancakes and maple syrup in a treehouse in the Pacific Northwest. It's comforting without being cloying, and I needed that in 2020. Is it kind of basic? Yes, but I needed that, too. There was enough complexity flooding the rest of my life, thank you.

5. Revlon Super Lustrous Glass Shine Lipsticks in Glaring Coral, Glassy Ruby, and Fire & Ice (May-September)

It would take more than a pandemic to kill my love for lipstick, but in 2020 I gravitated toward sheer, moisturizing formulas instead of the bold, opaque satins and mattes that I usually prefer. For some reason, I felt a little pathetic putting on a vivid fuchsia or vampy burgundy lip to sit around the house all day. But if the lipstick had the qualities of a balm, I could persuade myself that I was using it primarily as a balm, which seemed less pathetic. I realize this is completely irrational, but I think most of us came up against the limits of our reason last year.

Anyway, after reading Lena's excellent review of Revlon's new Glass Shine lipsticks in May, I bought two summer-friendly shades: Glaring Coral, a soft orangey coral, and Fire and Ice, a bright coral pink. I wore one of the two almost every day during the summer. As autumn approached, I picked up Glassy Ruby, a deep reddish plum. Here I am wearing Fire and Ice with Urban Decay Jolt and Fenty cream blush in Strawberry Drip:

6. Cirque Colors Retail Therapy and Thirsty (July)


The dominant cultural mode of 2020 was nostalgia. I found myself nostalgic for almost everything in my past (hence my revival of this blog). When Cirque Colors released its neon Vice collection in July, two shades in particular spoke directly to the early-'90s preschooler in me: Retail Therapy, a hot pink, and Thirsty, a refreshing cheap-frozen-margarita green. I had a Barbie dress in those exact colors, plus black and white, circa 1991. As usual with Cirque Colors, the formula is impressive: no need to layer the neons over white, and they last a few days without chipping. And, as bright as the two shades look in these photos, they're even brighter in person.

7. Rituel de Fille Color Nectar Pigment Balm in Bloodflower (August; reviewed here)

In 2020, I learned some harsh truths, including this one: every beauty product that promises to work equally well on eyes, cheeks, and lips is just a cream blush. If it's really good, it's a cream blush that doubles as a lip tint. Bloodflower is really good, which means that I wear it frequently as a cream blush, less frequently as a lip tint, and not at all as an eyeshadow (see my original review for the creasy mess that ensued when I smeared it on my lids). It's not the magical watercolor glaze that Rituel de Fille promised it would be, but it's flattering and fun to use, and that's good enough for me.

8. Pat McGrath Astral Fetish Noir Lip Balm (August; reviewed here)

This product has a lot of confusing, chaotic 2020 energy. It's supposedly a lip balm, but it looks like a cubist sculpture and wears like a lip primer. It's black, but it's also clear. It's usually $36, but I bought it on sale for $12. It's a purely utilitarian product, but its tube is heavy and decorative. I go through lip balms too quickly to justify repurchasing Noir (especially given the bulky, wasteful packaging), but I'm enjoying it while it lasts, and I hope I can figure out some way to reuse the tube.

9. Maybelline ColorSensational Cream Lipstick in Crimson Race (November)

Throughout the summer and fall, groups of middle-aged Trump-friendly bikers took to roaring through town, their engines echoing through the otherwise empty streets, their sound systems blaring shitty rock music because fuck your feelings and your distaste for noise pollution, I guess. My boyfriend and I agreed that if Trump was defeated in November, we would retaliate by driving around town blasting k-pop songs out the window of his 2010 Acura. (This was my idea, obviously.) When the networks declared Biden's victory on the Saturday after Election Day, I ran upstairs and put on a celebratory red lipstick: Maybelline Crimson Race (like the presidential race, get it?), which my mom had sent me as a birthday gift the week before. And then, yes, we got in the Acura and turned up the Blackpink, and it was one of our happiest moments of 2020. HO-HOW YOU LIKE THAT, BITCHES?

Maybelline reformulated the classic ColorSensational cream formula in 2020, and I'm very impressed with the result. Color-wise, Crimson Race reminds me of Revlon Cherries in the Snow; formula-wise, though, it actually reminds me of Bésame's lipsticks. Look at that soft, plumping shine:

10. Urban Decay 24/7 Eye Pencil in Wildside (November)

Every year around Thanksgiving, I start wearing my sparkly makeup and combing the internet for even more sparkly makeup. That urge was especially strong in 2020, despite my having zero social events to attend. I ran out of Urban Decay Primer Potion right before the Black Friday sale, and I couldn't resist adding this glittery rose gold eyeliner to my shopping cart. I had a feeling that the pinkish color would bring out the green in my eyes, and I was right! Like Jolt, Wildside lasts all day, and it produces minimal glitter fallout. People on Reddit complain that Urban Decay is going downhill, but I've been buying the 24/7 pencils and Vice lipsticks for years and they haven't let me down yet.


And that, finally, is it for this post! In the coming weeks, I'll be reviving my Lipstick Chronology series and writing short reviews of all the lipsticks I bought in 2020. I'll try to post a review every Friday, though that schedule might change if I happen to find a job. Here's to a better year than the last!