The Ultimate Lipstick Bible: How to find the best formula + finish for your lips

With the beauty industry constantly producing new products at breakneck speed, we're very much spoiled for choice. Sometimes though, the feeling of having so many options can be overwhelming. I think this is especially true when it comes to lipsticks. Color options are a beautiful nightmare in and of itself but finishes compound that situation tenfold.

To beauty shopaholics like us, having a favorite is key to narrowing down the “financial blackholes” we can potentially sink into. Unfortunately, bankruptcy by lipstick is just not a socially acceptable incapacity (yet.) Today, we’re going to break down the world of lipsticks and hopefully help you, dear reader, edit your lipstick wardrobe and stick to pieces you'll actually use.

Good makeup is all about cohesion. People generally pick up whatever color they’re feeling, without really considering how the finish also needs to suit the rest of the makeup. This is okay for your everyday makeup look but if you want to step up your makeup game and make it look more professional, matching lip finish and weight to your base makeup is one of the best advice I picked up in makeup academy in South Korea.

The six basic lipstick finishes: (from left) Gloss, Sheer, Tint, Cream, Satin, and Matte

The six basic lipstick finishes: (from left) Gloss, Sheer, Tint, Cream, Satin, and Matte

Finish is typically identified by two things: shine level and pigment level. Shine and pigment normally have an inverse relationship, but there’s infinite subsets and unique exceptions in between. For the sake of a more simplified discussion, we're going to follow the assumption that the shinier the formula, the lower the concentration of pigment.

Gloss (Essence XXL Shine Lip Gloss in True Love)

Gloss (Essence XXL Shine Lip Gloss in True Love)

There's nothing shinier than lip gloss! Pigment level varies from none (clear) to light so it’s best for people with perfect lips because they're essentially bare yet in focus. Not everyone has perfect lips though so this is more commonly used as a topper for drier finishes. In keeping with the barely-there pigmentation, this finish is best worn with a fresh, dewy complexion and, as girls with long hair know, a pony tail. Check out Liz’s top 5 glosses for recos!

Sheer (Bloom Lip Tint in Stain)

Sheer (Bloom Lip Tint in Stain)

Sheer formulas are popular among our “gateway drug” to makeup addiction: colored or tinted balms. Shine level varies from low to high but pigmentation is almost always the same: light and non-buildable. It provides a barely-there wash of color, so like the gloss, it’s not recommended for people with dark or discolored lips.

It is one of the easiest types of lipstick to wear as there is no pressure to draw the edges neatly, and any major mistakes are easily rubbed away. This finish is best worn by younger people, who may not be too confident with their makeup skills yet and can get by on their natural youthful radiance. It also makes sense with a 3- or 5-product face, as the lightness of the lips would suit the lightness of the rest of the face makeup.

Tint (Labiotte Wine Lip Tint in 03 Merlot Burgundy)

Tint (Labiotte Wine Lip Tint in 03 Merlot Burgundy)

Lip tints are a shoot-off of the Sheer formula. They are unique from sheers in that they will always dry off, leaving pigmentation that is anywhere from light to medium. Tints are generally known for their staying power, drying effect, and difficulty in blending.

Peel-off tints like the one from Berrisom promise to last at least a handful of days, and are a good safeguard for people have transfer issues. They’re quite tricky though, and are only really a good idea for people who want lips that looks devoid of product. This type of lip product is particularly popular in K-beauty so you can easily find budget tint options (all Korean and available locally!) under P500.

Cream (Clinique Longlast Lipstick in Beauty)

Cream (Clinique Longlast Lipstick in Beauty)

Creams typically come in wax bullets but can be in palettes, too. They’re the most ubiquitous lipstick formula, and probably what everyone has in mind when talking about lipsticks. Moist with medium color payoff and medium level shine, creams are a great compromise for both comfort and fashion. They’re best for everyday wear, especially if you’re pale like me and need a little color to look alive. 

Satin (Burberry Lip Cover in Hibiscus)

Satin (Burberry Lip Cover in Hibiscus)

Satin finishes are a step up from Creams in terms of color payoff, but sacrifice very little in terms of comfort and moisture. Between the two, I would recommend Satins for people who find Creams to not be pigmented enough.

Matte (Bobbi Brown Creamy Matte Lip Color in Crushed Plum)

Matte (Bobbi Brown Creamy Matte Lip Color in Crushed Plum)

For people who want the highest color payoff, I suggest a matte finish. These usually have zero shine and intense pigmentation, covering any trace of your natural lip color. Both liquid and solid formulas can be difficult to use as they require absolute precision in application. With a little practice though (and some tips!), it’s a great option for creating a dramatic look.

Mattes also often get a bad reputation for being uncomfortable and drying on the lips but silicone mattes and most newer matte textures are slowly improving. There are great budget options available, though we recommend swatching the lipsticks to check for variations in formula between shades.

Non-moisture shine formulas: (from left) Frost, Metallic, Glitter Gloss

Non-moisture shine formulas: (from left) Frost, Metallic, Glitter Gloss

There’s a special class of formulation that derives their shine from foreign particles rather than the moisture content. 

  • Frosts are packed with fine, opalescent glitter and usually set under cool-hued pigments. They were popular in the 80s, and are now mostly reserved for artistic looks. 
  • Metallics also contain fine glitter particles, but in uniform tones creating a flat shine. They look quite unusual and can be too avant garde for daily wear, but they are having a trendy moment currently.
  • Glitter is the catchall for anything that is neither Frost nor Metallic. Ranging from fine to chunky, and dispersed to packed, glitter lip products typically come manufactured as "shimmer/glitter" glosses, or may be mixed by hand with loose pigments.

See? There’s a formula for everyone and for every look, so it’s really hard not to get into it. Though you don't necessarily need one of each type in your collection, it's good idea to give each different formula a try at least once. Who knows - you may actually discover your perfect lipstick that way!

What’s your favorite lipstick formula? Which products do you use, and what look do you prefer to wear with it?  

Now if you’ll excuse me, I'm off to check if any of my wishlisted lipsticks are on sale yet!

Product photography by Samantha Gonzales