No, that’s not a typo in the title. I started this post intending to write a list of my favorite new beauty products of 2020, but soon got bogged down in a Carrie Bradshaw-esque question (“I couldn’t help but wonder”): what did it mean for a beauty product to be good, let alone a favorite, in 2020? Pre-pandemic, I considered a product good if it lasted all day and looked nice in person, but those two criteria aren’t applicable to my current life, in which my only activities outside the house are shopping for necessities and taking one or two walks a day around my practically empty town. (I haven’t left Ohio in just over a year.) The products I bought in January and February got subjected to the vicissitudes of normal life, but the rest of my 2020 beauty purchases occupied the same climate-controlled, antisocial bubble that I did.
Since the pandemic hit, I’ve oscillated between shopping for my current reality and shopping for my past and future realities. Conventional wisdom dictates that we buy clothes and makeup for the unemployed, flannel-clad person we are now, not for the stylish, financially stable, literary-award-winning dynamo we might be in a year. However, maintaining the vision (illusion?) of a post-pandemic existence has been crucial to my mental health. I need to believe in a future self who is once again working, writing in coffee shops, meeting friends for drinks, and (a prerequisite for everything else) living in a place where I can find ground cumin at the grocery store. Did I need to buy a black velvet blazer and a mini tube of MAC Breathing Fire, a matte hot pink, for that future self? Not really, but I did anyway. But because those future-self products didn’t get a fair test, I couldn’t justify putting them them on a favorites list.
Meanwhile, the products I bought for my present self weren’t especially interesting. For instance, I discovered that CoverGirl Lash Exact is an acceptable but not mind-blowing dupe for Glossier Lash Slick, and I’ve been wearing it almost every day since late summer. Does it deserve a place on a best-of-2020 list? Were the best products of 2020 the unglamorous ones that improved the days I actually lived through, or the exciting ones that got less wear but made my imagined COVID-free future a little more tangible? Or should I try to split the difference somehow?
After several weeks of cogitation, I decided to throw out the entire idea of a traditional favorites or best-of-year post. Instead, this post will celebrate the products that helped define, or that were defined by, my 2020. I enjoy all of these products, and some could indeed qualify as my favorites of the year, but others stand out to me less because of their high quality than because they remind me of specific moments or phases from our shared annus terribilis. As always, I’ve listed them in roughly the chronological order in which I bought them, though in a couple of cases, I’ve bundled together multiple shades of the same formula purchased in different months and counted them as one “item.” I’ve photographed all the items in their current state to give you a sense of how much I’ve worn them.
1. Revlon Super Lustrous The Luscious Matte Lipstick in Shameless (February; reviewed here)
Shameless was one of my pre-pandemic purchases, a rich Crawfordian brownish rose that I bought completely on impulse at Ulta. Warm brownish and pinkish lip colors can go very wrong on my cool-toned complexion, but Shameless just works (and works especially well with the amazing ’70s paisley blouse I found on Etsy):
2. Urban Decay 24/7 Eye Pencil in Jolt (March)
This eyeliner stands out to me not only because it’s chartreuse and chartreuse is roughly two-thirds of my personal brand, but also because I bought it in Cleveland on March 1, 2020, on my last visit to Sephora before the lockdowns began. Jolt was part of Urban Decay’s spring collection, which also featured three other neon eyeliners, five shades of Wired Lip Chemistry tints, and an eyeshadow palette similar (but, everyone seemed to agree, inferior) to the legendary Electric Palette. I’d come to Sephora specifically for Jolt, but I couldn’t resist picking up a Lip Chemistry tint in X-Ray, a dark plum. I actually tried on a tester of X-Ray, which seems unthinkable now. I remember wiping down the applicator with alcohol and contemplating the new coronavirus, which supposedly hadn’t reached Ohio yet (it had, in fact) but was certainly on its way, and reflecting that using a tester of a lip product was possibly a bad idea. That Sephora visit belongs to a different world now, and my memory of it has a fin-de-siècle quality: I can’t imagine when, if ever, communal testers will return, or when I’ll feel comfortable using one again. I miss wandering the aisles of Sephora, alone or with a friend, and comparing swipes of pink and dabs of glitter. Yet another innocent pleasure that fell victim to 2020.
The good news is, Jolt is a great eyeliner. I wore colorful eyeliners more than ever in 2020: they were a quick, easy way to brighten my look and my mood. Jolt is a very ’70s green, a nice match for brownish lip colors like ColourPop Gallop (below). I find that I need two passes for full opacity, but it glides on smoothly, doesn’t clump up when layered, and lasts all day without fading.
3. Bite Beauty Crystal Crème Shimmer Lip Crayon in Molten Chocolate (April; reviewed here)
4. Imaginary Authors Cape Heartache (April, though I started wearing it regularly in November/December)
Last month, the New York Times ran an article summarizing beauty trends during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, lipstick sales declined, while skincare, haircare, and nail polish became more popular. So did perfume: a Saks Fifth Avenue vice president noted “a dramatic increase of sales across our fragrance category that has been consistent since the beginning of the pandemic, and shows no sign of softening.” It makes sense: fragrance is a quick mood booster, reminding the quarantined wearer of more pleasant times and surroundings. And whereas a red lipstick or a sparkly eyeshadow looks odd when worn with an old sweatshirt, fragrance looks like nothing, and so suits any outfit.
