Reader Request: My Makeup Routine


Reader Lydia e-mailed me this request:

Since you’ve been posting about the use of cosmetics recently, is there any chance you’d do a post on a gentle beginner intro to starting to wear make-up as an adult?

I’ve been back through the beauty tag and looked at the individual posts on cosmetics, especially the one about falling down the rabbit hole, but was hoping that you might do one that draws all the threads together. You made such a great transition from not wearing make-up to really understanding how to use it for the effect you want, and your posts on individual products have been really detailed and clear.

I’ve been trying to start wearing make-up as an adult, but, when I’ve tried going to a store’s beauty counter for help, I end up looking like a clown and being given a long list of products. Most online information seems to be aimed at the experienced make-up wearer, with even novice tutorials calling for three brushes and sixteen products.

I pointed Lydia to Sonja’s Makeup 101 series, which is really fantastic … but does go pretty deep into techniques. And uses an awful lot of brushes. So even though I STILL feel like a laughable novice when it comes to anything makeup-related, I will take a stab at this. Because I remember feeling just like Lydia as a 30-year-old woman, having those same experiences and frustrations, and wondering where to turn.

Of course, all I can really share is my own routine. It’s fairly simple, works for me, and doesn’t require loads of expertise or fancy tools … but I would never say it’s the ideal set of practices for anyone. Still, I hope it’ll be helpful for those of you just beginning to play around with cosmetics.


So first, the general:

  • I have become fanatical about skincare, and I feel like having healthy skin makes for a great canvas. When I’m broken out or sore, applying makeup hurts and irritates, but more than that, it feels like a chore concealing stuff that I don’t want seen instead of highlighting stuff that I love. My skincare routine includes oil cleansing (posts here and here), using a Clairsonic every other day (info and review here), and many other tactics to manage my hormonal acne (full post here). I do NOT believe that my methods will work perfectly for anyone besides me! But I definitely recommend finding a cleansing and moisturizing routine that feels good and works for you. Any makeup you apply will work and look better on clear, happy skin. (Or as clear and happy as you can get it. Some of us struggle more than others with skin-related challenges.)
  • I have had my makeup applied professionally and plied the artists with questions. I have paid for makeup tutorials. I hang out with Beauty Bets on the regular and am constantly hounding her. But as a hands-on learner, I STILL have had to do a lot of playing around and experimentation to find products and techniques that work for me. This just sucks. I wish I could say that this book or that class will help you find exactly what you need, but in all likelihood, you’re gonna have to spend the occasional evening trying out eye makeup techniques. In front of a mirror. And then wiping everything off and trying other techniques. Nothing beats trial and error, friends.
  • I put a lot of stuff on my face to achieve the much-lauded “no makeup” look. This drives me up a wall. Just had to mention that.
  • All of the makeup I use for the Sally version of a “full face” is shown at the very top of this post (minus BB cream and eyebrow fillers). All of the tools I use are shown below.


Next, the blow-by-blow:

Base layer: I don’t use foundation, have no idea how to apply bronzer or highlighter, cannot contour, and apply my entire base layer with my fingers. I do two things to make my freshly-washed skin look even in tone: I apply BB cream all over my face and under my chin, and I dab on some under-eye concealer. You can read my review of my BB cream here, a post that includes before and after photos. For concealer, I use the Glo Minerals palette shown above. I apply a thin layer of under-eye cream first to plump the area and prevent the concealer from settling into my winkles. Then I dab the light color on with my ring finger, and add a tiny bit of the darker shade to blend the edges. Ages ago, I was taught to use this wedge shape for concealer, and it is KEY to making my under-eye area look lighter.

Eyebrows: I get mine threaded every so often to keep them in shape. I’ve gone to fancy spots, but now I go to a gal at Ridgedale Mall who has a kiosk and she does a great job for $12. I pluck strays with Tweezerman tweezers, and generally have to do this daily, being a gifted Hair Farmer. I use a pencil and light strokes to create a rough outline, then brush some brown powder in there to fill any gaps. I actually use an eyeliner pencil and eyeshadow powder. Many makeups can multitask!

