Lip Liner: An Overdue Appreciation

It will surprise none of my regular readers to learn that if I could wear only one category of makeup for the rest of my life, it would be lipstick. (I could probably use nude lipstick as undereye concealer, right?…right?) I wear lipstick every single day. I’ve tried almost every color category of lipstick. I created a lipstick taxonomy, for God’s sake. But despite my passion for lipstick, a passion that has lasted the better part of a decade, I didn’t use lip liner until fairly recently. The reason will sound a little neurotic, because it is: I wanted to experience each of my lipsticks in its “purest” form, without adulteration. If I bought a lipstick, it was because I loved that particular mixture of pigments and respected the craftsmanship behind it. I didn’t want anything to alter the delicate balance of warm and cool tones in NARS Mysterious Red or the subtle dustiness of Urban Decay Backtalk.

But tastes change, and sometimes it takes me a while to figure out how unflattering a lipstick truly is. That happened last year when I was trying to use up Urban Decay Revolution Lipstick in Streak, a slightly sheer pinkish peach. I realized that Streak had a white base that clashed with my cool olive undertones, and that I’d be better served by a muted peach. But I was so close to finishing the tube; I couldn’t give up now! Enter lip liner. A layer of Milani Color Statement Lip Pencil in Nude, a deep MLBB shade, neutralized Streak’s white base and produced a more flattering brownish peach.

Around the same time, I discovered that liquid lipsticks looked less wonky when I took the time to outline my lips with liner in a similar shade. That was the period when I was falling in love with the Wet n Wild Liquid Catsuits, and I ended up buying lip liners to go with Missy & Fierce and Nice to Fuchsia. I took to outlining my lips with a pencil, smudging that line inward, and then applying the liquid lipstick just to the inside of the line; or else applying the lipstick first, then penciling in a line to clean up the edges.

I present all these methods as if they’re glorious revelations, but they’re literally how you use lip liner; I was just too stubborn and lazy to learn. Now, a year later, I have a respectable collection of seven lip liners, one in almost every color category. And what better way to express my newfound appreciation of lip liner than with a post featuring the whole family? From left to right, we have NYX Slim Lip Pencils in Pumpkin, Mauve, Cabaret, and Bloom; Milani Color Statement Lipliners in Nude and True Red; and Barry M Lip Liner in Plum.

Lip liner: not the most photogenic beauty product.

(Even within this tiny sample size, there’s disagreement over whether “lip[]liner” is one or two words. Personally, I incline toward “lip liner,” but then I run into the awkwardness of having to hyphenate the phrase when I use it adjectivally, as in “lip-liner collection.” That looks pretentious, but it’s correct, damn it.)

Swatches, top to bottom: NYX Pumpkin, Milani True Red, NYX Bloom, NYX Cabaret, NYX Mauve, Milani Nude, Barry M Plum:

These three formulas are quite distinct from each other, which is convenient for review purposes. I’ve tried just the one shade from Barry M (£2.99), and I’d say it has the driest formula of the three. It’s a very traditional lip pencil: good for outlining, but a bit too dry and patchy to use all over the lips. The Milani liners ($3-$5) lie at the other end of the texture range: they’re very soft and creamy, which makes them good for filling in lips but less good for outlining. As you can see from the photo of Nude above, it’s almost impossible to sharpen these liners into fine points. Finally, the NYX liners ($3-4-ish) are somewhere in the middle: fairly creamy and opaque, yet hard enough to retain a fine point and sticky enough to hold lipstick in place. (Note: these are the Slim Lip Pencils, not the slightly pricier Suede Matte Lip Liners, which are terrible.) The only other formula I’ve tried is the ColourPop Lippie Pencil (cringe). Frenchie didn’t impress me much, but I have another shade, 951, on the way as we speak. Now that ColourPop has had three years to tweak its formulas, I’m hoping the lip pencils have improved. Review to come! Probably!

For the record, lip liner is one of the beauty products, along with mascara and lip gloss, for which I refuse to pay non-drugstore prices. I’ve heard great things about Kevyn Aucoin’s Flesh Tone Lip Pencils and Charlotte Tilbury’s Lip Cheats, but I’m not going to drop $25 on a lip pencil when $3 NYX pencils do the job just as beautifully and come in a wider array of shades. (I say this now, but check back with me in six months.)

