Two years ago, while testing makeup palettes for the Cut, I stumbled across my cosmetic soul mate: Laura Mercier’s Tinted Moisturizer Crème Compact in Nude, a solid “moisturizer” that functioned as a light cream foundation. It was silky and weightless, and matched my skin perfectly. I threw away every other foundation, powder, and concealer. All I needed was my Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer Crème Compact. Everywhere I went, the TMC (as we loyalists call it) came with me. It didn’t even require a Ziploc to get through airport security! It was my miracle makeup.
And then Laura Mercier discontinued it.
The loss of a beloved beauty product is, I realize, the pinnacle of “first world problems.” And yet I do live in the first world, a place where I am expected to subject my body to certain correctives, if I am to fit in and function meaningfully. I bathe and use deodorant, so that my scent is not foul. I floss and drink fluoridated water, so that my mouth does not offend. On this path to presentable personal grooming, we each accrue a set of consumer products — combs, razors, creams, potions — that add up to a sort of talisman, physical objects that must be touched, ritualistically, at regular intervals to make our days go well.
And if you are even slightly inclined toward obsessive behavior (as I am), then the loss of even one talisman can send your daily life into chaos. As my go-to makeup counters began to sell out of the TMC, I turned to increasingly dodgy online marketplaces to get my fix. At one point, I stooped so low as to purchase four sample-size mini-compacts — each featuring 0.09 ounces of makeup — for $45 each, the same price as a full-size compact. I was paying $500 per ounce of makeup, and I could not stop. Shopping for a new foundation is like shopping for a new bra or basic jeans — a demoralizing, exhausting process that forces you to stare into a too-bright mirror acknowledging everything you hate about your appearance. And even when you think you’ve found it, you might not know for another week whether the new product works — whether this new foundation will clog your pores, or that bra will snag on sweaters, or those jeans will slowly unzip while you walk. Who can deal with that? Better to spend exorbitant amounts of money clinging to the one thing I already know works, I reasoned.
“This makes me sound like a complete lunatic,” Molly Sonsteng said, laughing when a mutual friend introduced us. Molly is a 33-year-old creative consultant who lives in Fort Greene and has been hoarding Berry Heavenly Lipsmackers since 2002, when mainstream retailers stopped stocking the flavor she’d favored since age 10. She currently has more than 50 tubes of the discontinued balm in her at-home stockpile.
“After Target stopped selling it, I went directly to the distributor and ordered 20 tubes at a time,” Sonsteng recalled. “I had the number direct to Bonne Bell saved in my cell phone.” She went through one tube every two weeks, and stashed backup tubes everywhere she went. “When I made the final call in 2009 to place my regular order and learned the product was discontinued, I asked them to send me the remaining 50 tubes. Once delivered, I had roughly 100 tubes left.” At the time, each tube lasted Sonsteng about two weeks. She knew the stockpile couldn’t last forever; she had to quit. Besides, Berry Heavenly was messing up her adult love life: “Before kissing my husband, I always had to wipe the chapstick off my mouth so he wasn’t left with a glittery beard.”
As far as makeup-hoarding side effects go, glittery beards are not so bad. The most frequent casualty occurs in your wallet — like when your foundation’s price-per-ounce ratio approaches the price of gold. Lipsmackers cost less than $2 per tube, so Molly’s addiction was relatively cheap. Other beauty-product hoarders have had it worse: Before Chanel reissued Black Satin — the nail polish that drove Sarah Michelle Gellar to theft — at least one Park Avenue princess flew to Paris to buy six bottles. Monogram, a short-lived Ralph Lauren cologne from the ‘80s, is currently on sale for $595 on eBay. Some discontinued products have followings in the collectibles market — MAC’s limited-edition celebrity-themed lines, for instance, or this steel-gray lipstick from the late ‘90s, priced at $845 on eBay “for the SERIOUS MAC COLLECTOR.” Meanwhile, a surprisingly active network of discontinued-beauty merchants thrive online. Websites like Discontinued Beauty and Overstock Makeup cater alternately to nostalgia and obsession, while a sprawling array of eBay vendors deal “rare,” “vintage,” and “exclusive” wares. Maybelline’s roll-on Kissing Potion lip gloss, which peaked in popularity in the ‘80s, still appears with alarming frequency on eBay.
Though the hoarding is ostensibly about the product — “I don’t know why they discontinued this!” is a frequent refrain on Makeup Alley — after years of obsessive stockpiling, the hoard itself sometimes takes a life of its own. After eight years of discontinuity, Helmut Lang reissued its namesake perfume in 2014. And though the new line is virtually identical to the cult classic — designed by the same French perfumer who invented the fragrance in 1995 — decades-old bottles of the original elixir are still selling on eBay for nearly double the price. The only noticeable difference is the packaging.
Product-hoarding, I realized, is self-reinforcing: The act of hoarding encourages your reliance on the stockpile. Three years ago, I fell in love with a limited-edition Vaseline Lip Therapy called Pink Bubbly. “It’s all about letting your lips enjoy a champagne lifestyle,” one product description read. “Petroleum jelly with a hint of decadence,” said the label, as though advertising an elder-care brothel. Initially sold only at Selfridges, Pink Bubbly was an instant (if embarrassing) cult hit, and the fear of scarcity drove me to purchase it in bulk. Since I had so much of it, Pink Bubbly immediately became the only lip balm I used. When the hoard finally ran low, I discovered that Pink Bubbly had been reissued — and, it seemed, in production continuously. Naturally, this is a great relief, because I’m completely hooked on the stuff. But do I love Pink Bubbly, or am I merely accustomed to it? In other words: Am I a makeup loyalist, or the victim of makeup Stockholm Syndrome?
To find out, I returned to Molly Sonsteng, who kicked her Berry Heavenly Lipsmackers habit last summer. How did she do it? “I suddenly realized how foul the chapstick was and just decided to be done with it,” she replied. Wait, what? After 20-plus years of compulsive sparkly Lipsmackers use, I asked, you went cold turkey? “It took me a few tries to really kick the habit,” she conceded. “There wasn’t a momentous occasion that inspired its final demise. I just decided to be done with it and it’s been seven months since I’ve used it.” Now she uses a cocoa-butter chapstick.
I responded with a link to Pink Bubbly, half hoping to ensnare her in a new addiction. “Have you ever had obsessive or hoarding tendencies in other areas of life?” I asked. “Initially, I thought this story was just about makeup, but then I realized I’ve been hoarding all kinds of products for years.” With fondness, I recalled Coca-Cola’s brief introduction of Diet Coke with Vitamins. (Everyone said I was killing myself with Diet Coke, and I superstitiously believed “with Vitamins” would save me.) I’ve been buying the same jeans since 2005. (If J Brand goes out of business, I will go naked.) Perhaps product-stockpiling is a personality trait — some late-stage capitalist manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or fear of abandonment, or doomsday prepper-ism? When I reached out to Laura Mercier, a very patient publicist explained the company is in the midst of launching a new set of foundations they think I will enjoy — but the thought of changing my routine permanently so horrified me that, instead of rejoicing, I ordered six more compacts of the Tinted Moisturizer Crème Compact from the last department store in North Carolina that happened to have my color.
“I am obsessed with a certain pen,” Molly admitted when I asked if she had any other product obsessions. “I refuse to use anything else and don’t let anyone else use it. It’s a tiny archival pen in black. I buy them in bulk and have them in every handbag and backpack.” She then provided a link to the Sakura Pigma Micron, a fine-tipped pen with waterproof ink. After marveling at its product description, I bought a pack.
And then, just to be safe, I bought another.