How to make Hollywood’s most iconic beauty look—the red lip—confidently and effortlessly yours? Naturally, we have some suggestions.


Photography ByGUY AROCH

When it comes to the transformational power of makeup, nothing comes close to red lipstick. Truly a millennia-spanning classic, Cleopatra understood its statement-making impact just as well as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does: a crimson pout signals sophistication, confidence, and self-knowledge. The fact that it’s also magnetically sexy? That’s just a bonus. In fact, the magic of the red lip is its surprising versatility. There’s a reason the same color that was worn by suffragettes as a symbol of defiance could also be come-hither sex-symbol shorthand in Old Hollywood: a vibrant swipe of scarlet can be read a million different ways. It can be dressed-up and ladylike, French-girl chic, politically potent, or subversive and rock’n’roll—it all comes down to the attitude with which you wear it—as evidenced in veteran journalist and author Rachel Felder’s book, Red Lipstick: An Ode to a Beauty Icon.

This isn’t to say a ruby lip is easy. A bold, pigmented red takes more work, and maintenance, than most other shades. Like all the best things in life and in beauty, though, it’s worth the extra effort. Here, the VIOLET GREY guide to getting it right.


First of all, if you’re someone who thinks you can’t wear red lipstick, think again. There’s a shade out there to make any complexion bloom. And while, as makeup artist Daniel Martin says, “blue-based reds are flexible on so many skintones,” you can pretty much forget about trying to be all scientific with the color wheel. “I say no to rules!” says makeup artist Katey Denno. “Picking a red is 100% about testing.” And when you find the right one, you’ll know: “The color will play well with your eye color, the highlights and lowlights in your hair, your teeth color, and your natural lip color.”


There are more formulations under the sun than we can possibly tally, from silky finishes to mega-mattes to velvety chubby sticks to high-gloss liquids. When choosing something as finicky as a red, put your money where your mouth is. “Find a formula that you’re comfortable wearing for hours, rather than something that’s trendy or of the moment,” says Martin. “It really depends on your lips,” adds Denno. “If you have super full lips that aren’t wrinkly, you’re a queen and can basically wear any texture. For those with lines into which color bleeds, super moisturizing sticks won’t stay so well and a more matte or satin matte would be better.” Ultimately, though, she says, “When it comes to picking a red, it so depends on your personality. A glossy, opaque red is definitely not for everyone, but it might be for you, and the only way to know is to try.”


Trust us, this is key. Nothing reveals flaky, dry lips like red lipstick. The condition of your mouth will affect everything, from how smoothly the lipstick glides on to how long it lasts without fading or smearing. The first essential step is exfoliation. “I suggest doing it in the shower when lip skin is moist,” says Denno. “Either use a fine grain washcloth or a soft toothbrush and gently scrub along lips (particularly the inner part of the bottom lip).” (We also recommend By Terry Baume de Rose Lip Scrub.) For a quicker fix when you don’t have time to shower, Martin recommends resting a hot washcloth on lips for 30 seconds, then scrubbing away any dead skin. Afterwards, slather on a favorite lip balm to seal in hydration.


After you’ve exfoliated and moisturized, blot any excess balm with a tissue (or powderless blotting papers like the ones from Tatcha) before you start applying color, says Martin. “This helps lock down the pigment without interruption of emollients.” In other words, the color will stick to your lips instead of smearing away with the balm, which can also dilute the intensity of your chosen hue and make it bleed at the edges. For the truest color, Martin says, “I then like to cancel out the natural lip tone by using a little foundation. This helps grab the lipstick and isn’t as heavy as canceling out with concealer.”

When it comes to application method, the choice is yours, but most makeup artists prefer to slick lipstick on directly from the tube. “I always have my clients do this,” says Martin, “because then they can understand the opacity and finish.”

Denno’s recipe for precision is multi-step: “Lately I’ve been really into a sharp-edged red, which can be accomplished by using a sharp lip liner to draw the outline and lightly fill in the entire lip. Then I like to press a similar shade of lipstick on top, use a tissue to remove any excess oils, and then apply another layer of product from the tube.” For a softer-focus effect, she suggests using the “finger-tap method”—tapping a finger onto the lipstick, than onto lips to dab on diffuse color.


Once your color is complete, clean up any stray smears with concealer or a makeup-remover-dabbed cotton bud. Martin finishes with a tracing of lip liner around the perimeter of the lips “to tighten up and strengthen the shape. If it’s too jarring, blot with tissue and then soften the lip line edges with a brush.”


No one wants that donut-effect, where color wears away at the center of the mouth but stays vivid around the edges. Applying a lip liner over the whole mouth underneath lipstick can help keep color even, or layering loose translucent powder—applied with a big fluffy brush like this one from Utowa—either between coats of lipstick or as a final dusting “locks in the pigment,” Martin says, so it won’t move… even when you’re talking, laughing, eating, drinking, and otherwise living your best red lipstick life.