The Lip Stain Game


In the late 1920s, a full-page ad appeared in magazines touting a lipstick called Kissproof ("Give your lips this glorious adventure!"). This was back when ads had adorably sexist narratives that included lots of italics. On the upper-left side of the page, two women—one in a slinky red dress, and the other in funeral black—are smiling at each other in a powder room. Their conversation goes as follows:

Funeral Black: "Please lend me your lipstick, Rosalie darling. I must have lost mine."

Big Red: "I'm sorry, my dear, but I forgot mine—don't carry one very often in fact."

FB: "What—don't always carry a lipstick? What on earth do you do?"

You guessed it—she wears Kissproof. A lip color so resilient, of course she wouldn’t need to reapply, come a night of dissolute suitors or women’s lib conventions. And thus I landed on the line that would become my beauty mission statement:

"The modern woman, with her active, energetic life and pressing necessity always to look her best, cannot be bothered with lipstick that needs continual retouching."

Amen, ad man.

For better or worse, Kissproof is long gone (unless you have time to scour the depths of Etsy, in which case, lmk). But where Big Red left off, lip stains picked up, attempting to address our present-day agendas: thousands of color options, gloss, balms, matte, glitter (we know you’re out there), sunscreen, cruelty-free, carcinogen-free, beautiful packaging, Instagramability, and still the promise to last all day and night long. Or in my case, through eight hours at the office, two tequilas, and three slices of pizza.

Which brings me to the heart of this article: a science experiment. Over several months, I tried almost every lip stain under the fluorescent Sephora sun to see if I really could have it all. First, you should know: there is no lip stain I've tried that didn't come off, at least a little, on a straw, a wine glass, a coffee mug, or can of Modelo. But, there were many that kept my lips fully covered through an average day without bleeding, smudging, getting on my teeth, or fading awkwardly. The results, below:

The Glosses

Make Up For Ever Aqua Rouge: This stuff doesn’t budge. But know that it's a two-step (and two-sided) process. First, you brush the color on (I used Pomegranate Pink), then seal it with a layer of clear gloss, which is some sort of potion that simultaneously moisturizes and protects the color from fading. The results are a little shiny—but not that gloppy, oh-my-god-if-there's-a-strong-wind-a-fly-could-land-on-my-mouth-and-be-preserved-for-all-time kind of glop. And if you're a die hard, bury-me-in-matte kind of girl, you can always blot it. After about 20 minutes, it ends up drying to a matte finish anyway. And despite leaving my lunch burrito looking like a murder victim, this stain still remained on my lips, never on my teeth, and it didn't fade awkwardly in the center of my "pout," as they say in ladymags.

Well, I thought the Aqua Rouge was the winner until I combined it with Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics's Lip Tar (it's vegan!). I wanted to love the Lip Tar all on its own, but the color's a little too neon—I’m looking for something to wear to work, not to a rave in Bushwick. It's also a science experiment to apply: your lips need to be exfoliated, you either need to use primer or clear lip liner, you can only use the amount of a baby's teardrop, and you have to paint it with perfect precision or you'll get clown lips. I tried OCC's Lip Tar in Queen, a hot fuschia-pink (not sure if this was named after a regal queen, a drag queen, or the band) and then layered my Make Up For Ever stain of choice on top, and that lasted longer than anything else. I went to yoga after work and didn't have time to surgically remove it from my mouth, and after sweating and cursing profusely, it looked freshly applied. Nevertheless, my fellow yogis probably thought I was terribly vain, or a contestant for The Bachelor.

Sephora's Cream Stain is a close runner-up, but it needed that clear sealant from the Aqua Rouge to keep my lips hydrated. It's also a little more watery and bled off my lips while I was putting it on, so I had to wipe it all off and then start again.

