How to Choose Flattering Lipstick Colors

There are several factors you can consider to find flattering lipstick shades for you – shades that complement your natural coloring. As a shortcut, think about the colors of clothing that you look best in. What do your best colors have in common? Things to consider here are:

  • Undertones – how warm or cool your best colors are
  • Clarity – how bright or muted these colors are
  • Contrast – how light or dark these colors are compared to your skin

You can echo those characteristics in your lip color choices.

Let’s go into more detail on each.

Undertones: Do you look best in warm or cool colors? Generally, red, orange, and yellow are considered warm colors, while green, blue, and purple are considered cool. However, most colors exist on a spectrum from warm to cool. Warmer colors have more red/orange/yellow in them, while cool colors have more blue in them. For neutrals like brown and gray, warm browns have more red, while cool browns have more gray; warm grays lean more brown, while cool grays lean blue. For instance:


See here for more examples.

Of course, many people have fairly neutral undertones rather than having strong warm or cool undertones. And even among people with strong warm/cool undertones, no one will look good in every single warm color or every single cool color. Just think about which type of colors you tend to prefer. Note that muted colors are more neutral than clear/bright ones, so if your coloring is very muted (see below), you may look good in a pretty even mix of cool and warm colors.

  • If you look good in warm colors (plummy purple, tomato or brick red, salmon pink, marigold yellow, chocolate brown)…

…then warm lip colors will probably look good on you (coral, peach, warm pink, red with orange undertones).

Below are examples of beauty bloggers with warm undertones, in a cool-toned lipstick on the left and a warm-toned lipstick on the right:

Cool vs warm lipstick

Source: Temptalia. Left: Estee Lauder Powerful, Right: Givenchy Rose Boudoir.

Cool vs. warm lipstick colors

Source: Painted Ladies. Left: Milani Violet Addict. Right: Maybelline Coral Crush.

  • If you look good in cool colors (mauve, cool purple or blue, blue-based pink or red)…

…then cool lip colors will probably look good on you as well (cool pink, berry, purple, blue-based red, fuchsia).

Below are examples of beauty bloggers with cool undertones, in a warm-toned lipstick on the left and a cool-toned lipstick on the right:

Warm vs. cool lipstick

Source: Monroe Misfit Makeup. Left: OCC lip tar in Safety Orange and Tarred. Right: Eddie Funkhouser Epic.

Warm vs. cool lipstick colors

Source: Da Diva Beauty. Left: Ruby Kisses Orange Coral. Right: Pixie Pretty Pink.

Clarity: Do you look best in clear colors or muted colors? Clear colors are pure – unmixed with white, gray, or black. See below for examples of clear colors (known as hues) next to muted versions of the same color (the tints have white mixed in, the tones have gray mixed in, and the shades have black mixed in). As you can see, the clear colors read as very bright next to the muted versions.


See here and here for more examples.

If you have clear coloring, muted colors will look muddy or drab on you, whereas if you have muted coloring, bright colors can look garish or overpowering. Again, everyone’s coloring exists on a spectrum; rather than being very clear or very muted, your coloring might be somewhere in between.

Image source: Depaul University

The image above is a Munsell color chart, which organizes colors by value (from light to dark) and chroma (from very grayed-out, dusty colors to the most intense/pure version). These charts helped me get a better understanding of the nuances of muted colors and saturation.

One thing to note is that, even if you look better in muted colors than bright ones, probably not all muted colors will look equally flattering on you. You also have to consider how saturated the color is. A lot of the time people refer to “bright” and “saturated” colors as if they’re totally interchangeable terms. While there’s definitely a lot of overlap between the two, I don’t think it’s a perfect 1:1 relationship.

The most saturated colors are indeed going to be super-bright and therefore unflattering on someone with muted coloring (see the farthest-right color above). However, colors can be relatively saturated and still muted, though not as muted as something really grayed out. In the Munsell color chart above, you can see this in the middle/right section: colors that are relatively high-chroma and saturated, but not bright. The colors on the left are the most muted, desaturated ones of all; the first column is actually completely gray/black.

To take a personal example, in the chart above, the farthest-right color is the absolute brightest. It would look ghastly on me. But the low-chroma colors on the left half of the chart wouldn’t look good on me either, even though they are muted; they’re just too desaturated and grayed-out. For instance, even though MAC Twig is very popular with people who have muted coloring, I felt like it made me look dead. and eventually I realized that was because it’s too desaturated. The colors in the lower middle/right of the chart above are the type of *relatively* saturated, rich colors that work for me.

My theory is that there’s a relationship between optimal saturation and contrast levels (keep scrolling down for more on contrast). If someone has both muted and low-contrast coloring, they are likely to look good in the types of low-chroma shades you can see to the left on the Munsell chart. Dusty rose, grayed-out mauve, greige, brown, etc. On the other hand, if someone has muted, higher-contrast coloring, they are likely to look good in muted shades that have more saturation (i.e. jewel tones), like the shades in the middle of the chart. A deep brick red that’s not too browned out, or a rich berry. This is still just a theory, but if you know super-bright shades don’t work for you but are also having trouble finding the right muted colors, you might keep this in mind when looking for lipstick.

  • If you look good in clear colors (ex. fire-engine red, bright yellow, apple green, fuchsia, cobalt blue)…

…you’ll probably also look good in bright shades of lipstick (bright orange, coral, purple, or red, fuchsia).

Below are examples of beauty bloggers with clear coloring, in a muted lipstick on the left and a bright lipstick on the right:


Source: Patty Latini. Left: Chanel La Sensuelle. Right: MAC Ruby Woo.

