Ask Belle: Starting Out with Makeup

Jan 29, 2013

Hi Belle,

First, I love your blog, and I especially enjoy your beauty advice for the professional woman. I’m 35 this year and I don’t wear makeup at all beyond a little coloured lip balm for weddings, etc.  Now that I’m getting a little older I’d like to do something to look more polished at the office but I don’t really know where to start.  Using your archive for advice, I’m going to narrow my start into the world of makeup to mascara, tinted moisturizer, eyebrow grooming, blush and maybe a lip stain?

Any advice or suggestions that you have would be much appreciated. Having missed the makeup boat in my teens, I feel like I’m at a real disadvantage here.

Thanks again, Melanie

Six months ago, this question would have left me aghast.  “Who doesn’t wear makeup?,” I would have said.  But over the past few months, I’ve met a number of women of all ages who either never started wearing makeup or who only wear it for special occasions.  

When the New York Times published an article entitled “Up the Career Ladder, Lipstick in Hand,” revealing that women who wore just the right amount of makeup to work were seen as more competent and trustworthy, I sent it to almost a dozen colleagues, friends and relatives.  But if you’ve never worn makeup before, it can be difficult to know where to begin.

In college, I applied my makeup with a trowel.  But as I grew older and had less time to spend primping, I pared the process down to something I like to call Everyday Plus.  It is a basic makeup routine with just a little bit more polish.

1. The Base Layer. I like NARS Oil Free Pro Prime ($32) because it holds makeup like liquid Velcro.  Even in the humid D.C. summers, my makeup never moves.  I also have friends who swear by Make Up For Ever HD Perfecting Primer because it comes in special formulas to combat ashiness, add radiance or conceal rosacea.  If you’d like something a bit cheaper, Maybelline makes an Age Rewind primer for ($9) and Smashbox sells their Photofinish Primer for ($15).

On top of the primer, I like a light foundation like this Clinique BB Cream ($37).  I’ve also used this Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer ($43).  And if you want a starter kit that includes all of the essentials (primer, tinted moisturizer, concealer and powder, plus brushes), try this Laura Mercier kit from Sephora ($65).  Like the idea of a kit but need more coverage than a tinted moisturizer provides?  Try this Mercier kit with cream foundation and pressed powder plus all the rest.  (This book would also be great for traveling.)

I apply the primer and foundation with a press and wiggle motion that I found on Birchbox’s website.  It helps give skin an airbrushed look even when it’s less than perfect.

2. Conceal. I use Laura Mercier Secret Camouflage concealer ($30) with her special brush, which acts like a laser to cover acne and other spots.  I’ve also used Benefit Boing concealer ($20), it’s pretty good too.  Not cakey, blends well.  Need something under-$10? Try Revlon Photo Ready Concealer.

I only have one tip for applying concealer: pat, don’t rub or smear.  Patting on concealer will help it stay in place and cover properly, rubbing it on will only move it around.

3. Blush. A little pop of color on the cheeks wakes up the face and makes everyone look more rested and a bit lighter.  I like Bobbi Brown’s Pale Pink blush ($25), just a pop on the cheeks with her specially-made blush brush ($50) is just what I need in the morning.  If your wallet needs something friendlier, Ulta makes some nice brushes for a nice price, and I’ve always liked Sonia Kashuk makeup from Target.

4. Eyeshadow. When you’re just starting out, the smartest thing you can do is buy a palette of shades that you like.  You need a light shade for a highlight, a slightly deeper shade for a base and a darker shade for accent.  This palette from Stila ($39) has everything you need.  Urban Decay also makes a great palette of earth tones for $50.  NYX makes a lip and eye palette for $25, and Nordstrom makes an Urban Decay-like palette for $19.

If you don’t need a palette, I use Stila Oasis as a base (it’s a light gold shimmer), Stila Chinois for a highlighter and Stila Poise as my accent shade. As for application, I use something similar to this guide found on Pinterest.  I use my fingers to apply, the ring finger since it’s the weakest, but I’ve been thinking about switching to brushes since I read that using your fingers can weaken skin and exacerbate wrinkles.