The Balms

Tarte's LipSurgence crayon sticks are like the less intense little sister to the aforementioned liquid lip stains. They glide right on, you never have to worry about coloring outside the lines, and the shades are lovely (ranging from possibly-getting-laid-Friday-night red Lust, to oh-I'm-just-stopping-by-Trader-Joe's-but-Jon-Hamm-might-be-there-since-it's-Sunday-afternoon pink, Enchanted). Also, you get karma points when you wear Tarte because they use all-natural ingredients, whatever that means. I think it means peppermint oil? (It does.)

Revlon has a LipSurgence rival called Just Bitten Kissable Balm Stain. I couldn't find a color that fit me as well as Tarte's warm, rosy Enchanted, but it's an honorable facsimile. It certainly didn't survive my lunch of quinoa and fruit. Just kidding! I had a burger from Shake Shack. I had to re-apply, but that time it lasted until dinner.

The Stains 

Oh my god! Why hasn't she mentioned Benetint! Light of my life, fire of my loins! I think Benetint is great, for some people. Unlike the other lip stains, it’s the only one that actually stains your lips—it’s on the thinner side and smells like roses. The stain sinks in and gets comfortable. I can see why my friends like it, but I just don’t understand why they like like it. It takes about five layers to show any color on me, and requires too much maintenance, like ChapStick, to keep it from drying out.

Honorable Mentions

Yves Saint Laurent's Glossy Stain is not what you want if you’re looking for color that lasts through a make-out sesh. It is the gloss you want if you’re in search of beautiful color that looks sexy as hell (I used #10 Rouge Philtre, a subtle red). It has an almost sweet flavor, but it doesn’t tread into LipSmackers territory. It’s a thin gloss with almost transparent color, so it doesn’t need to be applied with a delicate, sober hand like the Aqua Rouge. It did not make its way through lunch, but it did get me the most praise from friends and colleagues, and it’s the one in my purse right now.

L’Oreal’s Shine Caresse is the drugstore version (down to the wand) of the YSL Glossy Stains, but the consistency is a little stickier, and the colors a little more iridescent. Anything remotely glittery or shiny is a deal-breaker for me, and the lighter pinks, like Rose On and On and Infinite Fuchsia, were definitely getting there. This one also tended to lose color whenever I was drinking from something, and I can’t have that, you know, because I like to stay hydrated…

—Alexandra Beggs

Alex Beggs is an editorial associate at Vanity Fair. Follow her (and her cat, Roger) on Twitter. Photos and illustrations by the author.

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • Alice Porter

    I might try the Make up Forever one! And YSL Glossy Stain will always have my heart!


  • Nomadic D.

    I am obsessed with the YSL Glossy Stains, I have 3 and am only not stocking up on more immediately because I am slightly embarrassed, and I also don't want my other lipsticks to feel bad. I do wish they'd make a non-glossy version (which, given the name, would probably be a different product all together), but I love the color selection and staying power so much, I just haven't been able to wear else!

    • Femantix

      Love, love, love your comment about not wanting your other lipsticks to feel bad!

  • Janine

    For me, the best stain was from this line called UNI Lipstick by Valli O'Reilly. The best stain ever. Ever. I was obsessed with a color called "Ibiza." It went on like a raspberry and stained your lips like a popsicle. No drying, no glossy. Like a perfect balm. I'm always searching for stragglers (though, if I do find and use one, it will burn my lips - it'd be so old). Each sheer stain had the name of a city. THE best stain. Then, Laura Mercier's "French Lips.' Again, discontinued. Bobbi Brown's original (from the '90s, Carolyn Bessette's favorite) "Ruby Stain." Yes, discontinued. Do you see a trend here? All of my favorites are discontinued. I think it's me :>

    If anyone at ITG has any idea about that old UNI line, I'd be mooost appreciative.

    Still in search of...