Muted vs. bright lipstick

Source: The Glamorous Gleam. Left: MAC O. Right: MAC Relentlessly Red.

  • If you look good in muted colors like the tints/tones/shades above (ex. olive green, burnt orange, burgundy, dusty lavender, gray or brown)…

…try muted shades of lipstick (ex. dusty rose, plummy pink, brick red). If your coloring is very muted, you can probably wear both warm and cool colors as long as they’re muted.

Below are examples of beauty bloggers with muted coloring, in a bright lipstick on the left and a muted lipstick on the right:

Muted vs. bright lipstick

Source: Lily Pebbles. Left: Tom Ford Wild Ginger. Right: MAC Brick-o-La.


Source: Be Beautilicious. Left: Wet n Wild Purty Persimmon. Right: Lancome Rose Sulfureuse.

Contrast: Do you look good in low-contrast clothing as shown on the left, high-contrast clothing as shown on the right, or somewhere in between?

This is related to the level of contrast in the natural coloring of your skin, hair, and eyes. If you took a black-and-white photo of yourself, how much contrast would you see between your skin and hair/eyes? To take a few examples:

  • Light skin, blue eyes, blonde hair = low contrast
  • Light skin, dark brown eyes, black hair = high contrast
  • Medium skin, dark brown eyes, black hair = medium contrast

See here for more on contrast levels.

If you dye your hair lighter or darker, that will change your contrast level; for instance, if you go darker, darker lip shades will look more natural on you than they did before. Also, if your eyebrows are darker than the hair on your head, that will increase your contrast level.

If you look good in low-contrast clothing, high contrasts may look overpowering and will draw all attention to your clothes rather than your face. On the other hand, if you’re a high-contrast person, low contrasts may wash you out. And you may be neither high nor low-contrast – you might be more of a medium-contrast person.

  • If you’re a low-contrast person…

…then low-contrast lip colors will look most natural on you. Lip colors that are high contrast (for instance, a very dark lipstick if you have light coloring) will create an unbalanced look – drawing all attention to your lips. This is totally fine if you’re going for a dramatic look, but if you just want something that is flattering overall (harmonizing with your natural coloring rather than drawing attention to your makeup), then something low-contrast will work better.

Below is an example of a beauty blogger with low-contrast coloring, in a high-contrast lipstick on the left and a low-contrast lipstick on the right:

Low contrast

Source: Nikkie Tutorials. Left. Right.

  • If you’re a high-contrast person…

…then high-contrast lip colors will look good on you. For instance, a very dark lip color will look surprisingly natural on someone with fair skin and dark hair and eyes. See the example below:

High contrast

Source: simpletwistoffatee. Left. Right: MAC Diva.

If you wear a lipstick color that clashes with your natural coloring, it may not necessarily look bad – it would just look less harmonious with your complexion. Rather than looking very natural, it will stand out more against your skin, so people will notice your makeup rather than your overall appearance. Again, this is totally fine if you want a dramatic look – it really depends on what your goal is.

Really unflattering lip colors will make it look like your lips were pasted onto your face – like they’re just floating there, unattached to the rest of your face. This will be most true for lipsticks that are the wrong undertone, the wrong clarity, and the wrong contrast level for your face.

Keep in mind that you may have one dominant characteristic. For instance, you might be able to wear both warm and cool colors, and you might be medium-contrast, but have very muted coloring. In that case, it will be most important to choose lip colors that are muted enough for you; undertones and contrast level will be less important.

This means that there will be a spectrum of lipstick colors that look good on you, so don’t feel limited to only ones that perfectly match your undertones, clarity, and contrast level. The guidelines in this post aren’t meant to be prescriptive or to put you in a box; this is just a starting point if you’re not sure where to begin with lipstick.

See these examples of different lip colors on a blogger with clear, neutral-to-cool, medium-high contrast coloring:

And an example for a blogger with clear, neutral-to-warm, medium-contrast coloring:

And an example for a blogger with muted, neutral-to-warm, medium-contrast coloring:

The same principles go for picking out a flattering red lipstick shade. Think about the shades of red clothing you look good in – bright poppy red? Deep, muted brick red? Then you can pick a similar shade of red lipstick. If your lips are naturally pink pigmented, then cool red lipsticks may look fuchsia on you; in that case, try warmer reds.

And these principles also go for other types of makeup, including blush. For instance, very muted shades of blush like Tarte Exposed will appear muddy on people with clear coloring. Regarding eyeshadow, while your eye color will also affect what shades of eyeshadow look good on you, if you have very muted coloring (for instance), you’ll probably want to look for muted eyeshadow colors.

A couple of final notes to consider – if you have thin lips, darker colors (especially dark, matte colors) will make your lips look thinner; wearing lighter colors with a sheen or gloss will help prevent this. Also, if you have light skin, brownish lipstick probably won’t look as natural on you as it would on someone with medium or dark skin, even if you have warm, muted coloring. This isn’t to say that, say, a dusty rose or a brick red won’t look good if you have light skin – they absolutely can – just that very brownish lipsticks probably aren’t ideal.

What if you don’t have a good idea of what colors look good on you to begin with? I recommend going to a department store and simply trying on a bunch of different colors (ideally with a friend who can give you their opinion of which look best) – including colors you would normally avoid. Or you can go to a MAC counter and try on different lipsticks.

Here’s a table listing different lipstick shades by undertone, clarity, and how light/dark they are, so you can find shades that might suit your coloring.

This post was based on this guide to color analysis (Makeup Alley registration required to view).


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