5. Line and Define.  Once the eyeshadow is on, I line my eyes (only the top lid, because I have under eye darkness).  I use a liquid liner, but for beginners, I think a pencil, esp. a retractable one, is easier.  Choose the shade based on the look you’re trying to achieve.  For maximum impact, choose black.  I like the way dark purple coordinates with my regular purple shadow.  And if you prefer a natural look, try grey or brown.

As for how to wear it, I like a light winged look.  Some women who want something natural looking tight line their eyes to give them just a bit of definition but it can be intimidating because it requires getting very close to the eye.  If you’re clueless about liner make an appt. at a local Sephora or beauty counter and ask a pro how to teach you to match your eye shape.

The one element that most women overlook when doing their makeup is the eyebrows.  Filling them in can really frame the face and define the eyes.  I love the YBF pencil because it allows me to draw small, fine strokes.  For more information on how to line them properly, click here.

Lastly, you add a coat of mascara, I like Max Factor, but it’s not available in the States anymore.  CoverGirl LashBlast is my second choice.  I think very black mascara looks best on most women, and with a little wiggle, you can catch every lash.

6. Setting.  Once you’ve done all of this hard work, you want your makeup to stay in place right.  Not having perfect skin, I apply a bit of mineral pressed powder at Step 2, but it’s too much makeup for most.  So I recommend a little translucent powder at the end to hold it in place like Make Up For Ever Diamond Powder ($25) or Revlon Photo Ready ($13).  If you hate powder but still want a smooth, matte, stay-all-day finish, you can try Mally Poreless Face Defender for $40.  It’s my next makeup purchase.

This makeup routine sounds like a lot to some people, but it takes me exactly nine minutes from start to finish.  Eleven if I have a lot of acne that day.  And it looks like one step above every day natural makeup, I’m done but not too done up.  But every woman has to find her right process, so if this is too much for you, feel free to pare back a bit or add, if you think it’s not enough.  Just don’t add too much, the study mentioned above found that there was a fine line between professional and too glamorous.

If you have any tips, tricks or favorite products that you want to rave about, leave your thoughts in the comments.

Ask The Edit, Makeup

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  1. gingerr says:

    I am a fan of L'Oreal long-wearing lipstick. It comes in two tubes, one with color, the other with a shiny balm. If I wear nothing else I put that on.

  2. ChinaRette says:

    I've worn makeup daily since my early teens and thought I did a good job with application, but people often remarked that I didn't look like I was wearing any. However, my goal was to look polished (like the “professional” photo in the NYT article)–not overdone, but not barefaced. I've since revamped my routine so there's a little more color and staying power.

    The main things that helped me amp up my look were: primer (especially for the eyelids, but also face primer), eyebrow pencil and lipliner. The primer helps all my makeup stay on longer–less rub-off. The eyebrow pencil helps shape my brows, which are thick but plucked and a little sparse in places. Penciling them lightly gives a stronger, more polished look (I use Anastasia's mechanical brow pencil now. but that's $$ so I will probably try the Ulta one you recommended). Finally, my lips are pale, so lipliner and matching lipstick (Laura Mercier Sheer Lipcolor in Baby Lips) give some definition and pop. Those products, in addition to my regular concealer/eyeshadow/eyeliner/mascara/blush/powder, help create a natural yet polished look and help my makeup stay on all day. It sounds like a lot, but when you do it every day it takes only 5-10 minutes. If my skin is ruddy or if I really want to look “done”, I'll use a little Laura Mercier cream foundation as well.

  3. saba says:

    I've only read the question and the first two paragraphs of the answer so far, but I felt compelled to thank you as this is just what I need as a non-makeup wearer. Okay, back to reading and learning 🙂

  4. CAM says:

    I love this. Belle, or others, how do you know if you 'need' to wear foundation or tinted moisturizer? My skin is usually pretty clear, but is this something everyone would benefit from? Thanks–!

  5. Jennifer says:

    My routine is much simpler:
    1) tinted moisturizer or BB cream; something very light coverage
    2) blush (I only have 1, because finding a “pink” blush or a “rose” blush that look natural with my skin tone is impossible)
    3) mascara (I curl lashes first)
    4) powder in nose and forehead to control shine

    It can be done in about 2 minutes, and the only step I look in the mirro rto do is the mascara. I certainly have eyeliner and eyeshadow, which I use for night-time or special occassions, but since I wear glasses most of the time eyeshadow feels like a waste for everyday. I do have a few tinted lip balms and lipsticks that go on sheer but extra coats give more intense color, like fresh's coral and clinique's black honey, that live in my bag or desk. At some point I might need to start using lip liner, but for now the sheer colors don't bleed.

