Reader Questions: A Beginning Makeup Kit

Anonymous writes:

So I always kind of imagined makeup to be a purely about practice, and I just haven't been assed to learn. So starting from absolute point zero, what do you think should be included in sort of a beginners starting kit? (And how much should you expect to pay for it?)

I keep thinking this one over, and I may be the wrong person to ask. I inherited all of my starter kit from my mother, who has terrible taste, and from a friend of mine in high school whose aunt was a former beauty queen and current Mary Kay sales rep. It was rather eclectic, to put it mildly.

The second question is easier to answer than the first. You should expect to pay whatever your local Walgreens, CVS or Rite Aid charges for the stuff. Makeup is much like shampoo and conditioner, in that there are three main price brackets: Unusable crap, perfectly serviceable, and ridiculous mark-up. Drugstore brands like Maybelline, Revlon, Cover Girl, Almay, L'Oréal, Neutrogena, etc., all work fine. A couple of bucks up in the serviceable price bracket are Physician's Formula, which specializes in hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic stuff if you need it; Rimmel of London, whose palette tends to be limited but whose kohl wax eyeliner crayons are tough to beat if you are serious about rocking the emo-raccoon look; and Milani, which specializes in Topshop-levels of creative glitter application. I'd be a bit wary of N.Y.C., which is basically Tinkerbell for grown-ups; the quality varies, and anything in powder form tends to wear like crap, but my favorite liquid liner is N.Y.C., and they make some of the best cheap-ass mascara for getting proper retro poker-straight Twiggy lashes. Some places also carry celebrity niche brands, like Salma Hayek's Nuance line, and Katy Perry eyelashes and nail wear; they're fine, but not really exceptional.

The only possible exception to this is foundation. It's pretty rare to actually be allergic to ingredients in makeup, but since foundation goes all over your face and is specifically meant to be spackled over places that are ruddy, spotty, or otherwise uneven, if something in your kit makes you break out in an embarrassing zitty rash, that's likely to be it. If you have tried all the major drugstore brands and you can't find a foundation that's both comfortable to wear and pleasant to look at, you may wish to jump into the $25-35 bracket, like MAC or Urban Decay or Lush -- the stuff you find in department stores and boutiques dedicated to cosmetics. It looks like an awful price for such a tiny bottle, but you don't go through it very quickly, and even the liquid kind, properly stored, will keep for quite a long time.

Do not worry about spending a million dollars going through eighty iterations of what turns out to be the wrong thing. As far as I am aware, all drugstores will take back opened cosmetics with receipt within 1-2 weeks of purchase. They vary as to whether they ask you why it's coming back, but no one has ever argued with me for answering either, "wrong color," or, "unwearable crap". Most of the time they'll let you exchange straight across for same brand/same price/different color, and they'll do a proper return for something that's a different price or different brand from the one you're bringing back. I've had a mercifully brief retail career, but both stores I worked at just chucked opened cosmetics into the "defects" bin and let the manufacturer sort it out -- they're not really fussed, because they don't eat the cost.

Other than that, the idea is pretty much just to own a minimum of one of each kind of thing. The various types of pigment include:

  • Foundation
  • Setting powder
  • Blusher/bronzer
  • Eyeshadow
  • Eyeliner
  • Mascara
  • Eyebrow pencil
  • Lip liner
  • Lip color
And the basic implements used to apply them are:
  • Blusher brush
  • Sponges
  • Powder puff
  • Eyeshadow brush
  • Eyeliner brush
The good news is, if you need an applicator for something, that something will usually come with one. Powder foundations come with little kabuki brushes (like a blusher brush, only shorter and stiffer), setting powder comes with a little velveteen pad, powder eyeshadows come with those little foam things, mascara tubes have their own wands, gel eyeliner comes with its own stylus, etc. If there's no applicator included, it's possible for you to either smear it directly on your face (lipstick, eyeliner pencils) or use your fingers (liquid foundation, cream blusher). Makeup isn't so fussy that you can't fix stuff with maybe a Q-tip, some tissues, and a little ingenuity.

The bad news is, the included applicators are usually total crap. You would be about a million times better off walking five feet further down the makeup displays and coughing up $10 for a set of makeup brushes. Usually this includes a blusher brush (the big fat one with long bendy bristles), one or two eyeshadow brushes (long skinny handles, short squarish bristles with a soft/rounded edge), an eyeliner brush (long skinny handle, with a sharp chisel tip), and often some foam sponges and maybe one of those daft things with a tiny stiff flat brush on one end and a tiny plastic comb on the other. (The brush is for brushing your eyebrows flat. No, I'm not kidding. The comb is for separating eyelashes that have gotten stuck together with mascara. I don't think I've ever used one.) Some also have a lipstick brush, which is a thinner version of the eyeshadow brush used for, sensibly enough, painting on lip color, if yours happens to come in a pot or has been mashed at the tip or would otherwise be difficult to control.

Unfortunately, I can't tell you what colors to buy, because I don't know what you look like and I don't know what you want to look like when you're done. Personally, I kind of buy this stuff kind of at random, and when I am bored I spend an evening at home getting classy as fuck to see how well it wears. I happen to have a good excuse for this, which is that it's valuable research for work, but I find "I felt like it" works just as well if nosy people decide to interrogate you as to why you are wearing nightclub-level face paint with your pajamas. YouTube actually has a lot of very good tutorials for different looks; if you sit down and watch them, they usually tell you exactly what you need to do whatever they're teaching, and that would probably give you a better idea of specifics than I could guess at.


  1. When I started out caring about makeup, I paid for one of those drugstore-brand makeup palettes. Eyeshadow, blusher/bronzer, lip gloss, dinky little brushes and a tiny mascara. That gave me enough to play with, figure out what look[s] I was interested in, and then gradually fill in the gaps with decent quality kit. It helps that I could get recommendations on brands from my dancer buddies, so I've mostly avoided the "thirty different eyeliner attempts until I find a variety I actually like" - it took six instead, oh well - but I now have a makeup box I actually like, which I know how to apply; and I have spent many evenings pratting about trying both normal and stage looks out for size.


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