And now for some individual reviews, in alphabetical order! To give a better idea of the colors, I’ve applied each liner all over my lips, but I don’t wear most of them that way. I’m assessing these lip liners as lip liners, not as lipsticks, so it’s not a dealbreaker if they’re not perfectly opaque in the swatches below.

1. Barry M Plum

Color Description: Dark purple.
Favorite Pairings: Wet n Wild Goth Topic. It also works decently for MAC Antique Velvet, but isn’t quite brown enough.

2. Milani Color Statement Lipliner in Nude

Color Description: Pinkish beige.
Favorite Pairings: Revlon Rosy Future, Wet n Wild Nudist Peach.
Notes: This is by far my most-used liner, though its creaminess makes it better for all-over coverage than for precise outlining. When I wear it under gloss, my lips look…pretty. They look almost sensual. And, as the owner of smallish WASPy lips that (to the best of my knowledge) have never once been described as “sensual,” I need all the help I can get. Where Nude really comes in handy, though, is for muting too-bright coral lipsticks. Below, we have a creepy triptych of Nudist Peach on its own (top), Nude on its own (middle), and Nudist Peach layered over Nude (bottom). If you wear one “nude” lip product over another one, do your lips become extra-nude, or do the two nudes cancel each other out? I could probably get a Nobel Prize for figuring out that one.

And a full face with Nudist Peach over Nude:

3. Milani Color Statement Lipliner in True Red

Color Description: Bright blue-based red.
Favorite Pairing: Wet n Wild Missy and Fierce.
Notes: This is another creamy liner that could work as a lipstick in a pinch, though it feels too thick and waxy to wear that way.

4. NYX Slim Lip Pencil in Bloom

Color Description: Bright magenta.
Favorite Pairing: Wet n Wild Nice to Fuchsia.

5. NYX Slim Lip Pencil in Cabaret

Color Description: Muted berry red.
Favorite Pairings: Maybelline Smoking Red, MAC D for Danger, MAC Eugenie.
Notes: This is my second-favorite lip liner, with the chameleonic ability to adapt to most colors I pair it with. I always want to call it “Cabernet” instead of “Cabaret,” though. Doesn’t that make more sense?

6. NYX Slim Lip Pencil in Mauve

Color Description: Brownish pink with a hint of taupe. Cooler-toned than Milani Nude. Not mauve. I’m not sure there are more than five people currently working in the beauty industry who know what mauve is.
Favorite Pairings: Pat McGrath Madame Greige, Urban Decay Backtalk.

7. NYX Slim Lip Pencil in Pumpkin

Color Description: Red-orange with gold pearl.
Favorite Pairing: No idea.
Notes: I’ve owned this for three years (original review here), and have never worn it out of the house. I’m not even sure what prompted me to buy it in the first place.

And that’s it! Let’s talk about lip liner. Do you use it? Do you write it as one or two words? Do you think high-end liners really are worth it?

15 thoughts on “Lip Liner: An Overdue Appreciation

  1. One word, no I don't use it, though I keep thinking I should. Maybe I'll pop over to Shoppers and see if NYX liners are on sale or what. I feel like NYX lipliners are one of their very few good products. Pumpkin is super pretty! It reminds me a bit of Fyrinnae Last Kiss, which I used to have and also never wore anywhere. I think it was a bit warm for me.


  2. I LOVE lipliner. Looooove. I love it over and under cream and liquid lipsticks, I love it all over with some gloss dabbed over it, I love it used to contour lips. Especially as I get older and the ol' vermilion border loses some of its borderness, it's indispensable. And I love it as one word. It's like how \”teenager\” used to be \”teen-ager\” according to AP Style, but eventually, they came 'round. We're living in the future, so it's \”lipliner\” all the way.I LOVE your flow chart!


  3. I use Jordana lipliners, primarily Rock and rose! They are very soft, and I guess similar to Milani.As for more expensive lipliners, I use the Urban decay Ozone clear lipliner (with OCC lip tars–otherwise they bleed like crazy.) I had the Milani clear lipliner before, and I think Ozone is pretty much the same.