    Don't be afraid to start out small if you don't currently wear makeup; sometimes just blush and masacara can make a startling difference and quick steps are easier to incorporate into your morning routine at first.

  6. E says:

    For work I use a primer, mineral powder, mineral bronzer on my cheeks, eye liner, neutral or shimmer shadow, mascara, and fill in my brows. For going out on the town I do all that with bolder eye shadow OR neutral shadow and bolder lips. I've been loving Channel lipstick in “Rogue Allure Velvet” #37. It's a cross between coral and magenta and really packs a punch.

  7. Katy says:

    This is a lot for a beginner.

    I'd start with Laura Mercier tinted moisturizer, Clinique mascara (the kind that is removed with hot water so you don't smudge) either Tarte cheek stain or Nars orgasm blush, and a lip gloss.

    Eye shadow/liner/concealer/primer/setting powder can all be added later if you're enjoying the first steps.

  8. I’ve been struggling to find makeup that doesn’t smudge or wear-off quickly for SO long. After a while of searching, I think I’ve finally found a couple great product. I’ve been using a Sephora brightening concealer stick, Bare Minerals foundation powder, and Urban decay 24/7 glide-on eyeliner pencil for a while now and I absolutely LOVE them!

    Due to my insistence on not sleeping, I tend to have huge bags under my eyes. The concealer/foundation combo covers that up and makes me look super awake all day at work! I feel so much more professional now that I look the part a little more.

    They’re all fairly expensive, running at $18, $28, and $19, respectively, but they last all day without wearing, and I don’t anticipate having to buy them more than once every 6-8 months or so. By far my favorite makeup products ever!

  9. AC says:

    I only started wearing makeup on a regular basis a couple of years ago. I like tinted moisturizer because it often feels lighter than foundation. Coming from a relative “beginner” in the makeup world (someday I will master a smoky-eye…SOMEDAY), my favorite product is the Illuminating Tint & Conceal from the brand Pixi (available at Target and online). It includes a concealer stick at the top and in the tube it contains the tinted moisturizer–it's very light, good for sensitive skin, and leaves my skin looking glowy and “put together”. I then use the Pixi finishing powder to complete the facial look. After that, I just swipe on some eyeliner, mascara, and light blush to complete the look (I recommend Benefit Cosmetics, they have kiosks at Macy's and their new mascara called “They're Real!” is AMAZING).

  10. J says:

    For my everyday work look I use Clinique BB Cream, Bare Minerals Mineral Veil powder, a neutral eye shadow, black/brown mascara, and rose tinted lip balm. It takes less than 5 minutes to apply, looks professional, and lasts all day. For a more glamorous night/weekend look I use a bolder eye shadow, eyeliner, brow liner, and lipstick.

  11. Katherine says:

    Some product recommendations – I like Tarte Smooth Operator tinted moisturizer, a tubing mascara like Blinc or Clinique Lash Power – they are subtle, don't smudge and wash off easily with warm water – and Lancome's brow pencil. The one from Hourglass looks great but I haven't tried it yet. I would spend a little money and go somewhere really good for a brow shaping – Erwin Gomez or the guy at Blue Mercury in Georgetown – then maintain the line yourself. Tweezerman slanted tweezers are great. Good tools make a huge difference so you probably want to get a nice blush brush to start. Laura Mercier, Bobbi Brown and Trish McEvoy make good ones. Real Techniques is a nice, very reasonably priced line of brushes but unfortunately their blush brush isn't great – way too big – but keep them in mind for other brushes you might want down the line. I don't think you need to worry about eye shadow or eyeliner at this point. You can add them later if you are enjoying wearing makeup. Tinted lip balms might be a good place to start – Fresh makes a really nice line of them and I know Belle has recommended them in the past. I think nails are a big part of looking well groomed too. Essie Mademoiselle and Sugar Daddy are both pretty and professional and easy to apply yourself. If you need a powder to reduce shine, the new Nars light reflecting ones look good. Have fun with it!

