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Lipstick's Liquid Formulas Are the Secret to My Smear-Free Face

It starts as a gloss, dries more like paint, and can last the entire day without rubbing off.
​Image: Scaachi Koul

​I've worn red lipstick nearly every day for the last eight years and not a day has gone by that I haven't accidentally spread it from ear to ear, like a sexy comic book Joker. Without question, it is the most irrational cosmetic product that women continue to use. Did we really think that rubbing coloured pigments on our lips—maneuvering around sandwiches and disposable coffee cup tops and shared cigarettes—wouldn't make our lives harder? Someone at some point in the 16th century must have looked around and said, "This shit is all over my teeth and I can't dab my face with a napkin without looking like I've been slapped across the mouth."


But only during the past few months did I realize there was a cure for the ruddy-faced look of smeared lipstick. Forget 12-hour lipsticks or long-lasting liner—the good stuff is liquid lipstick, a formula that starts as a gloss and dries more like paint than a traditional solid lipstick, sometimes in a matte finish. An added bonus: plenty of liquid formulas are vegan, so if 100 percent cruelty-free is your bag, you have a good shot finding it in a liquid. But easily the best part is that it can last your entire day without rubbing off, or drying your lips so much that you want to rub butter on your face. Which, to be fair, I feel like doing most of the time.

While solid formulas are still the status quo, liquid lipstick has started gaining popularity with larger brands such as Revlo​n and Lu​sh. Smaller brands, including Lim​eCrime, Jeffree Star Cosmet​ics, and Anastasia Beve​rly Hills (now one of the makeup prizes on RuPaul's Drag Race, which is a BIG DEAL), are all making their own liquid formulas too. This is what I've been waiting for: something I can apply first thing in the morning, touch up at lunch, and otherwise ignore it, regardless of whatever unholy action my mouth is performing that day.

Solid lipsticks smear easily, and rub off as soon as you eat anything. Liquid lipsticks provide an answer.

Most solid lipsticks have a few of the same properties in common. "The main ingredients in a lipstick include a solidifier, diluent oils, and colorant," said Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic formulator who runs the blog Chemists​ Corner. Wax—often beeswax or carnauba wax, for example—gives the lipstick structure, and is preferably wax with a high melting point so that it doesn't ooze all over your bag when you take it to the beach on a hot day. Oil is used to give lipstick some gloss, and for additional lubrication. (Have you ever tried to use a dried out lipstick? It is, without exaggeration, worse than being murdered.) Finally, pigments are added to give your colour its colour—like my favourite deep reds that let me look like I just ate a live man's heart and forgot to clean up later.


"Lipsticks are made by blending the colours with the waxy dispersant, then blending with the rest of the ingredients," Romanowski said. There are, of course, variations on this formula: some use gelatin instead of wax for structure (derived from literal animal bones, you carnivorous beast), while others use cochineal beetles for colour, boiling the insects to extract their carminic acid. But for the most part, solid lipsticks are rarely vegan. They smear easily, can bleed off your lips without the proper lip liner, and rub off as soon as you eat anything.

Liquid lipsticks provide an answer. Plenty of them are vegan, highly pigmented, non-drying, and dry to a matte finish instead of something glossy or sheer. Oh, and they won't quite smear like their solid counterparts.

But plenty of formulas—particularly the cheaper ones you can buy at your local pharmacy—are bad. They dry and peel, and come with a moisturizing top coat that doesn't actually work, because the pigments are what actually dry your lips out. The worst liquid formulas I've tried seeped into the wrinkles of my lips, sucked the moisture out within an hour, and left me looking like the kind of person who applies lipstick only into the creases and ridges of my arid mouth.

Waxes keep your lips from drying out. If the formula lacks the right balance, it's easy for them to crack.

Rose Nichols, CEO, president, and founder of ​Lip-Ink, claims to have an 100 percent smear-proof formula. She said her formula is so resilient it can survive contact with both oil and water, and you can even apply it on the inside of your lip where no lipstick has ever known to stick. This is a bold statement. It's hard to find a lip product that isn't affected by what you eat, or the back of your hand—for those mornings spent wiping tears away while sobbing in the office bathroom. (Not that I do this. Mind your own business! IT IS OKAY TO CRY AT WORK.)


Liquid lipstick doesn't differ all that much from solid lipstick in that it uses the same pigments—but with different bases. "Instead of using a solid wax," Romanowski said, "they use things like petrolatum, lanolin, or paraffin wax to disperse the colorants." And while not all liquid formulas are necessarily vegan, but the ones that are tend to use paraffin, shea butter, or Candelilla wax. Waxes keep your lips from drying out, so if the formula lacks the right balance of pigment to moisturizing base, it's easy for them to crack and feel like old mud.

In order to keep you from picking at your flaked skin, Nichols uses comparatively little pigment in her formula—between half a percent and one percent. And in order to keep a vegan formula, Nichols uses polymers, such as candy pill coatings or what is used to coat jelly beans. Polymer pigments disperse better in a liquid formula than in a solid, so your colour still comes out strong instead of like water colour.

There are so-called long-lasting liquids that employ a top-coat that's supposed to moisturize your lips—but all it actually does is dry your colour and keep it from smudging across your face. "It doesn't have a turn-off valve so it keeps drying until you could almost peel it off," Nicole said. She bills her formula as "semi-permanent" instead.

Most liquid lipsticks also have a different finish from solid. Traditional lipsticks bank on high-shine or sheen, but liquid often dries to a retro matte. That, too, is affected by the kinds of polymers used. "They have a duller film-forming polymer," Romanowski said. These film-forming agents are long-lasting, water-resistant, and create a kind of layer over the skin. Matte formulas also leave out the silicones that usually make lipstick look shiny.


Plenty of these formulas—both from big brands and smaller independents—are destroyed as soon as they come into contact with oils—so good fucking luck trying to eat absolutely anything delicious while wearing a liquid-based formula. But the more niche brands start branching out with their own liquid formulas, the better they become. Nichols said Lip-Ink is only broken by an alkaline, for example, while any of Jeffree Star's formulas will slide right off if it comes into contact with oil.

Nevertheless, liquid lipsticks aren't as ubiquitous as their solid counterparts. It's possible that cost has something to do with it—they're more expensive to produce—and consumers are far more familiar with the type that comes in a bullet-shaped package. (Liquid, alternatively, comes in a tube with an applicator wand, like the gloss you used to use in junior high that fit so perfectly in the front pocket of your Bluenotes jeans.)

Sure there's still room for improvement, from finding a less drying formula, to a colour that spreads more evenly, or a liquid that isn't $20 goddamn American dollars plus shipping. But if you ask me, liquid-to-matte lipstick is a far superior product, and one that's made all my solid lipsticks virtually obsolete. The downside is that the wrong formula can dry your lips or sink into the creases of your mouth; the upside is never again looking like you've licked all your makeup off.

That's an easy tradeoff to make in order to look like a vaguely ethnic Jessica Rabbit wherever I go. So thanks, science! Finally, you got off your ass and did something for me.

Scaachi Koul is the managing editor of ​Hazlitt. You can follow her on Twitter:​@scaachi

This story is part of The Building Blocks of Everything, a series of science and technology stories on the theme of materials. Check out more here: