The contents of a woman's makeup bag can say as much about her as the shoes that line her closet. A shiny black Chanel eye shadow palette has the same sleek appeal as a sexy pair of Jimmy Choo stilettos, and the gilded exterior of a YSL Touche Eclat concealer pen oozes the same sense of luxury as a pair of satin Louboutins.
These days, though, such luxe touches are increasingly commingled with products that proudly telegraph "value" and "I don't need to pay more." The same "high-low" impulse that has women comfortably mixing J.Crew with those Jimmy Choos is working its way into their makeup routines, replacing some department store buys with mascaras and lipsticks found at the drugstore.
With traditional drugstore brands incorporating high-end innovations in low-cost product lines, the drugstore is becoming the H&M; of the cosmetics world for everyday makeup. Maybelline has its own $15 version of the vibrating mascara wand popularized last year by brands such as Lancome at twice the cost. Revlon makes a foundation that adapts to skin color once it glides onto the face, taking the guesswork out of finding the perfect shade. (It's much like Smashbox Cosmetics' O-gloss and O-glow, which go on clear but change color according to your skin tone.) L'Oreal Color Juice sheer lip glosses have a package, consistency and smell that are similar to Lancome's Juicy Tube glosses -- but cost half as much.
And most drugstore brands have added mineral-based powders and foundations to their lines, creating an affordable alternative to the mineral products once exclusive to stores such as Sephora. That's made it easy for shoppers to trade down.
"Makeup is easy to downsize because there is far less brand loyalty," says Wendy Lewis, president of the New York-based Global Aesthetics Consultancy. Women are more likely to spend money on high-end skin-care brands that make age-reversing serums and eye creams, she adds, but when it comes to cosmetics such as lip gloss and eye shadow, they are stepping back from the department store counter and into the bright lights of the drugstore.
"There was a time when you wouldn't be caught dead buying in a drugstore," says Lewis. "That stigma is gone. There is a reverse chic of buying 'masstige' brands" -- which offer luxurious touches or cutting-edge features at mass-market prices.
Indeed, the drugstore cosmetic market has been shining, despite declining sales in the beauty industry as a whole. Total makeup sales dipped 2% nationwide in 2008 compared to 2007, according to a joint study by market research firms NPD Group and Information Resources. But the same study found that while department store sales of cosmetics dropped 4%, the food, drug and mass merchandiser channel (excluding Wal-Mart) actually saw a 1% increase.
A study by Chicago-based research firm Mintel International found that eye makeup accounts for 40% of color cosmetic sales through the channel that includes drugstores. That's up 31% from 2003 to $1 billion in sales in 2008.
Drugstores have gone after customers by setting aside more space for value cosmetics and finding new ways to lure shoppers. CVS, for example, has launched Beauty 360, an area in select stores that sells niche and prestige cosmetics from lines such as Laura Geller and Cargo. Consultants offer advice, as well as mini-manicures and hand massages.
But for the most part, drugstore shopping still involves confronting a dizzying array of sealed products -- though larger chain stores such as Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS allow exchange or return of any makeup item with a receipt within 30 days.
To make sense of it all, makeup artist Craig Beaglehole and I recently set up a drugstore product challenge at a West Hollywood CVS store, piling dozens of tubes, palettes and small bottles into our baskets. We tried out the low-price brands in the store and tested them for a week. One mascara sent my lashes spiking in several directions. And a few eye shadows didn't "move" or glide across the eyelid, creating smudgy streaks instead.
But to our surprise, there were many definite keepers. Beaglehole's top picks -- products he says he'd use on clients -- were Maybelline Lash Stiletto and L'Oreal Extra Collagen mascaras. "When I find a great mascara, I don't care about the price point. As long as it doesn't budge and it really works." He also plans to add the L'Oreal Color Juice lip glosses to his makeup kit to give clients (his include Toni Collette, Elle Macpherson and Lori Loughlin) a super shiny pout for the red carpet.
The products on this page were all winners -- items we'd use or recommend. Our reviews are marked with our initials.
Staff writer Adam Tschorn contributed to this report.
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The Best in the aisle
Neutrogena Mineral Sheers Liquid Makeup, $14.49
Beautiful. It really lets the skin breathe because it's so sheer. Erases redness and gives a fresh, healthy glow to the skin without the look of a ton of makeup. Just be careful to not overdo. Put a few strokes on the cheeks and across the forehead and blend. This formula is good for all ages, or if you have sensitive skin and want it to be chic, smooth and silky. (C.B.)
L'Oreal True Match Super-Blendable Makeup, $10.99
Gives more coverage than the others tested, with a beautiful velvety satin finish rather than a dewy one, and it really holds. I think it makes skin look young, because it reflects light. A good product, especially for more mature skin. (C.B.)
Maybelline Mineral Power Natural Perfecting Foundation, $9.49
Sheer and dewy (and very similar to MAC Face and Body). This product is light -- it can be blended in with your moisturizer -- and it feels like nothing on the skin. It's great for people who don't want to look as if they're wearing makeup. (C.B.)
Revlon Beyond Natural Skin Matching Makeup, $12.99
It's more of a dewy, tinted moisturizer that goes on to match your skin tone. I really like this on myself -- I wore it to work one day. It gives you a glow, and it feels fresh for summer. Pop a little bit on your finger tips and blend as you would a moisturizer. It's a healthy, easy glow. Use a dime-size amount -- it's better to start off with less and add more. (C.B.)
Blushes and highlighters
Prestige Skin Loving Minerals Sunbaked Mineral Bronzing Powder, $11.99
Beautiful as a highlighter. It has a nice sheen and will give girls with lighter skin a golden glow. Use it only to highlight cheek or brow bone -- it's not really a bronzer. You can also use it on the collarbone and decolletage. (C.B.)
Maybelline Expert Wear Blush in Gentle Rose, $5.49
This is pretty and simple and goes on beautifully. The brush actually works. Gentle Rose is a neutral color a lot of people could wear, and it's not shimmery, but you could put a wash of highlighter over it. (C.B.)
CoverGirl TruCheeks Blush, $5.99
There's good value here because there are three colors. Start off with the middle tone -- a nice peachy glow -- at the apples of the cheeks. Then use the lighter color to highlight on top of the cheek with lighter color. Blend the darker color under the cheek bone to contour. You can also use lighter shade as a brow bone highlighter. (C.B.)
Revlon Matte Powder Blush in Perfectly Peach, $9.99
Matte blush can be great for older women or anyone who's had plastic surgery, because it doesn't highlight lines like shimmery products would. Keep it on the apples and highlight cheek bones; don't go into the under-eye area. This one is good because it's matte, but not flat. It has a nice sheen. (C.B.)
CoverGirl & Olay Simply Ageless Sculpting Blush in Plush Peach, $13
To get a more intense color, skip using the sponge applicator and pop a bit on your cheeks with the tips of your fingers, then blend out from there. This is a nice way to get a glow. The formula is really creamy. (M.M.)
Milani Runway Eyes Fashion Shadows, $8.99
Hats off to Milani! These shadows work well, are easy to use and the pigment is strong. You can also wet an angled brush and use the darker colors as eyeliner. (C.B.)
ColorStay 12 Hour Eyeshadow Quad, $6.99
Great for women who don't want that major sparkle on their eyes. These palettes are easy to use and the colors are good for everyday. This is a good, basic eye shadow. (C.B.)
Milani Eye Shadow Quad in Earthly Delights, $6.99
The shimmers and colors come out strong. Easy to use; the shadow glides on smoothly. (C.B.)
CoverGirl Outlast Lipstains, $8.99
Fantastic. The stain soaks in, and it doesn't bleed. The pen is easier to use than applying stain with a brush. It's nice to use when swimming, because it doesn't come off, or as a base for lip gloss so it stays on longer. Most important, make sure your lips are in good condition to avoid flaking. Smother them in lip balm or exfoliate with a toothbrush. You can leave the stain matte or sweep some gloss over it. (M.M.)
L'Oreal Colour Juice Sheer Juicy Lip Gloss, $8.49
Stays on forever and has some color to it. It's easy to apply because the tip, which is between pointy and round, fits the actual shape of the lip. No. 450 Peaches and Cream is a beautiful summer peach. And I love the taste. (M.M.)
Cover Girl Wetslicks Fruit Spritzers, $5.99
A slick formula that's much more sheer than the Color Juice glosses. These feel silky and have more shimmer. The taste is strong, so if you don't like fruity flavors, Wetslicks won't work for you. (M.M.)
L'Oreal Colour Riche
Creamy, easy-to-wear lipsticks. The color range is beautiful -- I love the British Red, and Toasted Almond is a good neutral for a variety of skin tones. (C.B.)
L'Oreal Colour Riche lip liner in Timeless Coral, $8.49
Very creamy, so there's no hard line. It doesn't feather or move around, and there's a built-in sharpener in the end. (C.B.)
L'Oreal Extra-Volume Collagen Mascara, $7.99
Put it on and your eyelashes are immediately black, thick and long. You get volume instantly without having to play around and fuss with the lashes. I found it very easy to use. (C.B.)
Maybelline Lash Stiletto, $8.49
This is another new favorite -- I was very impressed with it. The wand literally gives you long, "stiletto-like" lashes. Once you perfect the first layer, let it sit and then go in and stretch them out again. Lashes look really clean and long -- no nonsense. (C.B.)
Maybelline Pulse Perfection, $14.99
With this wand, you can start and stop the vibrating by pressing the button as you apply the mascara. So, vibrate at the lash line and root and then turn it off toward the end. It creates lashes that are slim and pretty, not thick and gloppy. (C.B.)
Maybelline XXL Extensions, $8.49
Really pumps up fine lashes. I used the primer first, which builds up the lashes, before applying a coat of the mascara. (C.B.)
Maybelline Lash Discovery, $7.99
Especially good for small eyes because it gets the inner lashes. You can build with it, but the formula doesn't fall -- lashes stay up all day. This is also good for people with thinner, smaller lashes because the brush is small and slim. Those big brushes and mascaras can get everywhere. (M.M.)
Rimmel Glam'Eyes Lash Flirt, $7.49
Got my eyelashes black right away. It adds volume and lifts without an eyelash curler, which is great if you're in a hurry or just hate the extra step. I like the comb because it gets out clumps and separates lashes. (M.M.)
L'Oreal Original Voluminous, $7.99
This gives you clean, gorgeous black lashes. Application's easy: no fuss, no stress. (M.M.)
L'Oreal Panoramic Curl, $9.49
You should always curl your lashes first, even with a curling mascara, because a curler will get it from the root and open your eye up. But this mascara does help curl. It picks up on all your lashes. The brush is contoured like the eyelid to get in all areas. (M.M.)
Milani Easyliner for Eyes in black, $5.99
This is a really good liner, very soft, very black. It does what you want it to do. (M.M.)
CoverGirl Perfect Point Plus eyeliner in Black Onyx, $7.99
Didn't run or smudge throughout the day. The blender at the end is good, and the color is a really intense black with strong pigment. (M.M.)