  12. G says:

    Any suggestions on a lipstick that last all day at work? I have given up on lipstick because by 9AM it has worn off. Some all-day types I have tried but they dry out my lips and the color flakes off. I don't have the time to go reapply every hour in the bathroom so I am curious how others get their color to last until lunch time at least?

  13. JS says:

    I am a fan of quick and easy makeup (i recently started wearing primer b/c my makeup was wearing off throughout the day). Some of the products are more expensive but, in my case, the quality was worth it
    1. Primer- Sephora Primer
    2. Tinted Moisturizer- Nars or Laura Mercier (i HATE foundation and have found tinted moisturizer to be a much better alternative)
    3. Concealer/Under Eye- Makeup Forever
    4. Bronzer/Blush- Nars Bronzer and Blush
    5. Finish off with Armani Eyes to Kill mascara
    (if you wanna take the extra step add urban decay pencil liner–it is incredible + a good lipgloss)

  14. Katherine says:

    CAM – if you feel comfortable without foundation or tinted moisturizer, then you probably don't need it. Maybe try a tinted moisturizer or BB cream (as someone in the other post said, American BB creams are essentially just TMs) so you have it for those times when you want to feel super polishes, but it sounds like you don't need it.

  15. Ella says:

    I read this blog because I need fashion help, but this is a topic that I know!

    @Melanie- Your plans sound perfect. I think you should start exactly as you've planned. If the tinted moisturizer leaves your skin too shiny, you may want to add just a touch of powder. If you're unsatisfied with the staying power, you also may want to add a primer. Otherwise, your list is perfect for a beginning and probably exactly how I would start any beginner whether she's 35 or 15.

    Belle has provided some excellent product recommendations. Here are a few additional tips:
    Don't forget your eyelids. Even if you don't use shadow, sweep your foundation/tinted moisturizer over your eyelids to even out the skin there. Eyelids tend to have lots of blood vessels and spotchiness. When I'm doing minimal makeup, I cover my eyelids with foundation and then dab Benefit cream shadow in RSVP on the inside corners of my eyes and barely smudge it out toward my eyes. You can use other cream or powder shadows that are slightly shimmery and lighter than your skin for a similar effect. This is definitely not necessary, and I only recommend it as a third option that's between nothing and full eyeshadow. Just covering your eyelids is probably the best way to start.

    Buy your tinted moisturizer or foundation at a store with an excellent return policy, and utilize the policy until you find the right color. In my experience, identifying the right color foundation is both the hardest and most crucial part of choosing makeup. Buy one and try it out. If you aren't happy, try another. I shop at Sephora for this reason, but I also think that department stores have pretty good makeup return policies. Check before you buy, though.

    Check your makeup (especially foundation) in natural light. All lightbulbs- even the glaring office fluorescents- mask makeup imperfections that become frighteningly obvious in natural light. When you buy makeup, thoroughly color-check in natural light with the makeup on your face (the back of your hand or inside of your wrist don't have the same skin you need to match). Also make an effort to do a once-over in natural light in the morning. I usually use my rear view mirror.

    -When you buy foundation, pay attention to the color of your neck. Check that the foundation color blends seamlessly with the color of your face AND the color of the top of your neck. Sometimes a few colors will look ok on your face, but a real winner will also look right against your neck so you don't wind up with a noticeable difference between your makeup-covered jaw and your bare neck.

    My needs differ from Belle's in two areas: eyebrow issues and concealer use.
    Eyebrows– Thin pencils like the one Belle recommends can give you the appearance of having more eyebrow hairs if yours are thin or overplucked. I have pretty full eyebrows, but I still add color to give them a more polished appearance. I don't need the look of extra hairs. I just need a sheer wash of color behind the hairs to make them look more polished, so I use a thick pencil or powder. My method is still pretty similar to the tutorial linked above. No brow gel for me, though.
    Conealer– Fortunately, I rarely get pimples. When I do, they aren't so bad, so I just use an extra layer of foundation to cover them.
    Before you get too jealous…without makeup, I look like I have honest-to-goodness bruises under my eyes. I use nearly opaque concealer (sometimes called corrector) under my eyes. Some conealers can do double-duty, but most are better for one job or the other (pimples/undereyes). For under my eyes, I use Amazing Concealer. It gives way more coverage than most people need, but that's what I need. I've also used and liked Bobbi Brown Corrector, Benefit Erase Paste, and Maybelline brightener.
    All but the Maybelline are at Sephora. Play around to see which looks best under your eyes. I also think Sephora has the very best concealer brush: the Sephora Pro airbrush concealer brush.
    If you don't have noticeable dark circles, your tinted moisturizer or something light and brightening may be enough. Undereye concealer can get cakey quickly, so only use it if you need it.

