Makeup has played second fiddle to skin care for the past several years. As buzzy serum ingredients regularly became hot-ticket items and the world of “skinfluencers” dominated the social media landscape, it seemed that color cosmetics were more about churning out subtle variations of products that already existed. But, the tide is turning.
That isn’t to say makeup has been completely stagnant — it just hasn’t been able to match the fervor and the brands that were driving growth in the skin care sector (think launches from Summer Fridays, Fenty Skin, and The Ordinary). According to a consumer report conducted in 2019 by industry analytic platform NPD Group, skin care accounted for 60% of all cosmetics sales. But, this year, an industry advisor with NPD announced her prediction that makeup would experience a resurgence. And, to drive the point home, in a 2021 NPD Group report on the U.S. prestige beauty market, it was makeup that dominated beauty sales in 2020.
As a beauty editor, I keep a close eye on what’s happening on the cosmetics shelves. Over the last few months, I’ve found myself ecstatic for makeup again — which is different for me, as I’ve always gravitated more towards skin care. But nothing has caught my attention as of late in serums or moisturizers — it’s the newness showing up in foundation bottles and lipstick tubes that has me feeling like an unsupervised teen in a Sephora store with money in her pocket.
Even the most full coverage and bold makeup products increasingly work in synergy with your skin instead of simply painting over it.
But... what has sparked the change? Most obviously, the world went through a pandemic. Putting on a full face of makeup felt tiresome and pointless. While I wasn’t going to give up on my beauty products entirely, I wanted them to do more while being easy to use. According to Charlene Valledor, a cosmetic formulator for SOS Beauty, this was a sentiment felt throughout the industry. “Constantly being on Zoom for the last year, we got accustomed to always being on camera, and people didn’t necessarily want to have a full face of makeup on for these interactions,” she tells Bustle. At the same time, people (myself included) still didn’t want to spend all day looking at themselves without some topical encouragement.
The beauty industry has also begun introducing smarter, more thoughtful formulas that have made wearing pigment and cover-up more appealing. Even the most full coverage and bold makeup products increasingly work in synergy with your skin instead of simply painting over it. Valledor points to textures that are less about opacity and concealing and more about amplifying what already exists. “It's almost like an ‘engineered’ or ‘optimized’ version of natural,” she says. Celebrity makeup artist Katie Mellinger has also noticed this shift on the shelves. “It’s not just about looking good [with makeup] — it’s about how the product treats your face,” she tells Bustle. “If a brand launches a new makeup product without including ingredients that benefit the skin, it really feels like they’re missing an opportunity.”
There has also been surmountable progress in terms of color payoff, especially in skin-forward makeup formulas. Krupa Koestline, a cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants, says that the number of clean — aka more plant-based and less toxic — ingredients she can work with has increased from 1,000 to over 10,000. “This allows formulators to be more creative, more innovative with formulation, and to create better products simply because there are more tools in their tool belt,” she explains.
Now for the fun part: Below are the 19 best makeup products of 2021 (so far) that are leading the charge in the world of pigment.
We only include products that have been independently selected by Bustle's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
Face cosmetics have gotten more skin-friendly and less caked on. The first part of the category’s glow-up was an obvious fix and a solution a long time in the making — expanding shade ranges. Now it’s easier than ever for consumers to find a foundation that matches their skin and undertone. The formulas themselves are also lightweight (regardless of coverage level) and packed with the most renowned skin care ingredients, so you get to nourish your complexion as you reap the benefit of a more even glow.
Saie’s Slip Tint is the approachable yet unbelievably chic MVP of light-coverage face cosmetics. The application is always smooth and even, and it lasts long enough that I’ve never had to touch up or reapply midday. The formula delivers moisture via jojoba esters and pansy flower extract, and contains SPF 35 for sun protection. Also notable? It gives off a gorgeous natural sheen.
I don't often wear foundation, but I'll use this Foundation Stick by Merit every single day. It's essentially a concealer, foundation, and color corrector in the easiest-to-use format, and it’s packed with fatty acids that nourish your skin barrier. The creamy, buildable texture is perfect whether you're just dabbing some on to cover a blemish or swiping all over for a more even complexion, so it’s truly a multitasking superstar.