I wonder, too, if the new craze for fragrance has to do with the fact that loss of smell and taste is one of the most common COVID symptoms. Surely I’m not the only person who, terrified that my nose might stop working at any moment, developed the habit of compulsively sniffing every fragrance-emitting object in my apartment.
Cape Heartache was one of the three surprise samples that Imaginary Authors included with my order of Saint Julep, which I’d smelled and loved in San Francisco in 2019. Saint Julep is a warm-weather fragrance, its mint, lemon, and vanilla notes reminiscent of a hipster ice cream shop. But in the fall and winter, I started wearing Cape Heartache almost daily. It’s a sort of gourmand pine; it makes me feel like I’m eating a stack of pancakes and maple syrup in a treehouse in the Pacific Northwest. It’s comforting without being cloying, and I needed that in 2020. Is it kind of basic? Yes, but I needed that, too. There was enough complexity flooding the rest of my life, thank you.
5. Revlon Super Lustrous Glass Shine Lipsticks in Glaring Coral, Glassy Ruby, and Fire & Ice (May-September)
6. Cirque Colors Retail Therapy and Thirsty (July)
The dominant cultural mode of 2020 was nostalgia. I found myself nostalgic for almost everything in my past (hence my revival of this blog). When Cirque Colors released its neon Vice collection in July, two shades in particular spoke directly to the early-’90s preschooler in me: Retail Therapy, a hot pink, and Thirsty, a refreshing cheap-frozen-margarita green. I had a Barbie dress in those exact colors, plus black and white, circa 1991. As usual with Cirque Colors, the formula is impressive: no need to layer the neons over white, and they last a few days without chipping. And, as bright as the two shades look in these photos, they’re even brighter in person.
7. Rituel de Fille Color Nectar Pigment Balm in Bloodflower (August; reviewed here)
In 2020, I learned some harsh truths, including this one: every beauty product that promises to work equally well on eyes, cheeks, and lips is just a cream blush. If it’s really good, it’s a cream blush that doubles as a lip tint. Bloodflower is really good, which means that I wear it frequently as a cream blush, less frequently as a lip tint, and not at all as an eyeshadow (see my original review for the creasy mess that ensued when I smeared it on my lids). It’s not the magical watercolor glaze that Rituel de Fille promised it would be, but it’s flattering and fun to use, and that’s good enough for me.
8. Pat McGrath Astral Fetish Noir Lip Balm (August; reviewed here)
This product has a lot of confusing, chaotic 2020 energy. It’s supposedly a lip balm, but it looks like a cubist sculpture and wears like a lip primer. It’s black, but it’s also clear. It’s usually $36, but I bought it on sale for $12. It’s a purely utilitarian product, but its tube is heavy and decorative. I go through lip balms too quickly to justify repurchasing Noir (especially given the bulky, wasteful packaging), but I’m enjoying it while it lasts, and I hope I can figure out some way to reuse the tube.
9. Maybelline ColorSensational Cream Lipstick in Crimson Race (November)
Throughout the summer and fall, groups of middle-aged Trump-friendly bikers took to roaring through town, their engines echoing through the otherwise empty streets, their sound systems blaring shitty rock music because fuck your feelings and your distaste for noise pollution, I guess. My boyfriend and I agreed that if Trump was defeated in November, we would retaliate by driving around town blasting k-pop songs out the window of his 2010 Acura. (This was my idea, obviously.) When the networks declared Biden’s victory on the Saturday after Election Day, I ran upstairs and put on a celebratory red lipstick: Maybelline Crimson Race (like the presidential race, get it?), which my mom had sent me as a birthday gift the week before. And then, yes, we got in the Acura and turned up the Blackpink, and it was one of our happiest moments of 2020. HO-HOW YOU LIKE THAT, BITCHES?
Maybelline reformulated the classic ColorSensational cream formula in 2020, and I’m very impressed with the result. Color-wise, Crimson Race reminds me of Revlon Cherries in the Snow; formula-wise, though, it actually reminds me of Bésame’s lipsticks. Look at that soft, plumping shine:
10. Urban Decay 24/7 Eye Pencil in Wildside (November)
Every year around Thanksgiving, I start wearing my sparkly makeup and combing the internet for even more sparkly makeup. That urge was especially strong in 2020, despite my having zero social events to attend. I ran out of Urban Decay Primer Potion right before the Black Friday sale, and I couldn’t resist adding this glittery rose gold eyeliner to my shopping cart. I had a feeling that the pinkish color would bring out the green in my eyes, and I was right! Like Jolt, Wildside lasts all day, and it produces minimal glitter fallout. People on Reddit complain that Urban Decay is going downhill, but I’ve been buying the 24/7 pencils and Vice lipsticks for years and they haven’t let me down yet.