    Back to the return policy topic. Drugstores carry some great products; however, you may want to start at a store like Sephora to get an idea of what you like. You don't necessarily have to buy there. You can try all of their products in the store. Note the ones you like and search Google for similar drugstore products. Makeup junkies have a fantastic Internet presence and frequently use the word “dupe” when discussing similar products, so you may want to incorporate that in your search.

    That said, some products are generally superior in Sephora/department stores while others just aren't worth the money since the quality isn't really different than drugstore offerings. Here are my opinions on the products you've ID'd:
    – Mascara- Drugstore all the way. Dept store options just aren't worth the extra cost. Even if you're willing to pay $25 for a few months' worth of mascara, you're better off buying a fresh tube from a drugstore every few weeks than only buying one tube every few months. For a beginner, I love Maybelline Full N Soft. I use this when I'm in a hurry. I like LOreal Voluminous when I have time to be careful about clumps.
    – Tinted moisturizer- You'll spend way too much money testing out the colors and formulas at a drugstore, and in general the drugstore quality is lower in this category. Stick with Seohora/dept store here.
    – Eyebrow grooming- I'm no expert in this category, but I've always been happy with the Sephora brand (Sephora's in-house line of products. They can be hit or miss, but they're sold at lower prices than other stuff in the store).
    – Blush- Drugstores have some good products, but blushes Sephora/dept store are generally better for natural colors and lasting power. The Bobbi Brown blush that Belle recommends is awesome. I also love Tarte Dollface.
    – Lip stain- I'm a loyal devotee of the Fresh Sugar lip treatments (balms), but L'Oreal's Colour Riche Balms are good alternatives. Other than these, this is not my area of expertise. Lip stains can be drying, but they've come a long way in recent years. Play with lots of different products at Sephora to see what you like. Since you're new to makeup, you might really like a tinted balm like the two I recommended.
    Also make sure that you're getting sun protection on your lips somehow.

  16. Melanie says:

    Thanks so much for answering my questions. All of this is such a help! I will be trying all of these tips. I live on the West Coast and work in a very relaxed office in a University where it is not at all unusual not to wear makeup. But I'm really enjoying experimenting with my new look. With three young boys at home I can certainly use a little something to make me look a little less tired these days. Thanks again.

  17. Lindsay says:

    @CAM – Choosing to wear a tinted moisturizer or foundation is completely optional. I personally do not use either, as I have fairly even skin tone and no blemishes, and I really hate the feeling of having a bunch of product on my face. I do however use concealer under my eyes and on any “problem” areas where I may have redness.

    My advice is that if you are comfortable with how your skin looks without, then you probably don't need either. If it's not broke, don't fix it!

    My full daily makeup routine is:
    1) corrector / concealer for under-eyes
    2) cream blush
    3) light dusting of bronzer
    4) mascara

    If I'm going out, I will add some winged liquid liner. I don't feel the need to fill in my brows and my lips are naturally pink, so I don't wear any lip color.

  18. love it says:

    Laura Mercier tinted moisturizer + Dior blush + Benefit mascara + Rosebud Salve lip gloss = my go-to low maintenance makeup, from a long time “no makeup” person myself. 🙂

  19. jessica says:

    1. clinique dramatically different moisturizer
    2. laura mercier tinted moisturizer
    3. urban decay primer potion
    4. mary lou-manizer as my eyeshadow (i got it in my birchbox! love!)
    5. some blush from bare escentuals
    6. pure radiance as a highlighter from bare escentuals

    then mascara and EOS lipbalm and i'm good to go. i know it looks like a lot of steps but i look polished without being too made up and i got my routine down to ~10 minutes.