Iris & Romeo only has two beauty products. I’m not mad about this because — holy hell — if the brand needs to take its time to perfect every formula the way it did with Best Skin Days, then it’s more than worth it. The cult-favorite cream is a nourishing serum-foundation hybrid with SPF protection that does it all. Whenever I’m wearing it, I’ll always receive compliments on my gleaming complexion. Mellinger also points to its roster of skin-boosters: antioxidants, rose flower water, and hyaluronic acid, so it’s actually beneficial to have on all day.
Dr. Gio created a collection of K-Beauty-inspired makeup that’s inclusive for darker skin tones. Its initial launch — a fluffy cushion foundation — is a hit. Though it gives amazing coverage, it’s super breathable. But it's the ingredient list that’s especially impressive: Besides SPF 50, it contains hyaluronic acid and shea butter for moisture, cica to soothe redness, vitamin C to protect, and niacinamide to plump.
Eye makeup of the past was about tradeoffs: a deep black eyeliner meant inevitable smudging, eyeshadow would fade if you didn’t use a primer, mascara wreaked havoc on eyelashes, and doing your brows practically required a fine arts degree. This new school of eye makeup products, however, makes zhuzhing the upper half of your face a breeze: Formulas are multitasking, foolproof to apply, and hydrate or condition as you wear them.
Kosas has been a trailblazing makeup brand since it launched thanks to its hybrid skin-boosting formulas and uber flattering pigments. But, ever since I tried its tinted Air Brow gel, I've been smitten: It fluffs, lifts, and shapes like no other brow product, all while it doubles as a conditioning serum that coats your hairs with strand-boosting peptides.
Kulfi was launched to bring makeup shades catered towards the South Asian community. Its standout product is the creamy Kajal Eyeliner, a stick that truly glides across your skin with long-lasting, vibrant color in a number of fun hues (think terracotta, rich purple, and royal blue). You also reap the benefit of hydrating aloe vera and vitamin E in the formula, so it delivers a definition that works double duty.
There are so many celebrity beauty brands right now, but none of them excite me as much as Halsey’s About-Face makeup line. This eye paint specifically is perfectly pigmented — one tiny drop can cover your whole lid in a semi-sheer wash of stunning color (seriously: pick from aquamarine, neon green, and pastel yellow). And it doesn’t crease. It is truly the eyeshadow of makeup lovers’ dreams.
Though Byredo launched its highly anticipated makeup collection last fall, I still find myself in awe of some of the products — namely the Colour Stick. While I've used plenty of multipurpose sticks throughout my beauty career, Byredo's formula feels unique: It goes on like a cream, dries quickly, and stays put. What's more, the color offerings are incredible, unusual, and dreamy, ranging from a transparent mix of blue and purple to a chocolate brown with flecks of turquoise glitter. Now that summer's here, I've been swiping Kinda Blue, a shimmery, deep-ocean hue, on my eyelids for a quick — and sexy — pop of color. Note that you can use it on your lips and cheeks, too.
Brand 19/99 figured out how to take the eyelash extension/faux lash experience and distill it into a bottle. This noteworthy mascara makes your eyelashes dark and lifts them up, and the wand — the thinnest I’ve ever come across — easily coats every single strand. It makes my eyes look more open and awake in a way no other mascara ever has. On top of that, its formula uses jojoba and avocado oils to nourish your lashes as you wear it.
Gone are the days of only having matte or satin lip products to choose from. Nowadays, you can find a color for your pout in every finish imaginable: oily, glossy, powdery tint, long-lasting dye, velvety finish, demi-matte finish... and the list goes on. Regardless of the final effect achieved, the new generation of lipsticks offer controllable pigment, an even application, and moisturizing formulas.
Mented is a Black-owned beauty brand, which means melanin-rich skin tones are a priority — not an afterthought. Though there are currently five shades of its Liquid Lipstick, all of them are universally flattering earthy neutrals. The textural finish of the product itself is like an airy velvet and plays well with lip liners if you’re going for a supermodel-in-the-‘90s makeup look.
