This may surprise you, but everything the beauty industry tells you is a lie. Okay, so definitely not everything, but pretty much every time you hear about “universally flattering makeup shades,” you should keep in mind that, for many people in power, the universe does not include people with non-fair skin tones. Case in point: If M.A.C's Ruby Woo is supposed to look good on everyone, then why does it make me look like Bozo the clown’s sidekick? And before you shake your first and yell about Nars’ Orgasm blush, let me tell you: It looked like I had glittery dirt on my face when I tried it on.
Maybe the problem isn't that the industry is lying to you, maybe the problem is more about the fact that "universally flattering" is just a too good to be true concept. Maybe nothing is truly universal. Maybe! But before you worry that I'm being a defeatist, let me just tell you that, through years of "research" (aka makeup hoarding and coercing my friends to put on makeup at my place), I’ve come across a few surefire shades and products that are actually universally flattering on brown complexions.
Let’s start with the product that started this whole thing: red lipstick. As far as lipstick shades go, there are essentially two types of red, cool shades and warm shades. Warm reds (bright tomato-y hues) are generally going to be less flattering on brown skin, whereas cool reds, which are deeper and may have hints of red or berry, are going to work better. So go for the cool reds if you've got darker skin, and you're less likely to go wrong. And I know, you want actual product recs. Don't worry, I've got those too. My favorites are: Rodin Lip Wardrobe in Red Hedy, Colourpop Ultra Matte Lip in Love Bug, and Nars Pure Matte Lipstick in Amsterdam. Red Hedy is pretty close to a “true red” but veers into crimson territory with purple undertones, Amsterdam is a more subtle brickish-brown red, and Love Bug is a red with deep black and purple undertones.
Aaaaaand now... lip tints. Do they work? For anyone? Ever? I’m kidding, I’m sure they do, I know they do, because I’ve seen it happen (on other people). Lip tints almost never show up on me because the base color of my lip is too dark. I’ve never been able to achieve that easy breeziness that the theoretical premise of a lip tint promises. But there are some options: Milk lip pigments, YSL’s lip oils, Tom Ford's Patent Lip Color and Winky Lux Flower Balms. Not all of these products are explicitly lip tints, but they work the same way. Milk Lip Pigment in That Red Tho will make it look like maybe you got lost in a forest and ate your body weight in raspberries. YSL’s lip oils take a second to kick in; they start out looking like lip gloss (except without the stickiness, an added bonus), but after a short while, you’re left with a deep dye on your lips. If you’re looking for peachy light shades, these are likely the only ones with any staying (and showing) power. For darker tints, Tom Ford Patent Lip Color is best in Exposed, a deep berry shade. Part of its genius is that it’s extremely buildable. If you put in on really light and thin it’ll look like a tint, but the more you layer on the more opaque and lipstick-looking it becomes. The most surprising product here is probably the Winky Lux Flower Balm; while it seems really gimmicky (it’s a clear lipstick with a tiny flower at it’s base) at first, it goes on as a sheer pink and leaves a subtle pink tint.
With nudes and neutrals it can be taxing to continue to try out the majority of marketed “nude” shades, which in fact make it look like you ate a pound of chalk. For lipliners, go with NYX’s retractable version in Cocoa, Clarins lip liner in Nude Rose, and Hourglass Lip Liner in Eden. For nude lipsticks, try Son & Park Lip Crayon in Carrot, MAC lipstick in Taupe, and Kat Von D’s Lolita II. I’m convinced that these are all magical lipstick shades that, much like the Sisterhood of Traveling Pants jeans, adjust themselves to their owner. They’re all vaguely in the nude and neutral wheelhouse, so even if they’re not exact matches they’ll still bring out the glimmer and glow in your complexion.
And now for the rest of your face: Blush is the bane of my existence, it’s impossibly easy to go from 0 to Miss Piggy real quick. Reality set in and I realized that these were not suited for my melanin levels. For a good time there’s Charlotte Tilbury who has not one but two great options: Love Glow which is more pink and defining, and First Love, more brown and subtle. Becca is also generally a great brand for POC, I’m convinced that they create most of their products with melanin in mind, which is a nice change of pace. Go with Flowerchild for a subtle pink flush, or Dahlia if you’re looking for a deeper red shade.
As far as highlighters go, it’s a pretty safe game, but still there is still one product that reigns over them all: Anastasia Beverly Hills Ultimate Glow Kit, which is the most divine highlighting palette to have ever existed. All six shades in the palette look ethereal on brown skin tones, like you went to St. Barts and/or found the fountain of youth.
Similarly to highlighters, eyeshadows tend to be more truly universal, but at the same time never trust anyone that says Kitten by Stila is the easiest shade for ~everyone~ (it’s not); it gave my eyes that early 2000’s frostiness that was so actually bad, it’s been left out of all the recent '00s nostalgia. However, Inglot’s pigments, are by nature extremely versatile and buildable. A ton of them are also two-toned in a way that makes the most dramatic shades look flattering and natural. There are over 60 shades, so here’s the cheatsheet that work on every single melanin-kissed brown girl I know: Inglot Pigments in 86 (bronze), 111 (a subtle light pink), 115 (gold) and 120 (a purplish brown). Enjoy!
Obviously, "universal" is a tricky concept for all people, no matter their skin tone; the main problem with the word's frequent use is that it usually applies to fair-skinned people and fair-skinned people only. But now that you've got some basic, no brainer go-tos for brown complexions, ideally meant to save you some stress, and prevent excessive spending and an endless cycle of swatching and testing, I encourage you to go out there and experiment and find what works best for you. It's a big beauty universe out there, you should never feel like you don't fit in.