MAC Retro Matte Lipstick in Ruby Woo: The Ultimate Red?

Happy Lunar New Year! January 22 marked the start of the Year of the Rabbit, which happens to be my own zodiac animal. (Yes, that means I’m nine months away from turning thirty-six, the age at which I’ve always assumed I’ll have all my shit figured out, though that seems increasingly unlikely.) I realize that January 22 was two weeks ago, but I’m told that the Lunar New Year season lasts for a few weeks, so maybe this post isn’t too horribly belated. If it is, just consider it an impressively early Valentine’s post. (Speaking of which, MAC lip products are 30% off until the 14th!)

Anyway, in honor of the holiday, I’m going to review what many believe to be the ultimate red lipstick: MAC Retro Matte in Ruby Woo, one of my favorite new products from 2022.

Could Ruby Woo be the most widely reviewed lipstick of all time? I think there’s a good chance. It launched in 1999, before beauty blogs even existed, and it’s been one of MAC’s bestselling products ever since (though at the time of writing, Chili is MAC’s most popular lipstick shade worldwide). Frankly, I almost didn’t bother writing this review at all. But when I typed “ruby woo” into Google, the first suggested query was “is ruby woo good,” suggesting that after twenty-four years and thousands of reviews, some people still didn’t have an opinion on it. Maybe they were waiting for me, the supreme arbiter of the goodness of lipsticks, to deliver a verdict. If so, here it is: Ruby Woo is good.

Until last December, though, I was one of those skeptics. I’d owned almost two dozen MAC lipsticks since 2012, but Ruby Woo had never particularly appealed to me. I associated bright true reds with a retro-pinup aesthetic that didn’t match my personal style. I was also intimidated by descriptions of the Retro Matte formula, since my lips tend to be dry and sensitive. And, frankly, I’m an Enneagram 4 and just couldn’t believe that a red lipstick beloved by millions (I guess?? I’m terrible at estimating large numbers) of people would suit my special-snowflake tastes.

Then I found a pristine Ruby Woo at TJ Maxx for $7.99, and decided I might as well see what all the fuss was about.

In Fashionista‘s fascinating oral history of Ruby Woo, MAC’s director of makeup artistry describes the shade as “what we in the industry call a clean red. There are blue-reds, orange-reds and pink-reds. There’s no other color to influence the state of Ruby Woo.” It’s a painterly red, a red that you encounter often in museums, a cross-cultural and transhistorical red. It’s roughly the color of the sixth-from-the-left stripe in this Sol LeWitt piece that stood out to me at Mass MoCA last year because it reminded me so much of my hand after a Sephora visit:

Or the color of the embroidered panel in La Bordadora (1928), a recently rediscovered Diego Rivera painting that I saw at SFMOMA in December:

Or the color of this Korean embroidered robe at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum:

Though Ruby Woo might be a neutral red on the color spectrum, it’s a cool-toned red on the lipstick spectrum, since most people are warm-toned and, accordingly, most red lipsticks on the market contain some warmth. Below, I’ve swatched Ruby Woo next to some other blue-reds from my collection. L-R: NARS Mysterious Red, Ruby Woo, MAC Lotus Light, and Maybelline Rich Ruby, in indirect outdoor light.

While I would describe all four of these reds as cool, Ruby Woo is the “purest” red of the bunch. Mysterious Red is the deepest, slightly tinged with brown; Lotus Light is the lightest and pinkest; and Rich Ruby has a purplish berry tone.

Under artificial light, those subtle color differences vanish, but the differences in formula become clearer. Ruby Woo is the matte-est of the four, though Mysterious Red holds its own:

A word on that infamously dry formula: Ruby Woo couldn’t be farther from the powdery silicone-heavy formula of modern matte lipsticks, and that’s why I love it. The hardcore dryness makes me feel secure, professional—this shit is going nowhere. I usually prep my lips with a thin layer of not-too-shiny lip balm (Innisfree’s green-tea balm is my current favorite), wait a few minutes, pat with a tissue, line my lips with Milani’s lip pencil in True Red, and then apply Ruby Woo. However, my lips were in unusually good condition yesterday, so I was able to take a balm-free lip-swatch photo:

As it wears, my lips do dry out a bit, but they don’t crack or peel or get crusty-looking. Basically, I’d follow this lipstick formula to the ends of the earth, and I wish it came in more shades (for now, I have my eye on All Fired Up, a bright fuchsia).

The first time I posted a Ruby Woo selfie on Instagram, someone commented on how “natural” the lipstick looked. I was taken aback, since I don’t tend to think of bright red as a natural-looking shade for anyone, but I could see where the person was coming from. The matte finish made Ruby Woo look almost skin-like, and the not-too-bright, not-too-dark neutral red flattered my cool undertones. I’d expected it to have a costumey burlesque vibe, but it didn’t seem to belong to any decade or aesthetic. It just looked…good.

Here I am wearing Ruby Woo yesterday, in indoor natural light, feat. About-Face Shadow Stick in Baroque, Bbia Downy Cheek in Downy Lavender, and hat hair:

In artificial light, feat. MAC Right Before Your Eyes! eyeshadow and ColourPop Flirt Alert blush:

Outdoors, feat. my favorite neon beanie and my old neighborhood in San Francisco:

I regret waiting so long to try this lipstick, but I’m not sure it would have suited a younger, less worldly me as well as it suits me now. Maybe you need to have Seen Some Shit in order to pull off the ultimate red. What do you think?

6 thoughts on “MAC Retro Matte Lipstick in Ruby Woo: The Ultimate Red?

  1. Seen Some Shit is an excellent category for lipstick! 🙂 And I must say Ruby Woo looks excellent on you. I got a tube awhile ago (in the Before Times) but always found it a bit dry for me and it never was the one that I reached for regularly. But now that I have Seen Even More Shit, I should dig it out to try again.


      1. So yesterday I did dig out my Ruby Woo – I still find it a little drier than I prefer (and drier than my most beloved MAC, Heroine) but I decided to try it anyway. When I was heading into the main classroom building, a student I don’t have in class and don’t even know, stopped and exclaimed ‘wow, what _great_ lipstick!’ Which made me laugh – and I guess means I’m also now in the Ruby Woo appreciation group 🙂 Also made me laugh that the first person I thought of telling this to is you, a person I’ve never actually met except through the internet!


  2. I’ve never tried Ruby Woo either, but I agree that it somehow looks natural on you. Love the comparisons of the color to art pieces!

    If I ever find it at TK Maxx here, I will consider it, as I too, have lived through the pandemic and Seen Some Shit.


    1. Thanks! I had a lot of fun matching the lipstick to the museum photos I’d taken over the past six months.

      By the way, I can’t comment on your blog for some reason, but I just want to let you know how much your last post resonates with me. I am definitely not where I thought I’d be career-wise, but I had the realization the other day that, hey, I’ve led a pretty interesting life. I hope we both find more time to write this year, and I look forward to reading your future posts. Happy birthday, fellow rabbit!


      1. Ah ok, thanks for letting me know about the commenting thing, I think it probably has something to do with my Akismet API key.

        And I’m glad other people can relate… This year will be about redefining what success means, because I would say the same: I’ve led a pretty interesting life and I’m happy with the experiences I’ve had so far, good and bad!


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