This baby is a matte balm. While it sounds like an oxymoron, Violette_Fr — founded by French beauty wizard Violette — figured out a way to create the seemingly impossible. The product gives a soft tint rather than a noticeable pigment and feels nourishing (thanks to sunflower seed oil, a star moisturizer) while looking invisible. Basically, the finish makes me feel like I’ve got a naturally flushed pout.
Tower 28’s Tinted Balm is an example of a lip product that pushes beyond the harsh divide of being just opaque or sheer. Though it’s very pigmented, it’s simultaneously easy to spread and build upon, so you can wear it as a subtle, blurring tint or a full-on opaque lipstick with a satin sheen. But it’s not just for your lips, either — swipe it onto your lids and/or cheeks for the easiest monochromatic look. The aloe vera and green tea extract (the latter of which is a skin-protecting antioxidant) means it hydrates any area you apply it.
The texture of Uoma Beauty’s Boss Gloss Liquid Marble is unlike any other lip stain out there. Magically, it brings you the long-lasting wear of a stain, the glassy finish of a gloss, and the nourishment of a balm (via lychee extract, a vitamin-rich moisturizer) — all in one tube. It also has one of the more vibrant color selections on the shelves.
I never realized the nuisance of layering a balm under a pigmented lip product until I tried Persona’s E-balm. This tinted balm is a hybrid product that does both jobs: It’s nourishing and full of skin care heavy hitters — like vitamin E and aloe — but it also deposits a demure wash of color. If I’m leaving the house with nothing but the storage of my pockets, this is the product I grab.
In the past, contouring, highlighting, and doing anything beyond a basic sweep of blush on the cheekbones required watching a makeup tutorial to master. Adding dimension to your face with these products also meant multiple steps and items. Not anymore: The world of cheek products 2.0 brings better textures that harmonize with your skin rather than sit on top of it. And, as is the case with the other makeup categories, they’re more spiked with complexion-boosting ingredients than ever.
Gucci Westman is a makeup artist of mythic proportions. So when she finally launched her own makeup line, Westman Atelier, I was steeped in anticipation — and it didn’t let me down. This highlight stick is the most ethereal and your-skin-but-better product that has ever graced my cheekbones. It avoids the usual pitfalls of highlighters that give an overly holographic iridescence or large speckles of glitter — instead, it just looks like light and luminosity hitting your face exactly where you want it to. The stick formula is soft as butter, too, which makes for an especially seamless application, and the vitus vita fruit extract in the tube delivers moisture to your skin.
I know blush comes in all forms these days, but this one is by far the most unique that I've ever used. The green-tinted clear liquid — which features hydrating staples like jojoba, sweet almond, and olive oils — experiences a chemical reaction that transforms it into a uniquely flattering-for-you shade upon swiping onto your skin, experiences a chemical reaction that transforms it into a uniquely flattering-for-you shade. It's like a beautifying magic trick in a tube, and I'm hooked.
This brand new line of glittery cosmetics isn't your ordinary source of shimmer: Its glitter is made of biodegradable plant cellulose. And that doesn't mean sacrificing on oomph or longevity — the products all deliver serious sheen. I'm particularly into the Color Cream tubes, which you can swipe onto your face, body, or hair for fun pops of iridescent color.
Freck has singlehandedly changed the word association of “slime” for me. Instead of “ew, gross,” my first thought is now “ooh, chic.” That’s because the multitasking product is so pigmented you’ll only ever need the tiniest drop or two, and the shades are unbelievably flattering. The formula, which is infused with plant collagen, has also managed to avoid the patchiness frequently found in liquid blushes — it goes on like a viscous cream and lasts all day.
After years of searching for a bronzer that doesn't make my cheeks look muddy or orange, Victoria Beckham's new collection feels heaven-sent — and unlike any powdered bronzers I've tried. Each compact comes with two complementary shades: I like to dust the lighter hue along the bridge of my nose and around my hairline and swirl the darker one along my cheekbones and up toward my temples for an all-over, lit-from-within glow. The matte formula feels decidedly silkier than other bronzers I've used (perhaps due to the nourishing cocoa butter and moringa oil in it) and the lack of shimmer makes for a more natural tan.