    • Marsi

      Janine, BB Ruby Stain was my favorite as well. I cannot imagine why they'd have discontinued it, particularly when it had the well-publicized connection to CBK. Anyway, NARS Gipsy is a dead ringer for Ruby Stain. The texture of the NARS is a bit drier than the BB, but the color is identical. When I still had a nub of Ruby Stain left years ago, I painted one half of my lips with RS and the other half with Gipsy, and I couldn't tell when one ended and the other began. Try it.

      I used to wear LM French Lips as well. It had me at "French."

      • Janine

        Thank you! NARS reformulated the sheers - I have Gipsy - and yes, it looks almost exactly like it - you're right! I e-mailed BB to see if they could reissue Ruby stain as, say, "CBK"...the way they reformulated Plum stain as "Carolina" for Carolina Herrera (that is a gorgeous color, you should try it!). (I actually have an old old Ruby stain in the house. It smells like a crayon. If only I'd saved an "Ibiza")

  • NeenaJ

    The Tarte stain dried out my lips terribly. When I brought it back, the salesgirl at Sephora told me that they had been getting returns like crazy on it. I think the peppermint oil may be the culprit.

    • Alex Beggs

      oh damn! I'm not sure if this is cheating, but I tend to wear chapstick under everything (the Palmer's Cocoa Butter glue stick thing), so maybe that's why it didn't dry out for me.

  • Venusian*Glow

    had to laugh at the GoT reference :)

  • Poulette

    Oh my, you haven't lived until you've tried Ellis Faas (can we have a top shelf on this extraordinary makeup artist & business woman?!). Her Milky Lips, while not marketed as a stain, are the nicest combination of pigmentation, flattering shine (not a high gloss) and left over stain that I've found to date. (for a stronger stain, Creamy Lips might be the way to go). I am a devotee of shade L303, but she is famous for her reds, which is next on my hit list.

  • Michelle L.

    My favorite lipstain is RMS Beauty's Lip2cheek stain in Rapture. It's matte yet hydrating, and super easy to apply with fingers. I wouldn't say that the color could survive a make-out marathon, but somehow it looks even sexier faded.

  • Emma and Emily

    So glad you have made a post on this! I also absolutely love hourglass liquid lipsticks, they last so so so long! You should try them out too :)

  • Cathi

    I am obsessed with the YSL Glossy Stains. I have 5 right now and if they bring out more colors that are not coral or nude, I'll be getting those too. They stay on me for hours and do not bleed at all.

    A less expensive option is the Maybelline SuperStay 10 Hour Stain Gloss. Doesn't have the color range or luxe factor of YSL and it does taste like cotton candy (but the smell/taste wears off quickly), but for a drugstore brand it does the trick.

  • therealblonde

    YSL Glossy Stain FTW! Since I discovered it, almost a year ago, it's almost the only thing I wear.

  • Katherine Clow

    I'll definitely have to try out the Makeup Forever one, but I do love my YSL lip products! Great list.

  • MissWix

    The Stila liquid lipstick in Beso is basically the hottest color ever, and it doesn't move. LOVE.

  • Leana

    I can't wait to try the YSL Glossy Stain! As well as the Tarte Enchanted. You had me at Jon Hamm...

  • Amanda

    The Sephora Cream Lip Stains are straight up amazing. And only $12. I also appreciate that they have a very dark color in there.

  • Zamaliba

    I think spiritual beautifulness is more important

  • Ivy

    I love the Revlon Just Bitten! So affordable! So nice!!!

  • sara

    By Terry Aqua Lip Jelly Tint is my favorite.

  • Jennifer Monforton

    Great feature! love the cute kitty and the illustrations for each. Lip Tars and Revlon Balm Stains are my favourites of the bunch!

  • Nellie

    Stellar post! Who knew an article about lip stains could be so entertaining? I'm a huge fan of YSL's Rouge Volupte Sheer Candy--especially in Luscious Cherry, a really wearable sheer red.

