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A Go-To Drugstore Beauty Routine For When You Know Nothing About Makeup

It’s an unfortunate state of the working world: women who wear makeup are more likely to succeed.

Some regard this as an obvious fact: putting effort into your appearance means you care about your job, ergo, you will be rewarded for caring. Others see it as yet another tax on being a woman. Good-looking men are also favored professionally, but they aren’t expected to spend the money or time on makeup (never mind the internal agonizing of Does this look okay? How much of a cat-eye is too sexy? Do red lips give the wrong impression? Will looking too trendy make me look like a ditz?)

I would love to say that I’m about to lift readers up and empower them with a “you go girl” message about how they don’t need makeup. But unfortunately, I don’t get to make that call. Plus, plenty of women don’t have a problem with the idea of makeup (the expectation of it, however…), but are too intimidated to actually try it. After all, even drugstore makeup can seem expensive when you’re used to buying none at all, never mind the cost associated with higher-end stuff. And when new Instagram-worthy trends like contouring, strobing and ombré lips pop up every few months, it’s easy to feel like the world of makeup isn’t friendly to outsiders.

I’ve spent my professional life bouncing between the two polarities of “completely bare-faced” and “full-on showgirl” (and have gained a decent knowledge of products thanks to my teen years as a dancer), but most days I choose my simple routine with only a few key products. They’re cheap, they’re effective, and they make me feel confident without taking up an oppressive amount of my time.

In an effort to be inclusive, all of these products I’ve listed happen to be cruelty-free and vegan. Most can be bought at conventional stores like Target, Walmart and standard pharmacies, but all are also easily found online.

1. Heavy-duty concealer

Foundation is one of the most irritating makeup products — finding the right one is really difficult, and applying properly takes a lot of skill. The wrong foundation, especially cheap kinds, can really mess with your skin, and the more expensive kinds usually cost upwards of $40. So if you’re still in the process of figuring that out (or don’t ever plan to) but still want to make a difference in the appearance of your skin, a multi-tasking concealer with full coverage is a good middle-ground. I prefer liquid to stick, and when torn between shades, will always pick the slightly darker one. Use this under your eyes and on your biggest problem blemishes, blending with a wet makeup sponge or, if you’re feeling particularly confident, your ring finger.

I like: Wet N Wild Photo Focus Concealer

2. Translucent setting powder

This is one you can probably skip if your skin is permanently parched, but if your skin is even close to “normal,” let alone so-called “combination” or “oily,” a setting powder will make a major difference for you. Tinted powders can look heavy and have a hard time blending, but a fine, colorless powder on the T-zone and loosely dabbed over anywhere you put concealer can help keep moisture at bay and keeps your makeup in place.

I like: GOSH Cosmetics Prime ‘n’ Set Powder

3. Blush/bronzer combo

Contouring is everywhere, and while effective contour can be impressive and dramatic (not to mention fun), don’t be fooled into thinking that you need to contour, especially for everyday makeup. Trying too hard to alter the appearance of your face shape is time-consuming and, ultimately, useless. I like to go for either a pre-paired blush/bronzer duo or a single pallet that has a mix of both and apply to my cheekbones out toward the temple — that way, I’m not washed out but don’t look too severe.

I like: Physician’s Formula Multi-Colored Pallet in Blushing Peach, E.L.F. Contouring Blush & Bronzing Powder

4. Minimalist mascara (and an eyelash curler)

I was barely a teenager when Avril Lavigne burst onto the scene and popularized the “continuous line of black eyeliner all the way around the eye” look. Throw in the rise of Top Model and its incessant peddling of a “glamorous smoky eye,” and it was a recipe for eye makeup hell. Let me be clear: high-concept eye makeup looks great when pulled off by someone who is really, really damn good at it. But honestly, just a few coats of mascara on freshly-curled lashes can draw positive attention to the eyes with about one-tenth of the fuss. You don’t even need crazy-thickening mascara — just simply combine a five-second pinch of the eyelash curler with a glossy black mascara.

I like: E.L.F. Beautifully Bare lash tint mascara, Wet N Wild Mega Length mascara, E.L.F. studio eyelash curler

5. Brow pencil

You’ll recall that the rabid over-plucking of the late 90s and early 2000s led to makeup experts desperately yelling at us consumers to leave our damn eyebrows alone. Eventually, we followed that advice — sort of. Now the trend is thick, shapely brows that look beautiful when pulled off by women who already had the makeup skills, but when they don’t work they look as ridiculous as an aggressive contour. When it comes to brows, you should follow the same rule you would with any other part of your face: use products to enhance, but don’t try to make the feature look like it comes from someone else’s face. Don’t flip out about having tinted wax, setting powder, gel and stencils. Just grab a pencil (I prefer one that has a brush built in) and use light, hair-length strokes (think about as lightly as you would apply a pencil when sketching something) in the length that the hair grows. Brush as you go to blend and shape.