Powder: I use Neutrogena Healthy Skin. I get a little on my finger, and apply it to my undereye areas. Then I apply all over my face with a compact puff. I get very shiny without powder, and also keep a Neutrogena Shine Control compact in my purse and oil blotting sheets handy for touch-ups.

Cheeks: I tried powder blush for a while, but I really, REALLY prefer cream. (My favorites here.) I generally use the Elizabeth Arden shown above, so I’ll run my finger around the compact to get a thin glaze going, then dot it along my cheekbones, and blend upward toward my temples. Using my fingers. That’s it.

And that’s also it in terms of what I apply if I’m working at home or seeing friends or doing anything other than a TV or press appearance, event, or other fancypants activity. I don’t do eye makeup on a regular basis. I know it looks nice, but it makes me feel delicate and smudge-able and cranky so I am yet to make it a daily ritual. Considering how much stuff I use now and how little I used six years ago I won’t say “never,” but for now, eyes are a special occasion thing.


When I do eyes I do this:

Curl eyelashes: Une Femme taught me this one. Even if you hate mascara, curling your eyelashes can help those lashes look longer and opens your eyes considerably. I curl mine pre-mascara. I have no special technique. I grab as close to the lid as I can without hurting myself, and hold for 20 seconds. Do the other eye. Then another round of 20 seconds on each.


Apply “liner”: Audi taught me this one. When I attempt to apply actual eyeliner – especially in dark colors and black – I look like I’ve allowed a drunk toddler to do my makeup. So I use matte black eyeshadow and an eyeliner brush. I press the powder along the top of my lash line where liner would go, making it darkest where my lashes are thick. It creates a soft, dark line that is much more forgiving than eyeliner. The powder migrates throughout the day (even if I apply some sort of lid primer), and for much of the time it just looks soft and smoky. After 5-6 hours, it looks like a splotchy, greasy, weird mess and needs a touch-up.

Sometimes I will also use a black pencil to apply VERY light liner to the outer 1/2 or 3/4 of my lower lid, then blend with a finger or Q-tip. I’ve heard that doing liner on top only makes your eyes look bigger but my eyes can look a bit odd to me without a hint of lower liner, so I apply it, “rules” be damned. This also feathers and needs a touch-up after 5-6 hours.

Apply mascara: I apply to upper and a tiny bit to lower. Usually just one coat, but sometimes two. I use the brush on the far right above to separate my lashes if they stick and get rid of clumps. Right now I’m using Lash Domination. It is the second type of mascara I’ve ever used and it is better than the first (Benefit Bad Gal), in that it is more lengthening. The physics of this mystifies me.

And that’s it for eyes. My deep-set eyes mean that eyeshadow is meaningless so I just skip it.

Lips: For formal lips, I use Make Up For Ever in Rouge Artist Intense 44 (story here) and occasionally Bobbi Brown Creamy Matte Lip Color in Crushed Plum. Both of these are SUPER pigment-rich, which means that if I apply and blot, they will basically stain my lips for several hours. I can eat and drink and some color will remain. If I’m going to an event that is many hours long and involves eating/drinking, I use Sonja’s lip liner layering trick. Otherwise, it’s apply/blot/apply/blot. My lack of lip liner means that, if I don’t blot, the lipstick bleeds. But most days, I just use some combination of gloss or tinted balm and skip true lip color.

And we’re done.

I’m absolutely happy to answer questions about my choices and techniques, and will do my best to field other questions! But I definitely recommend talking with friends whose makeup application techniques you admire, poking around Pinterest for other simple tutorials, and lots of hands-on experimentation. Especially if you’re a novice and feel overwhelmed by beauty blogs and magazine tutorials. And I truly hope this was helpful!

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.