  • Restless Blonde

    Hahahha "oh-my-god-if-there's-a-strong-wind-a-fly-could-land-on-my-mouth-and-be-preserved-for-all-time kind of glop" I LOVE YOU! :)

    I use L'Oreal lip gloss and think it's a really good buy - especially the price is soooo good!

  • Harmony

    I've heard that the Stila Liquid Lipstick All Day is very good

  • mermaidsdream

    Can I just say that I am so so glad that this review actually has some not 100% positive things to say about a product. Seriously, thanks Alexandra, this entire article was refreshing. Hope to read more of you on here!

  • caitlin willard

    yay! i love the bloody burrito reference, i am all too familiar with that :( lip tars are great, but they do have to be applied when you have enough time and patience. i will say i have yet to find a stain that doesn't transfer during eating at all, but i have a love affair with cover girl's lip perfection lipstick in hot. it is an amazing red, and costs like $8. this stuff will come off on your food, but it will not leave your ever. which could be a negative for some people. great article alex, love this illustrations too!

  • Kristy

    Lip stains...this is so my jam

  • magpie

    Alex Beggs, I have no idea who you are but I am will be a fan forever now because of 1) that cat and 2) that Lolita reference.
    Oh, and the lipstains. Good work, ITG.

    • Alex Beggs

      internet hugs!

  • Ariel

    This piece was extremely entertainingly written. I straight-up snorted a few times! I don't read ITG often enough to know if this author is a regular contributor or not, but I would love to see more from her, please.

  • samantha

    I agree w/you on benetint. Not a huge fan. I can't get into stains b/c I like applying different colors throughout the day.

  • Harlowrose

    I love the Sephora lip stain. On me it does not move and Always Red is perfect for the holidays. Like red velvet. Very matte, though.

  • Joyce (bronzer bunny)

    Chanel Rouge Double Intensitee! A new discovery, and it is actually not coming off

  • Gina

    Another viable drugstore option is Maybelline superstay 24-hour color. It's another one of the stain + balm/gloss 2 step options. You have to exfoliate the heck out of your lips beforehand and then make sure not to press your lips together while the stain dries, but then it stays on very well if you avoid oily food. Doesn't have the color selection of some of the higher end brands, but unlike the balm stain (or its cousin, the stain+gloss, which goes on like a sharpie marker) it applies as a gloss with a lot of rich color.

  • Natalie Walker

    Oh I love this post! I have definitely got to try out the Make Up For Ever one. I really really love YSL's Glossy Stain. I've worn shade #15 Rose Vinyl every day since June because it's just so good.

  • Sabrina C.

    I love love love lip stains! It's my lazy weapon ;P I agree that OCC could be a bit much for work but sure does it last long. I personally also love Tarte and YSL. They're both so creamy and pigmented <3 Another one of my favorite is from a Korean brand called Tony Moly's 'Catchu Tony Tint'. Very similar to Benetint but not as drying.

  • Isabel

    I love your lip stain and food choices! Even though it's not marketed as a lip stain, Revlon's ColorStay Ultimate Suede lipstick works like a stain and lasts all day and even through meals and drinking.

  • Cheryl Clift

    Try Younique's lip stain. Awesomeness!
    Stays on without drying your lips.


MAKE UP FOR EVER Aqua Rouge 19 Pomegranate Pink
Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics
Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics Lip Tar – Matte Queen
SEPHORA COLLECTION Cream Lip Stain 09 Endless Pink
Tarte LipSurgence Lip Tint Lust
Tarte LipSurgence Lip Tint Enchanted
Revlon Just Bitten Kissable Balm Stain – Adore
Benefit Benetint
Yves Saint Laurent
Yves Saint Laurent Glossy Stain 10 Rouge Philtre
L'Oreal Paris Colour Riche
L'Oreal Paris Colour Riche Caresse Wet Shine Stain, Rose On and On
L'Oreal Colour Riche
L'Oreal Paris Colour Riche Caresse Aqua Lip Lacquer – Infinite Fuchsia