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There was a time when the gulf between luxury and high street make-up was vast. If you wanted buttery textures, serious levels of pigment, staying power and skincare benefits, the choice was clear – you had to pay. There were some brilliant budget finds available, but they were few and far between. Packaging-wise, the contrast was even greater: if you wanted that famed heavy ‘click’ from your compact or lipstick, or a wand or tube delicious enough to flash in public or display on your make-up table, it was high end or the highway.
Things have changed. In the wake of the affordable skincare revolution, the quality of high street make-up went up and up while its prices remained low. Where there used to be the odd rumour that ‘Bourjois blush is made in the same factory as Chanel’, it turned out this was actually true and that budget brands were perfectly capable of producing superior quality make-up and still make a tidy profit. The only compromise was the packaging but, with the move to eco-friendly, simplified and even re-fillable packs, there’s now less of a glaring difference between ‘splurge’ and ‘snip’ even in that area. In fact, it feels like luxury brands have to get increasingly weird to justify heavy-duty price tags: I give you Isamaya Beauty’s terribly tasteful ‘penis’ lipsticks, at £80.
If you’d rather buy your entire make-up kit for that price, you now pretty much can – and all of it will be great. Of course, tastes vary, but here are some of the products I rate most, and that have convinced me there is very rarely any reason to pay over the odds.
Up until about 15 years ago, high-street eyeshadows were appalling – scratchy, insipidly pigmented affairs with those silly sponge applicators included, as if that was a treat. Today, it’s actually quite hard to buy a bad powder shadow, and you can get a massive palette in any shade range you like for about £20 from millennial favourites Morphe, Revolution and NYX. If that’s all a bit much, e.l.f. Cosmetics’ Bite-Size Eyeshadows will get you just the four colour-coordinated shades you need (they come in a big range of colourways) for a crazy £4; while Max Factor Color X-Pert Soft Touch Palettes, at £10.99, and kit staples for top make-up artists such as Ruby Hammer, offer a similar thing.
Eye pencil-wise, I struggle to find any that can withstand saggy eyelids and plenty of eye cream (both must come with age) without melting or smudging (and I’ve tried countless). There’s literally only one that truly passes my muster and that’s Beauty Pie’s Ultra Colour Pro Gel Eyeliner, £7.50 if you’re a member. While you’re at it, stock up on their Wonder Colour Cream Eyeshadow Sticks, £9.50 for members – a cinch to apply and entirely budge-proof. I haven’t found an equivalent stick shadow on the high street, although 3ina The 24H Cream Eyeshadow, £15, which comes in little pots, is a pretty brilliant substitute.
As far as mascaras go, I think all brands launch way too many underwhelming ones, and I would advise anyone to just stick to the one they love if they have one. On the high street, Maybelline and Max Factor have a decades-long reputation for mascara supremacy and, indeed, Maybelline Lash Sensational Sky High, £12, and Max Factor Masterpiece Max, £12.99, are among the few (budget or luxury) I will countenance. Volumising, separating and smudge-free – few do it better.
For brows, I think brow mascaras are the most foolproof and natural-looking option. They used to be a luxury but now most budget brands do them; just look for one with a very small brush (you need the precision) and a choice of shades. Rimmel Wonder’full 24hr Brow Mascara, £7.99, and L’Oréal Paris Brow Artist Plumper, £8.99, do a good job.
Personally, I don’t think matte lipsticks are flattering past a certain age, when the vermilion border (the natural lip edge) has flattened to leave the contour less defined and lips looking smaller. Anything dry-textured will shrivel them up even more. Lip inks, which are full of drying alcohol, are even worse. Gloss, meanwhile, tends to seep past the now-compromised edge. So really, what you want are satin or cream-textured, highly pigmented lip colours. These will last while offering much-needed moisture. Diego Dalla Palma The Lipstick Creamy Refill System, £15, and e.l.f. Cosmetics O Face Satin Lipstick, £9, fit the bill admirably.
Alternatively, I’m obsessed with tinted lip balms for their nurturing, plumping care and apply-in-the dark subtle colour. We’re spoilt for choice these days but my latest obsessions are Zara Beauty Jelly Joy Lip Balm, £7.99, which comes in two glossy, face-brightening shades (a hot pink and a lilac), and Sculpted by Aimee Hydralip, £15 – buttery balms in six shades that taste of the grape sweets (and scented pens) I remember from the 70s.
Power blushers are pretty good these days whichever brand you choose, but I’m a cream blush devotee – more flushed-from-within, more natural-looking and more comfortable on dry skin. Budget ones tend to be a bit watery in colour (I prefer more punch – you can always blend it out to barely-there), but I really like e.l.f. Putty Blush, £6, that comes in eight shades and Morphe Blush Balm Soft Focus Cream Blush, £12, in five shades.
Foundation has always been, and to an extent still is, where paying more matters. Creating one that gives traceless cover, feels great on the skin and lasts the distance isn’t straightforward, and the ones I love most are all high-end. I’m no real expert, though, as I’ve spent most of my life not using any, so I will defer to my team members from my previous life as Cosmopolitan magazine’s beauty director who were (and still are) devoted to NYX Born To Glow! Naturally Radiant Foundation, £10, and, if matte is your thing, L’Oréal Paris Infallible 32hr Matte Cover Foundation, £10.99.
In terms of concealers, there’s only two I find truly great. One is high-end, the other is NYX Bare With Me Concealer Serum, £11. Hydrating enough to cover and smooth crinkley undereyes, pigment-rich and with a subtle gleam, its 13 shades give much, much pricier options a run for their money. In a bind, they can even be buffed out to an all-over foundation.
I don’t like nail polish so I’m no expert, but my mother is. After a lifetime devotion to pro brands, she’s now a great fan of Revlon Ultra HD Snap Nail Polish, £7.99. Quick-drying polishes were never known for their staying power, but this formula manages to be chip-proof and good to go in ten minutes, while a single coat is enough for rich, full coverage. Why on earth shell out more?