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26 Responses to “Reader Request: My Makeup Routine”

  1. Mari

    I think this is a good introduction to everyday makeup. The way you indirectly ask yourself “what is this doing for me – is it working?” (when it comes to eyeliner under the eyes, and to eyeshadow) is essential to developing a routine that is both minmal and flattering. Also, I consider myself to be quite experienced in the world of makeup application, and I had never stumbled across the concealer wedge until I read this. I just tried it, and it works like a charm. I think I might already have decided on my favourite makeup trick for 2014! 🙂

  2. Kara

    Thanks for sharing! I always love seeing what other people (especially people who do simple makeup) do.
    One thing that really helped me was the Carmindy 5 Minute Face book. She shows some quick and easy ways to do basic makeup, as well as has tips on products and colors (for different skin/hair combinations). As a teen I often used a mauvish rouge that worked on my teenage semi-goth self, but it didn’t work for me as an adult, and I really couldn’t figure out what direction to go. Based on this book I tried a coral rouge that really is perfect (and I never would have tried that before).
    Also, if you’re really trying to be quick, with the right (short) mascara brush you can curl your lashes while applying mascara (just press upwards slightly hard as you apply).
    Per the concealer, Sal, do you put it on before, or after the bb cream? Both always seem weird to me (which means I often only use concealer if I don’t use foundation or a cc cream).

  3. Sandra

    I would encourage makeup beginners to at least try a few brushes, perhaps a powder brush, a brush to blend eyeshadow, and a nice stiff eyebrow brush with a fine edge if you need to fill in your brows. I was amazed at how much my makeup application improved when I began to use good tools—they truly are not only for advanced users or only for elaborate makeup. There are certain items that can be expertly applied with the fingers—e.g., BB creams, cream blushes—but others greatly benefit by using the proper brush, such as a finishing powder or a bronzing powder or eyeshadow or eyebrow color. It was worth it to me to shell out for a nice kabuki brush to use with a setting powder, but I’ve also found good brushes priced very cheap at Target (including the pretty-nice-for-the-price Eco-Tools set). I have a wonderful and inexpensive Sonia Kashuk brush that is ideal for digging out and applying the last bits of lipstick once it is too short to project from its tube. You just need to look at the brushes carefully and assess the quality for yourself. You’ll quickly be able to see which are too thin or too soft for the intended use.

    • LIz

      I’ll second the recommendation for makeup brushes from Target. Sonia Kashuk does great brushes that are inexpensive. Having the correct brush really helps makeup application; I concentrate on my eye makeup, which is definitely easier to apply with the right tools, but requires a number of different styles of brush.
      Also, apropos of the mascara issue, I have found that using two mascaras works better than one for me.
      I use a lengthening mascara (currently Bobbi Brown’s Intensifying Long-Wear Mascara) first, then apply a coat of thickening mascara (either Benefit’s They’re Real! or Bobbi Brown’s Extreme Party Mascara are my current ones).
      I have short and fine lashes–my brother inherited the gorgeous thick ones, of course–so I find that using both types of mascara together makes them stand out.
      The mascaras I use also don’t smudge or run readily, and they’re easy to remove. I have no patience for a lot of rubbing or goop, and I don’t like to pull at the skin in my eye area any more than the bare minimum.

  4. Texas Aggie Mom

    Thanks so much for the wedge trick with concealer! It’s the one thing I would take to a desert island, but I had no idea I was applying it incorrectly. As always, I always something useful from your site, and today is no exception. Also, I was really excited to see the specials on makeovers in today’s newsletter, and plan to treat myself to one!

  5. Lisa

    Sounds like a good basic routine that really works for you!

