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