How Do You Buy Lipstick Online When You Can’t Try It On?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Dear Beauty Editor,

How can I tell if a lipstick will look good on me when purchasing it online? 


It’s hard to figure out which lipstick colors look good on you. Even Lisa Eldridge, a makeup artist with tetrachromacy — the ability to see more colors than the average human — relies on a process of trial and error when she’s evaluating lipsticks. “You know when it doesn’t work, because you put it on and your skin looks drab,” she says. But that’s the problem with online shopping: trying and erring costs time and (without free shipping or a good return policy) money. Although I don’t have any hard-and-fast rules to help you, there are some soft guidelines that will improve your shopping success rate.

To begin, it helps to learn how digitally rendered colors compare to their real-life counterparts. Take one of your favorite lipsticks, swatch it on your inner arm, then go on a website where it’s sold and compare how it looks on your skin to the online swatches, suggests Alexis Adroulakis, a beauty educator (she’s one half of @thelipsticklesbians on TikTok) with extensive experience in product development. “For me, the swatch photos are like that first Tinder photo — it’s a baseline to see if you want to explore further,” she says.

If possible, check out the lip color you know and love on different retail websites (Amazon, Sephora, Ulta, Credo), different models, and different screens (your phone versus a computer monitor). This may be a daunting process — the hue will probably look different in many of the photos.But hopefully you’ll be able to make some general observations, like “My skin tone makes colors appear cooler in person than they do online,” or “My phone screen darkens everything a shade or two.” The point of this exercise isn’t to look for new colors you may like but to train your brain to correct for the visual inconsistencies you’ll see shopping online.

Next, be realistic about the type of lip product you’re looking for online. If you’ve never worn an opaque coral lipstick, you may want to experiment with that shade in store first. But if you know you generally look great in a plummy lip color that’s slightly darker than your natural lip color, that’ll be easier to shop for online.

Once you have a general color family in mind, consider the formula of the product. The opacity and moisture content will affect the way the hue looks IRL, explains Androulakis. Lip colors that are described as balms, tints, sheers, and semi-satins are less opaque than lip colors described as satins, creams, mattes, or longwears, so your natural lip tone will affect those shades more significantly. If you have a naturally mauve or purplish tint to your lips and you choose a sheer product, it’s going to read — you guessed it — more mauvey purple than it does in the tube.

I’d love to be able to give you a clear directive, like “If your skin has warm undertones, you’ll look best in lip colors with warm undertones,” but color selection is an art, not a science. That said, I’ve found that bold reds and sheer berry browns are typically easier to buy online than nudes, corals, pinks, and plums. M.A.C Retro Matte in Ruby Woo and Lisa Eldridge True Velvet Lip Color in Velvet Ribbon are deep reds with an ever-so-slightly bluish undertone that look good on everyone. Poppy King Original Sin is another one that’s universally flattering; it’s a blue-tinged ruby red with a barely noticeable warm metallic sheen that has a brightening effect. And there’s a reason Clinique Black Honey is a viral sensation; it’s sheer and deepens your natural lip color without pulling too warm or too cool — almost the same effect you’d get if you added one drop of red, blue, and yellow (a.k.a., the three components of brown) to a color. E.l.f.’s Hydrating Core Lip Shine in Ecstatic is another transparent, balmy, your-lips-but-better brownish berry that complements many skin tones.

As you consider all of the factors above (no easy feat, I know!), consider where you’re shopping and take advantage of the tools and deals many companies provide to make the shopping experience easier. Sites like Maybelline, Revlon, Bobbi Brown, and NYX Cosmetics offer virtual try-on services, and the YouCam Makeup app allows you to virtually try on lip colors from Estée Lauder, Julep, and Pixi. I also love companies that sell minis and sample packs (Kosas sells a sample card of its Lip Fuel tints for $5 and it comes with a $5 site credit to put toward whatever you decide to buy in a full size).

My final piece of advice: Don’t get too stuck on getting it right. Makeup is supposed to be fun. Lipstick should make you feel good. “I truly do believe that anybody can wear any color; they just have to play around with the undertones of the shade and the formula,” says Androulakis. If you buy something you don’t like, prime your lips with a clear balm, then dab on the color with a finger to sheer it out and see if you like it better that way. But if you still don’t like it, and you can’t return it, don’t throw it away! Androulakis has a better idea: Plan a makeup swap with friends and family. Buy some disposable applicators and 70 percent isopropyl alcohol for disinfecting, then trade amongst yourselves. “Instead of always buying and returning, that will encourage exploration in a fun new way.”

Universally Flattering Lip Colors

These shades work on an array of complexions.

Bluish undertones and a whisper of flattering brown give this matte red a retro vibe.

This super-pigmented true red has a barely noticeable dose of blue-fuchsia that makes teeth look whiter.

This red works on almost everyone by combining cool-blue and warm-coral undertones with a subtle metallic sheen.

This is basically your lip color but with a slightly deeper tone and a more hydrated finish.

A glossy, brownish-plum balm that you don’t need a mirror to apply.

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How Do You Buy Lipstick Online When You Can’t Try It On?