  4. Here's the thing about lip liner, and maybe this sounds a bit mystical, but whatever: I think when you need it, you'll know. I've gotten rid of most of the liners I bought before I felt a true need for them. But you're right, lip liners are one of the only reliably great NYX products I've found. Never hurts to have a nude/MLBB one around.


  5. I love the phrase \”vermilion border\”! Totally stealing that. I haven't had much trouble with feathering yet, but then I gravitate toward matte and semi-matte lipsticks.You're right, \”lipliner\” does look more streamlined and less clunky. By the way, I'm pretty sure the New Yorker still uses \”teen-ager\” (as well as \”coöperate\” and \”reëlect,\” both of which drive me crazy).


  6. I've never tried anything by Jordana! I'll have to check them out. And I've been meaning to try a clear liner; it's good to hear that Milani makes one, because I don't think I could pay Urban Decay prices for a clear product (totally irrational, but hey).


  7. I don't wear lip liner every day, but I do greatly appreciate its presence on this earth. I have a poorly-defined lower lip line so I like to use it to shape my lip properly before I put on lipstick. Liners also really help with staying power – I will not wear Bite lipsticks without liner underneath. Also really good to pair with lipsticks that tend to feather a bit! I have some coloured liners but I get most use out of nudes that I can layer under anything. Milani Nude is my go-to for pairing with all my MLBB shades, since I gravitate towards pinky-browny neutrals. That'll probably be the next one I use up.I'm also very hesitant to pay big bucks for lip liner. I have some Bite ones that they sent me and a Lancôme one that I got with points, but all my other ones are drugstore (or ColourPop, which work well for me). I really like the Rimmel ones, which are pretty creamy but not too slippy and which twist up so you don't have to sharpen them. THAT SAID I think the Bite 044 lip liner might be a good match for Antique Velvet if you ever have a gift card or a burning desire to spend $20 on a lip liner. Those liners really are good, but I very much understand the principle of the matter.


  8. I've definitely had that moment a few times, where it would have been so much easier to define my lips and apply the lipstick with a liner. I never thought lip primer was a thing I'd use either, but I reliably use Too Faced Lip Insurance at least twice a week.


  9. Lip liner has sadly become a necessity at this point in my life. It's really bizarre how one's lips can essentially disappear into the rest of the face. MAC's lip liners are definitely too expensive, but they're my favorite these days. I like that Milani one you posted though. Thick and waxy sounds sort of nice.


  10. I have Pumpkin! I used to wear it under a Portland Black Black lipstick (Bad Penny) which I no longer have, but I kept the liner for some reason.I also have NYX Blackberry, Barry M Red and Jordana Rock n Rose. I mostly use them underneath patchy/slippery lipsticks but I should try using them to tidy up my rubbish liquid lipstick application. Also, you are not alone as I refuse to pay more than a fiver for a lipliner!


  11. Lip liners are a must with Bite lipsticks! Too bad it was impossible to find a decent color match for Lavender Jam, which refused to stay on my lips longer than an hour. I hope the person I gave it to is having better luck with that formula. And speaking of Bite, the 044 lip liner does look very similar to Antique Velvet! I'll have to check out their liners next time I'm at Sephora.


  12. I usually don't wear liner except if the lipstick doesn't work on its own, Then I might try it with a liner before I toss it. Have you tried MAC Velvet Teddy? It is way too orange on me when worn alone. Do you have any liner suggestions to counter-act the orange before it goes into the BACK-2-MAC bag. I just bought NYX Mauve to try. I also refuse to spend $20 on a liner to fix a mess. Thanks.


  13. […] When I realized this, my perspective on my makeup collection changed dramatically. I’m more familiar with my coloring and tastes than any brand is. Who has a better chance of creating the perfect brownish peach lipstick for my skintone: me, or some committee in a boardroom? (For the record, my perfect brownish peach is Wet n Wild Liquid Catsuit in Nudist Peach layered over Milani Color Statement Lip Pencil in Nude.) […]


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