I have been to Sephora twice during the pandemic, both in-and-out drive-bys to refill the one skincare product I still use after the coronavirus gutted my beauty routine. I no longer wear most makeup; if I want to feel fancy I might swipe on some old, crunchy mascara.
What I definitely have not put on since March 10 of last year: lipstick. Why waste the stuff when my face is covered by a mask? But when the CDC announced that it would endorse easing up on outdoor face coverings for the vaccinated this week, I allowed myself to imagine a summer full of bright lips that leave kiss marks over iced coffee straws or corn on the cob. There was one problem—the old lipsticks that I used to apply every day have dried up and cracked. So I went to Sephora.
It felt strange to linger—and breathe all over—anywhere, especially a store full of makeup. I forgot what it was like to enter a place where you were meant to stay a while. I also don’t remember the music they play inside being so loud, but maybe like everyone else I just aged 20 years during the pandemic.
It all came back to me in a rush: lipstick shade names are really, really dumb (“Blackmail,” “Orgasm,” “Carnal”). There is apparently a very big difference between “coral” and “peach,” and you will get side-eyed if you do not understand it. (As long as I live, I never will.) No matter how often I enter the store looking for an every day color, I leave with four tubes of purples, blues, and greens. (I forced myself to settle for basic— “Trophy Wife,” a dusty rose.)
Sephora was not exactly popping, though some lipsticks were sold out, which you could see instantly by bare shelves. A salesperson told me that I was not the only one in search of a post-vax lip stain.
Charlene Valledor describes herself as a “lipstick girl.” She’s also the president of SOS Beauty, an incubator company that has overseen the brand development, management, supply chain, and production of companies like Patrick Ta Makeup, Ouai hair care, and Shani Darden skin care. Masks have made it difficult for her to enjoy putting on lipstick.
She’s been sticking to wearing lip balms this past year, but has kept her lipsticks in her purse. “I’ve been carrying around my lipsticks, because I couldn’t bear to take them out of my bag,” Valledor told The Daily Beast.
That could change soon. The CDC announced this week that it endorses easing up on outdoor mask-wearing for the fully vaccinated. (Face coverings should still be worn for indoor activities like attending church, or visiting a shopping mall, salon, or barber shops.)
And so Valledor cannot wait to use those lipsticks again. “I think red is going to be the first choice for a lot of people,” she predicted. “It makes you feel brave and confident, and everyone wants to wear something that demonstrates how they feel inside.”
She’s also “really excited” about pinks and fuchsia—“those positive colors that express enthusiasm about being outside.”
In lockdown, enthusiasm has been lacking when it comes to lipsticks. According to The Guardian, sales of department store lip offerings were down by 40 percent in 2020.
Last year, Valledor helped launch Patrick Ta Beauty, a cosmetics line by the makeup artist who has worked with Gigi Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and more than a few Kardashians. “The blushes did phenomenally, but the lipstick took a backseat,” Valledor said. “It’s almost like if people bought the product last year and didn’t feel motivated, they’ll give it a try now that we’re finally able to put these colors to the test.”
Laura Geller, a longtime New York makeup artist who runs her namesake beauty line, agreed that 2020 was kinder to other types of makeup. “We saw eye makeup and brows being the focal point as people were mostly wearing masks and the eyes were what was mostly seen by others,” she said.
Nydia Figueroa, a makeup artist who has painted faces for Miss Universe pageants and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, told The Daily Beast that she’s been wearing makeup the entire pandemic.
She chalks it up to the so-called “lipstick index,” a term coined by Leonard Lauder (son of Estee) to describe the increased sales of personal luxury items like cosmetics after 9/11.
“I still bought it, because I knew it was there myself,” Figueroa said. “When I took off my mask and looked at myself, I felt beautiful.”
Her habits changed—Figueroa started to use lip liner on her entire lips, because she found it to look matte and stay put. In other words, it didn’t smush up against the inside of her mask.
A representative for Ulta Beauty would not share lipstick sales data with The Daily Beast, but did send a statement attributed to Maria Salcedo, the mega retailer’s senior vice president of merchandising. “We are confident that the lip category will make a significant comeback and are seeing guest [aka shopper] excitement around glosses and liquid lipstick in parallel with vaccine availability,” it read.
Manna Kadar runs her eponymous beauty line out of Los Angeles; her brand is well-known for its lipstick. Before the pandemic, her best-selling item was a glossy lip stain, now her customers prefer lip care, like balms or scrubs. As Kadar put it, “Their lips were getting dry from masks, so lip care really took over.”
Kadar predicts this summer will be full of bright pinks or corals. “People are getting out there, and those colors lend themselves to this season,” she said. Expect the return of classic rouge closer to fall: “As we go into winter, I would say brighter reds like oxblood. Those are more transitional shades.”
Plus, enterprising brand owners have noticed a new buzzword: non-transferable. “It’s a set-it-and-forget-it solution,” said Geller, who has a new “transfer-proof” lip color on the market. “People don’t want their makeup to be as fussy—the pandemic helped us focus on other things. . .transfer-proof lip color lasts all day and won’t get on your mask or coffee mug.”
“I have seen the lipstick category bump up again recently,” Kadar added. “Most women’s lipsticks are probably expired by now, after a year of the pandemic. We all need a new wardrobe.”