The power of the red pout: How to find your perfect red lipstick

Seductive, emboldening, traffic-stopping – it’s the lipstick shade that demands attention. And there’s the right red for every one of us, says YOU ’s beauty director Edwina Ings-Chambers.

For me, and surely most women, there are no two words more possessed with the promise of glamour than ‘red lipstick’. Perhaps it’s all the Saturdays I spent watching old movies – that double matinee slot on BBC Two, several hours’ worth of classic Hollywood – that set me up big time. For no celluloid siren was without her red lippy: Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Rita Hayworth. But it wasn’t just the screen goddesses – even women who played the perfect wife or the cool and discreet type would rouge up their lips: Myrna Loy, Grace Kelly, Irene Dunne. They’d have no more been seen (at least on screen) without their lipstick than their clothes. It was a part of dressing, a part of being well turned out, part of being A Woman.

A cigarette card from the 1920s. Photo by LMPC via Getty Images.

My mother – always impeccably turned out and my own personal style touchstone – wears it, too. When I was a child she prized her lipstick, which was not quite as disposable and plentiful an asset as it is now. I recall her horror one day when she came home to find that one of us youngsters had smeared some of her coloured wax all over the suede lining of her favourite handbag. It was a red alert, serious distress signal moment.

Rita Hayworth. Photo by Jeff Morgan 06/ Alamy Stock Photo

So I pretty much grew up assuming that I, too, would wear red lipstick. As soon as I was old enough, I would adopt this womanly ritual. And then, somehow, I didn’t. Perhaps it was because I really came of fashion age in the early 1990s grunge era, when Mac’s brick-coloured Spice lip liner was all the rage – every supermodel worthy of a magazine cover seemed to use it, so I did, too. It wasn’t that no one ever wore red any more, but the nudes felt more in kilter with the time. (I also repeat-bought a Chanel lip gloss palette that was all about shades of nudey-brown beige. I think I still have one somewhere.)

Marilyn Monroe Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Things moved on, as they do. Then, in one of my all-time ultimate style icon moments in 1997, Kate Moss walked the Cannes red carpet with then beau Johnny Depp wearing a grey Narciso Rodriguez dress, loose hair and almost no make-up bar a luscious coating of red lipstick. It was the nth degree of chic. Pared down yet bold, understated yet that small shot of vibrancy made it seem all dressed up with every place to go. Red lipstick was back and it hasn’t gone away since.

Grace Kelly. Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images.

So, finally, I too dabbled with the look. But somehow, despite those years of ingraine beauty beliefs that red lipstick was my womanly destiny, it looked wrong. Instead of sophisticated, it made me appear juvenile – like a child who had played with her mother’s make-up bag. I felt it made my small mouth seem even smaller. I felt self-conscious – the opposite to how I’d always thought it would make me feel – transformed into some kind of Lauren Bacall.

Liza Minnelli. Photo by Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

So, instead of embracing red, I became more of a natural-look girl, finding my beauty power in simply being me – putting my own, but not necessarily best or overly groomed, face forward. Because that’s the thing about red lipstick, it’s generally seen as a power tool for women: it is strength delivered via a shot of pigment. It’s the make-up equivalent of shoulder pads. It’s Margaret Thatcher’s handbag. It’s the Queen’s crown jewels (she did actually wear a special custom-made shade of red lipstick for her coronation). It’s emboldening because it draws attention to a woman’s mouth and, ergo, what she’s saying from it. And, given that for the majority of women’s history we haven’t had much of a voice at all, this factor cannot be understated or underestimated.

Photo by Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

Some say red-painted lips are all about sexual connotations (you know, arousal ‘down there’), but I’m not so sure. Red in general is a colour we all rely on to grab attention and impart urgency: the stop of the traffic lights, the no-entry of a road sign, a no-smoking warning. It’s the colour of fire and blood. And it’s the shade of lipstick that in 1912 Elizabeth Arden handed out to women marching in New York for the women’s vote – when red lipstick was still considered not the done thing (the brand still celebrates this with a limited-edition March On lipstick each year – ten per cent of proceeds go to UN Women). Red on a woman’s mouth is about amplification. Sure, seduction comes into it. But for the most part you’ll find women talking about it as a form of armour, an emboldening way to face the day.

Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Though here’s my take on it: the real power of wearing red lipstick is in the reaction it elicits from others – they seem to stand that little bit straighter; stop that little bit longer; listen that little bit harder.