  20. Ella says:

    One more thought from me-
    If you're not firmly on the facial-cleansing bandwagon, you definitely need to get on it when you start wearing makeup.

    Save your washcloths and/or Clarisonic from staining by removing your makeup with disposable wipes before actually washing your face. Belle likes the Say Yes to Carrots wipes. I'm younger and poorer than Belle, so I just use the Walmart or Target versions. Here are the Target ones:

  21. Jill says:

    I keep my makeup pretty minimal on most work days. My go-to routine is Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Cream Eyeshadow in Slate or Sandy Gold (no need for an eyelid primer with these). For mascara, I like Trish McEvoy High Volume Mascara. Then, I just use Bare Essentials Mineral Veil as a finishing powder. For lip gloss, I like Laura Mercier–my favorites are Raspberry and Blush.

  22. love it says:

    Ella, really good point about needing to up your “cleansing” game if you enter makeup territory… 🙂

  23. kristiina says:

    I love hearing what other people use! And I didn't start wearing make up daily until I had kids at around 31. We weren't allowed to wear it until we were 16 and then there was no one teaching us girls how to do it, so I never did! After kids, I had no choice…no sleep=scary face and under eyes LOL My favorites:

    bobbi brown corrector/concealer…this is the BEST undereye concealer I've ever tried. I literally did not recognize myself the first time I used it (I have deep purple circles under my eyes). it's like a whole new life!

    bobbi brown blush brush is the best (thank you, belle, for the recommendation..I tried to be cheap and get the sonia kushak target one, but it is nowhere near as good)

    i've tried two shades of bobbi's blush line, but i always come back to NARS just gives me a glow that can't be duplicated.

    sephora's gel eyebrow pencil works great for me and Ulta's creamy pencil eyeliners are as good as Origins and wash off easily (I just grabbed a bunch during their sale for $4!)

    I live and die by my Origins skin products–I've been using them for 12 years. I have extremely dry skin and absolutely love their 'night a mins' night cream and have recently started using the 'starting over' in the morning..i also use 'clean energy' a gentle cleansing oil morning and night and 'modern friction' is the most gentle and effective exfoliator I've ever used.

    for mascara I like loreal voluminous

    i usually just do blistex lip medex, but would love to find something non-drying to color my lips.

    sorry so long–i loved reading everyone else's and figured i should take the time to share mine. 🙂

  24. Sally says:

    I don't know if anyone is still checking these comments, but I'm a former non-makeup wearer, so I thought I'd weigh in.

    A few commenters suggested starting small and I cannot agree more. You wear tinted lip balm on special occasions, so maybe start applying it every day in addition to some mascara.

    I use my lip color (whether it is stain, gloss, or lipstick) on my cheeks as well. Dab onto the apple of your cheek, then use your fingers to smudge/ swipe it up in the direction of your temple. Practice this on a weekend first — it may take some trial and error to figure out the right amount of product to dab on and your preferred blending technique.

    Lip color, cheek color, and mascara alone will probably make a big enough difference to stop there if you so choose. I'd suggest trying this routine out for a week or two, and if you want to amp things up, go for some eyeliner, tinted moisturizer, and eye shadow.

    Instead of primer for my tinted moisturizer, I make a little cocktail on my fingertips of 1) tinted moisturizer – I use Bobbi Brown, 2) my regular Olay moisturizer, and 3) the secret ingredient – Monistat anti-chafing powder-finish gel. I swirl them together and apply like regular moisturizer. The anti-chafing stuff is the same active ingredient as some more expensive primers and works like a charm.

    Going from no makeup to makeup, I had a lot more success when I reduced the number of products. My daily routine is 1) Perfekt eyebrow color for my blonde eyebrows, 2) eye liner, 3) mascara, 4) lip stain, and 5) that same lip stain applied to my cheeks.

    On special occasions I will start with the tinted moisturizer cocktail detailed above and also add eye shadow.

  25. Catherine says:

    Thank you all so much for your comments – I found this so helpful!!

  26. […] a few hours and I am constantly reapplying and powdering throughout the day. One blog I read—Capitol Hill Style—swears by Nars Pro-Prime Oil Free to hold makeup even in the humidity. It’s a little […]

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