    My one piece of advice with basic routines is to just be cognizant of seasonal changes and gradual changes in one’s skin. Maybe skin is drier in the winter and one needs moisturizer or a different BB cream formula, or skin tone changes between winter and summer require slightly different shades. Just because a routine works at one point in time doesn’t mean that it’s set in stone. 🙂

  6. Athina

    I would suggest to start slow, if you have never been in the habit of wearing make up before. Starting all at once can certainly be overwhelming. Start with one single thing. For example, if one of the things you want make up to do for you is create a more even complexion, start with a simple liquid foundation or a BB cream. Get one brush for it. Keep at this for a few days and then look in the mirror and decide on the next one. Would you like your eyes to pop more or does your face look a little colorless? Get a mascara, or a blush. And so on, one thing at a time. Do not dive into eyelash curlers and eyebrow pencils and fancy make up techniques and looks at once. Build your own style and routine slowly.

    Regarding which items to buy and start using: it doesn’t really matter. Either you go to the store and buy whatever strikes your fancy, or you ask a store employee or a friend or read reviews online, I can guarantee that it will take a few tries to find the right product. Not everything is good for everyone, plus you have to find what you personally really want from and like in make up stuff. But if you do ask a store employee, try to be as specific as possible telling them what you are looking for (if you want to keep it simple, something easy to apply, long lasting etc) and make clear to them what your budget is. I would suggest to keep it as cheap as possible without sacrificing quality as you would like to try out different things.

    • ThirtiesLady

      Agree with all of what Athina said. Start slow, look at your options and what you’d like to try, read some reviews, and then try things. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what to do with makeup.

      For brushes, I recommend Eco-Tools (can be found at Target, Ulta, and some drugstores). They’re great for the price. I’ve supplemented mine with an eyebrow and eyeliner brush from Sonia Kashuk.

      In my experience, beauty counters often apply foundation with a brush, and then don’t really blend it properly, leading to the caked-on look. If you’re using a liquid or cream foundation/BB cream/tinted moisturizer, just apply it with your fingers!

    • Elin

      I agree! Also, consider purchasing your make-up at a location that would allow you to take home a sample or easily return the product if you don’t like it. I have done this before and it has helped me to avoid purchases that I would have regreted,

  7. Eleanorjane

    Great post, Sal! I do something similar for my basic ‘don’t look too hideous out in public’ look. Under eye concealer, powder (a fairly full coverage one), blush and lip balm.

    I wear eye makeup to work most days, but the above is my weekend look unless I’m feeling fancy.

  8. lydiag

    Really good tips and ideas here — I will certainly follow some of the suggestions here. I have always loved applying makeup, more than wearing it — hope that makes sense! Perhaps it is my art background and painting that has made me like makeup so much, but I think it simply takes a bit of time and practice — I am still figuring new things out all the time.
    I also want to suggest videos that really help — — she is a fantastic makeup artist, and really uses those brushes amazingly. Also, for knowing the safety and ingredients in makeup, go to skindeep — I can’t link these sites right now, but these are helpful.

    • alice

      omg, I love Lisa Eldridge!! She’s really the one who helped me learn how to apply ‘natural-looking’ makeup (at age 32) so I second the recommendation.

  9. Annabeth

    I would like to second the motions of those who recommend at least trying some good brushes. I never used to mess with them before a couple of years ago, but now I’m astonished how much more polished they make me look.

    I always wear lipstick, mostly because I’m extremely pale; if I don’t have some color on my face, often people will ask if I’m feeling okay! MAC’s combination foundation/powder is a godsend, and I never skip that either. Beyond that, it varies. Usually I use some eyeliner and mascara. Often I try a bit of eyeshadow – nothing too dramatic, but something. Blush is more rare (I’m trusting the lipstick to do the work of not making me look like death warmed over), and brow pencil is the sure sign that I’m getting super fancy!

    Don’t get intimidated. The same techniques that bewildered me five years ago are the same ones i can now whip through in about five minutes. You’ll get the hang of it!

  10. Anamarie

    I’m fairly decent with makeup. I tend to focus on lashes, liner and lips. If I don’t wear mascara and a little eyeliner, my eyes tend to look lash less! My beauty goal this year is to really learn to apply eyeshadow. I have been viewing tutorials, cutting out magazine photos, and flipping through make up books. I’ll get there eventually! I have always just used one neutral color, but would like to learn how to use a palette of colors for different looks.