And yes, I did eventually find ‘my’ red lipstick. But it was only really when technology improved the formula. Traditional lipsticks always dried my lips, which didn’t help matters when the bold shade was already feeling a bit too much. Then Giorgio Armani Lip Maestro entered my life. For a period I became all about red lipstick – my shade was an orangey red (no 402, Chinese Lacquer), a lightweight liquid matt that glides on smoothly and lasts for hours without dehydrating. For months I wore it Kate Moss-like, with little other make-up. And I felt like a woman – a grown-up, in-control-of-my-life, first-rate woman. Funny how deep these things can run, but when you find your red it really is a trusty style stalwart. You can get away with wearing anything – even jeans and a T-shirt – but look instantly pulled together if you add some red lippy.

The search is over: YOU’s beauty director Edwina wearing ‘her’ shade: Giorgio Armani Lip Maest ro in Chinese lacquer.

If you still feel unsure about red lipstick, here’s what I’ve learnt: apply it but don’t dwell on it as you look in the mirror. That’s the major stumbling block – focusing on it too much, like staring at your outfit in a mirror but only seeing your hips and deciding that they’re huge because you’ve lost sight of proportion. Put it on, then leave the house (even if inside your head you’re telling yourself you look like a clown). And remember, it doesn’t have to be about full-on coverage. You can go for a stain. Or take a lipstick you love and press it
into the lips so it gives an impression but isn’t quite the whole shebang. Then think no more about it and go forth. You’ve done your bit, now it’s time for the lipstick to do the work.

Find your perfect red

There’s a shade for everyone. Top make-up artist Justine Jenkins reveals how to find the one for you.


Best for pale skin

Pale complexions generally look more radiant with blue-toned reds and more beautiful with pinky reds. Try Marc Jacobs Le Marc Lip Creme in Oh Miley (1, £27,; Kat Von D Everlasting Liquid Lipstick in Outlaw (2, £17, and Charlotte Tilbury’s Kissing Lipstick in Love Bite (3, £24,

If your skin is medium

Warm shades are perfect for medium skin tones. I recommend: RMS Beauty Wild With Desire Lipstick in RMS Red (4, £30,; Delilah Colour Intense Cream Lipstick in Floozy (5, £24, and Charlotte Tilbury Hot Lips in Tell Laura (6, £24,

For dark complexions

These rock most reds. However, true reds such as Too Faced Melted Matte Lipstick in Lady Balls (7, £19, and deep reds such as Hourglass Girl Lip Stylo in Visionary (8, £29, or Burt’s Bees Liquid Lipstick in Drenched Dahlia (9, £9.99, look exquisite.

Are you cool or warm?

To help choose the right red for you, you need to know what undertone your skin has: cool undertones suit bluey reds, while for warm undertones, an orange red will look fabulous. If you’re not sure which undertone you have, simply look at the veins on the inside of your arms. If they are blue, you have cool undertones. If they are green, you have warm undertones, and if you can’t really tell, you have neutral undertones, which means – lucky you – all reds suit you.

Know your reds

We think of red as a hot colour but to nail the right shade for you, like your skin, you need to work out whether it has cool or warm undertones. Trying the red on the underside of your arm is a great way to see its undertone, and how the shade works with your colouring. If the red looks blue- or purple-toned, it is a cool shade; if it has an orange feel to it, it is warm.

How to apply

  • Always apply your lip colour first. If your lipstick tends to bleed, stick to very matt textures. Apply one layer, blot, powder the lips with translucent powder through one ply of tissue, then apply a second coat.
  • Next apply your lip liner.
  • To lock in colour and create a no-budge texture, finish by running an ice cube over your lips. I’m not a fan of lipstick sealing products as they can make the lips feel a bit tacky, and I find this traditional method just as effective.
  • Another great old-school trick for post application is to suck your thumb after the final coat of colour to blot the inside of your lips and help prevent the lipstick transferring to your teeth.
  • Finally, when you have that glass of champagne, lick your lips before taking a sip. Your saliva creates a barrier so your lipstick stays on your lips, not on the glass.

And here are Edwina’s tips

  • Use foundation or concealer to hide any redness in your complexion as a red lipstick will emphasise it even more.
  • For a smoother finish and to avoid lipstick settling into cracks try Mac’s Prep and Prime Lip (£14, or Veneffect’s Anti-Aging Lip Treatment (£68,
  • Apply lipstick from the centre outwards to decrease product build-up around the lip line.
  • To stop lipstick ‘bleeding’ use a long-lasting liner – a hydrating one will slip into any fine lines around the mouth and cause feathering. Alternatively, apply foundation around the outer edges of the lip to create a boundary.
  • For dry lips or a softer look, try a red lip oil such as Lancôme’s Juicy Shaker in Cherry Symphony (£20, or Revlon’s Cushion Lip Tint in Crimson Feels (£7.99,