Pro-Tips on How to Use Lipstick

There are certain makeup techniques that—let’s face it, seem a little intimidating. Many women are slightly weirded out by tightlining; for some of us, false lashes drive us nuts; and if you can’t remember the differences between BB cream and CC cream and DD cream… well, you’re in good company.

But lipstick—that’s an easy one, right? Chances are, lipstick was the first thing you reached for when you stole your mom’s makeup kit. You’re an old pro, and you’ve got it down.

The truth is, though, that lipstick can be a challenge! It seems like the most basic, and most easily-accessible, of all the products in a makeup kit, but there are some not-so-obvious things you need to keep in mind when you’re using it.

So, because we’re obsessed with you looking your absolute best, here are our “Top 12 Tips on How to Use Lipstick.” There were about a dozen more (and we’ll write about those later!) but these are at the top of our list. First up:

1. First Step: Exfoliate

Lipstick seems like an “apply and go” type of makeup, but that’s not really the case. In order to create a foundation for clean, long-lasting, and comfortable application, exfoliation is an important first step. The skin on the lips is thin and sensitive, and prone to chapping and dryness—and if you wear lipstick over flaky lips, not only will it feel like uncomfortable, but the skin can actually flake off and leave nude spots or cracks in the middle of your lips. Plus, it just looks messy, and it gives off that “I’m a crazy person” vibe.

Exfoliating the skin on the lips is fairly easy, and you can brush the dead skin away gently with a soft-bristle toothbrush or use a soft exfoliant like a sugar scrub. The dry and dead skin will be sloughed away and your lips should feel much softer. Be gentle, though—taking off too much skin can hurt your lips, and if you exfoliate too vigorously, it can even leave raw spots and open sores. Exfoliation on the lips—any anywhere else you exfoliate—is an important but “easy does it”-type situation.

2. Moisturize and Protect

This step is just as important as the first. Freshly exfoliated lips feel great, but they can leave the new layer of skin vulnerable to drying out—and that can make lipstick look cracked and crunchy. Moisturize your lips with your favorite lip balm, preferably a long-lasting variety with SPF (which we’ll talk about in a second), and that cracking and splintering may be less likely to occur. Not only will your lips feel soft and moist underneath the makeup, but the balm sets a nice, smooth canvas on which the lipstick can sit with less chance of bleeding and cracking.

Balms are fantastic because they moisturize, but they serve another purpose that a lot of us forget about: they protect from prolonged exposure to damaging rays from the sun. So, if you can, look for one with SPF. Your face and the backs of your hands are the most-exposed body parts when you're out in the sun, and they are the locations where you’re most likely to develop melanoma at some point in your life. That’s serious stuff, and as if that weren’t bad enough, sun exposure also contributes to earlier signs of aging, like micro lines around the mouth and crow’s feet around the eyes. It’s easy to overlook, but SPF is added to a lot of cosmetic products, and it never hurts to protect your skin.

3. Clean and Dry

Now that you have a layer of moisture on your lips, you may need to remove the excess. Too much lip balm can make the lipstick messy, and instead of a nice layer of color resting over the moisture layer, excess lip balm can mix with the lipstick and dilute the color and even smear it around. To remove excess balm, gently blot the lips with a paper towel but be sure not to wipe away all the moisturizer. Ideally, you’re looking for an “in the middle” feeling—your lips shouldn’t feel dried out, but they shouldn’t feel too wet, either.

4. Lay a Foundation

This is not an essential step but it is a helpful one, especially for those of you who like bold-colored lipsticks: put a little bit of foundation on your lips.

Think of it like an artist priming a blank canvas. If an artist paints blue over a red canvas, the blue will look much more diluted than if they painted it over a purely white canvas. Foundation on lips works the same way: it brings out the lipstick's natural color, and keeps that color from being tinged by whatever’s underneath it.

This is a great trick for someone wearing a very bold color, because foundation is designed to make colors pop. Be sure to smile as you apply foundation, to get an even application.

5. Go Nude or Go Bold: Choosing a Shade

As you no doubt know, there are literally thousands of shades of lipstick you can choose from, and it’s not as simple as selecting your favorite one (although wouldn’t that be nice?) There are so many factors to consider: skin tone, natural lip color, how the shade affects the color of your skin and teeth, and so on. It’s a lot to think about, and that’s one of the appeals of nude tones: they’re simple and they’re elegant and they’re not too difficult to execute. You don’t have to orchestrate as many colors, and it’s much easier to choose a shade.

When choosing a nude color, pay attention to the natural color of your lips. Choose a nude lipstick that is either one shade lighter or darker than your natural lip color, because straying too far in either direction can leave you looking odd (or kind of seasick). If you’re drawn to the nude look, remember that softer is better, and enjoy that fact that you’re keeping things simple, because...

Bold shades are a lot more difficult to use. There’s less margin for error, and because you’re utilizing a bright, sharp color, you’ll need to organize your entire look around it. The most important thing is to choose your bold shade based on your skin color. Figuring out your skin color is a topic worthy of about 100 posts, but here’s a quick rule of thumb: people with porcelain complexions have a somewhat limited range of colors, and usually do well with blue-based reds, coral colors, and peachy-slash-pinkish tones; people with medium/olive skin tones have a broader range of options, and most reds will work (but you may have some issues with more pink-ish tones); and for people with deep skin tones, brighter, bolder colors can look fantastic—violets, maroons, magentas, you name it. has a great, albeit brief, rundown here if you want to read more.