  11. Abby


    I haven’t entered the professional world yet, but I’ve been meaning to start using light make-up to prepare for when I do. My problem isn’t that I don’t have enough experience–I just have the wrong kind of experience. I’m a theatre major, which means when I do make-up I end up looking great…if everyone is 20 feet or more away!! I’m hoping I’ll (eventually) learn to be a little more subtle with my make-up, and this will definitely help!

  12. Becky

    It’s funny–as a goth, I’m perceived as wearing a LOT of makeup, and yet my routine is ridiculously simple.

    1. Concealer on spots and under eyes
    2. Powder (I do buy expensive powder, and it is worth every penny)
    3. Gobs of eyeliner (much easier than trying to do a thin, subtle line!)
    4. Dark lipstick, usually navy blue or red

    My friend went as a goth for Halloween, and when I did her makeup she kept exclaiming, “It’s so easy! Goth makeup is so easy! No wonder you do this all the time!”

    Lydia, I realize you’re probably going for a more traditional day look, but if you do want to experiment or go bolder on special occasions, don’t feel you need to buy ALL the makeup and brushes and watch lots of tutorials. I don’t think there’s really all that much difference between a sixteen-step “Mount Vesuvius Smoky Eye” and me blending black eyeshadow with my finger. If you want to try something quite striking but dead easy, wear a very dark or very bright lipstick and no eye makeup. You won’t look “overdone” (by conventional standards) but you’ll still look (and hopefully feel) special. Above all, don’t be intimidated! NO ONE will notice if your makeup isn’t totally perfect–most people will just appreciate the overall effect. Hope that helps!

    • Lydiag

      Thank you for your great suggestions– you must have read my mind because one of my favourite looks is bright lipstick and not much eye makeup–It makes me feel good, and is fairly easy to apply:)

  13. Shaye

    Agreed that you just have to experiment with application techniques. I did it a ton when I was in my teens; being in your 30’s doesn’t confer any special makeup application knowledge that teens lack. 🙂

    It’s funny, I experimented an awful lot just so I can wear hardly any makeup now. I use a rough sweep of Bare Minerals, brow pencil, and mascara. If I remember, I’ll smear on some gel blush. And although I have no less than 7 lip colors on me at all times, 90% of the time I just use Blistex!

  14. Rikke

    Thankyou! As a 39-year old who has never really gotten the hang of makeup, I am SO bookmarking this post.

  15. alice

    I think if you are just starting out, to stay away from full-foundations until you have a better idea of what to look for. I like tinted moisturizers with SPF. I guess that’s sort of what BB creams are too!

    My goal with makeup is to look awake and give a polished/professional impression. So for me, that means concealing under-eye, curling my lashes, putting on a little mascara, and applying a neutral-pink lip color. My whole routine probably takes about 5 minutes but make a huge difference in how I look. It’s a nice ritual to do in the morning and I really enjoy it; helps to make me feel ready for the day.

  16. Anne

    I just wanted to share what’s worked on my hormonal acne, which started flaring up about 8 months after I stopped taking birth control. It’s pretty simple: gentle cleanser like Cetaphil for only about 10 seconds. Once my face is dry, I apply benzoyl peroxide cream to problem areas. Let that dry. Once the BP is dry, I apply an AHA lotion to my face. The best I’ve found is through, the AHA+ lotion they sell there for about $20. This regimen cleared up my acne in several weeks, compared to the regimen of Dermalogica products I had tried for months … oh, the money I wasted there. Anyway, the AHA lotion seemed to be the “philosopher’s stone” of getting me over the hump. Just thought I’d share what worked for me. I’m now able to forego some of the steps (like the BP cream or AHA lotion) at night. The AHA lotion is good for anti-aging, too!