I like: Milani Easybrow Automatic Pencil

6. Tinted lip balm

The era of lip gloss is all-but over, and there are a lot of really great lipsticks out there that don’t seem as intimidating as the full-coverage, clownish shades that may have scared some of us off in high school. Still, diving into lipstick isn’t always easy: getting to know what shades work for you when dealing with more opaque coverage takes some getting used to. The medium ground here is in a good tinted balm. Tinted lip balm is a growing market for a good reason — you can add healthy shine and color with some much-needed subtlety. Usually, a rosy-pink hue will work with most skin tones. (Note to novices: don’t let anyone convince you that “nude” means beige. Lips aren’t beige, and there is no one-shade-fits-all “nude.”) I prefer to buy a tinted lip balm from companies that specialize in making regular lip balm and/or natural body products more than conventional makeup companies, since those “balms” are too waxy and rarely contain sufficient moisturizing ingredients.

I like: Pacifica Color Quench Lip Tint in Blood Orange, Hurraw! Black Cherry tinted lip balm

Bree Rody-Mantha is a business journalist and dance teacher living in Toronto. In her spare time she enjoys sport climbing, lifting and running the vegan food blog, Urban Garlic. Follow her on Twitter here.

Image via Pexels

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  • Lauren

    It makes me so, so happy that all the products mentioned here are cruelty free. With brands like E.L.F., Wet ‘n’ Wild, and Milani, it is easier than ever to go cruelty free, especially now that E.L.F. has expanded into skin care. Thank you for promoting cruelty free beauty!

  • nicolacash

    Under the brow category, Elf’s brow wax + powder duo is only $3 and AMAZING if you have dark thick brows like mine. I would also vouch for the Milani 3-in-1 conceal + perfect foundation for anyone looking for a cheap yet high quality + full coverage foundation.

  • Danielle

    I have almost this exact routine with different products!

    I have a problem with foundation and my skin not getting along, but if I mix it with sunscreen (which I should be wearing anyways) it works great. And I use a tinted brow gel instead of pencil or powder because 1) I’m lazy and anything else just takes too long and 2) I think a heavy brow looks weird on me. I’ve been using a gel since middle school to keep my crazy long brows to stay in place (If I trim them too much, I have super skinny 90’s eyebrows, so I’ve learned to live with it and brush, brush, brush). This past year I finally found a blond NYX gel that holds enough and gives the baby, white hairs in my arch some color so they look more complete but not too heavy.

    And I am not on board the contour/highlighter/bronzer wagon. As a pale (and most of the time pink) redhead, I just don’t think it works for me and again, I’m too lazy to get into all the blending. Instead I use an illuminating pink mineral powder from Mineral Hygienics to add a little subtle glow to my cheeks, temples, brow areas so I feel more put together.

    I’m trying to keep my prices down though so I’ll be checking out the products above as well when I need replacements. And like Lauren said, I was so excited to discover E.L.F.’s skin care items as well – I love their nighttime moisturizer.

    • Holly Trantham

      Same here in regards to not contouring/bronzing as a pale person — I use E.L.F.’s baked blush and I love it!

      • Danielle

        Ooo, that looks promising! Just from their site it looks like it could be a cheaper alternative to the illuminator I use now.

      • jdub

        I have that one! Love it. It’s perfect.

    • ScriboErgoSum

      As a pale redhead, have you tried coral-pink shades? I’m a reddish brunette myself (Irish meets French Canadian) and I’ve found the colour that most enhances my natural colours and gives that “glow” look without looking like a wannabe tan is a peachy coral.

      I’ve never heard of this Mineral Hygienics brand but I do love a good subtle glow so I’ll check it out myself!

      I’ve had minimal experience with ELF’s skin care line, except for its eye cream. I actually had to send it back (which I never do) because it caused major (prep for grossness) secretions from my eyes to the point where I’d wake up barely able to open them. Eeeewww. I’ve seen a similar sentiment echoed in the reviews, but the positive ones of it are totally glowing, and I know I have a very sensitive eye area myself. But I’ve heard great things about the rest of its line!


      • Danielle

        I keep forgetting about coral! I had a cream coral-pink blush a few years ago when I was getting more sun regularly and I used it the same way most people bronze and loved it. Maybe I’ll try it out again in a more subtle way.

        That is crazy about the E.L.F. eye cream! I would freak out if I woke up to that. I did have problems with their serum – it broke me out with little painful cyst like pimples so I immediately quit using it and have been too scared to try again.

    • jdub

      Me too! Right down to the tinted lip balm, which I sometimes will mix up and use a darker lipstick for a fun pop of colour. Usually it’s literally just BB Cream, Blush/bronzer, curled eyelashes with mascara and some kind of lip whatever. Anything more for every day and I just lose the will to do anything.

  • Good explain about makeup . I like your good article and admire it . Much thanks for shared .