By the way, a lot of beauty articles on other sites warn against heavy eye makeup and bold lipstick because it can make a woman appear… “overly-done up.” What’s with that? It’s absurd, and that sort of shaming thing is—it’s kind of unacceptable, really. Plus, it’s just flat-out wrong: when done correctly, heavy eye makeup and bold lipstick can be a fantastic look. Striking, intense, powerful. If you’re drawn to bold colors, do your thing. You may have to work at it—because there are more colors involved, it can be difficult to organize the look—but when done right, it can be dazzling and powerful.

6. Lip liner: Choose Wisely

Choosing a shade of liner is just as important—and can be just as challenging—as choosing a shade of lipstick. This another topic we could talk about for ages, but to keep things simple, here are some general guidelines: if you’re using a lipstick in the pink, red, and/or nude color families, choose a liner that matches your natural lip color, and for lipsticks of all other colors (especially bolder colors), choose a shade that matches the lipstick as closely as possible. By choosing a shade that matches your lipstick, you’ll avoid that “outlined lips” look that was popular a few years back (but now looks kind of silly).

7. Applying the Lip liner: Some Tips

Conventional wisdom tells us we should start by drawing a little “X” on your cupid's bow, and then apply liner by tightly following the lip line. And, honestly, 99% of the time, that’s a pretty good strategy.

However, you don't always have to follow the line laid out for you. Say you want to make your lips appear smaller—you’re going to be in a serious business meeting, and you want to tone things down a bit—you can apply liner riiiiiiiiiight on the inside of the lip line, for a more “professional” look. If you want to make your lips appear fuller, you can apply liner juuuuuuust outside of the lip line, but be careful—always make sure you’re applying lip line to the actual lip. The further away from your lip you go, the crazier it looks.

Lip liner can be a little bit tricky, because it’s a precision tool, and it’s not very forgiving, and too much of it looks… weird. This is one of those tools where practice and experience make a big difference, so keep experimenting (and ask your friends for feedback) to figure out how to make it work for you.

8. Applying Lipstick: Methods

Honestly, there is no one true correct way to apply lipstick, and you’ve got options. Some women apply it with a makeup brush, others apply it straight from the tube, and others use their fingers to smudge it on for a more subtle look. This is another one of the areas of makeup artistry where you’ll have to do your homework and find your preferred method of application, and there’s no “best” method. Different women achieve astounding results using different techniques, and a lot of it comes down to preference.

That said, here are two things to keep in mind: if you’re applying from a tube, a good technique is to start in the middle and work outward, being careful to stay inside the lip liner, and if possible, blend the lipstick and the lip liner with a brush or finger to make everything appear cleaner and more natural; if you are using a brush or finger, take care not to smudge the lipstick outside of your lip line or liner that you have already mapped out, as you can apply a second coat for bolder color and added shine.

9. Clean Up the Outer Edges

If you smudged a bit of lipstick or are worried about bleeding, there are ways to clean up the outer edges that can provide a clean look for hours. Apply a small bit of concealer to the outer rim of your mouth with a brush, and take care to trace your fresh lipstick without touching it. You can even use a highlighter pencil just on the outside of your cupid's bow to prevent bleeding and make the lips pop and appear larger. But be careful not to use too much concealer, as you probably don't want a clear outlined look to be obvious.

10. Make Lipstick Last After Application

The easiest way to make lipstick last for a while is to apply with a tube, blot it with a paper towel or napkin, and add a second coat. The lipstick will dry on your lips and can last for hours. There are also sealant products available to lock in color and make lipstick last, and we’ve had great luck with a few of them. You can also dust some translucent powder on your lips and blot them gently with a paper towel—the powder layer locks in the lipstick, and can go a long way in preventing bleeding.

11. How to Avoid Lipstick Teeth

In terms of “Makeup Fails,” we’d have to list the big three as 1) black, branchy mascara stains down the cheeks; 2) a dark foundation line meeting a light skin tone at the neckline; and 3) lipstick on the teeth. That last one is one of the classic makeup blunders, and it’s happened to all of us (for fun, do an image search for “celebrities with lipstick on their teeth.” They’re just like us!).

Luckily, avoiding lipstick-stained teeth is fairly easy (although you may want to do this in private—it works, but it looks a little odd). Here are the steps: 1) wash your hands; 2) put your index finger in your mouth, forming a tight seal with your lips; and then 3) gently pull your finger from your mouth while maintaining the seal. Basically, you’re removing the lipstick from the inside rim of your mouth, where it would meet (and rub off) onto your teeth. Perfect!

12. Add Some Special Effects

​So, there you go! The basics of lipstick. If you want to be next generation about it, though, there are numerous great ways to play with the look: you can apply a bit of lip gloss over the lipstick to give your lips a shiny coat; you can make lips look plumper by using a lighter shade of lipstick in the center and a darker shade around the edges (but be sure to blend them thoroughly to avoid looking silly or amateurish); you can go for an ombre lip, by blending a dark lip liner with a lighter shade of lipstick (and once again, thorough blending is the key to pulling off the look); or if you're in the mood for matte lipstick, you can coat your lips in a layer of non-shiny powder blush, which will create an exotic matte effect. Try them all and pick your favorites, and always remember that practice makes perfect. We'll be back with another bunch of tips for applying lipstick, but until then, try these and enjoy!

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