I Didn’t Wear Makeup for an Entire Month—Here’s What Happened

written by EMMA GINSBERG
Graphics by: Aryana Johnson
Graphics by: Aryana Johnson

Until recently, the fact that I hadn’t left the house without mascara since the age of 12 didn’t bother me in the slightest. I took pride in my commitment to slapping on a few coats, even when shuffling out of my apartment in my sweats to grab a coffee or during late nights at the library in college. My tinted, stiff lashes felt like a part of me—what had originated from a place of insecurity as a self-conscious sixth grader had evolved into an unquestionable part of my every day as an adult.

In the past six months, discourse about the beauty industry and the expectations that women face to keep up appearances have exploded online. The presence of young girls in Sephoras across the country has spurred controversy, and celebrities like Pamela Anderson and Selena Gomez have made statements by going makeup-free on red carpets and at special events. The Money With Katie podcast explored the financial impact of the “hot girl hamster wheel,” the process by which women are encouraged to repeatedly spend on beauty products throughout their lives.

Having completely re-evaluated my own relationship with the beauty industry in the past few months, there was something about the labor of getting ready in the morning that started to feel straight-up wrong to me. I started to get curious about what it would be like to leave my house without any makeup on my face—my beloved mascara included. And so, armed with nothing but my favorite sunscreen and lip gloss, I spent the entire month of January makeup-free. Here’s what I learned:

Nobody thought about my makeup-free face as much as I did

My reasons for wearing makeup on a day-to-day basis are threefold. The most important is that I truly appreciate the process of applying makeup as a routine: There’s something about the process that I find both calming and fun. The second, admittedly, comes from a place of insecurity. I have extremely sensitive skin and a bit of rosacea, so I frequently have random red splotches on my face and neck that sometimes generate questions from others; this is why I’ve leaned towards using complexion products like skin tints. And the third is the comforting security blanket of my ever-mascaraed lashes, which helps me feel like I put effort into my appearance even when I am decidedly unkempt.

The first week of my makeup-free month was thrilling. I experienced the world from an entirely different angle. Yes, my first few interactions with baristas, friends, and strangers on public transportation were a bit unnerving—during these moments, I was consumed with thoughts about the fact that I wasn’t wearing any makeup. However, after the first day or so, I realized that no one was thinking about my face nearly as much as I had been. I received no strange looks or unsolicited questions when I showed up to meetings with my rosacea splotches or when I thought I looked overtired as a result of my lack of mascara.

Being able to pop out of bed and go to work or, on the flip side, completely crash at the end of the night without having to put on or take off makeup gave me the gift of 15 minutes back in my day, and honestly, it made a difference. Taking restocks of mascara or brow gel out of my budget for the month did make me feel a bit lighter and gave me a few bucks back to spend on other things that matter to me. In many ways, removing makeup from my routine eliminated an element of mental load, and that was wonderfully freeing.

Going makeup-free is a privilege

Technically, the headline of this article is slightly inaccurate. There was one day during the month of January when I chose to break my own challenge to myself and wear makeup. This was because my Editor-in-Chief had chosen me to join her in covering Dr. Jill Biden’s visit to the University of Illinois Chicago, where she spoke about the importance of increased funding for menopause research through the recent White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research. I did consider going makeup-free for the occasion as a commitment to an entirely makeup-free month; ultimately, though, knowing that I would be photographed and would be one of few young female digital journalists present at the event, I decided to go for a typical full face.

This day-long digression in my makeup-free month exposed me to the fact that though it is a privilege to pay for and care about makeup, it is also a privilege to go makeup-free. New York Times opinion columnist Jessica Grose spoke on this in a recent piece, in which she detailed the reasons why she chose to get Botox treatments during the pandemic: She explained that though she did not become a journalist to be on camera, the movement toward video in digital media compelled her to care more about her facial appearance.

The full face of makeup I wore for a huge career opportunity.

In today’s world, beauty expectations are indeed as stringent and intense as ever—but there is also no guarantee that you will not have to be on camera at some point throughout the day. Whether you find yourself staring at yourself in a Zoom meeting, are being recorded for something at work, or even end up recording yourself throughout the day, knowing that you might end up on camera means considering how you want to be perceived if and when you are recorded. Add social media into the mix, and there’s the possibility that strangers might be capable of commenting on your appearance at any moment.

In reality, we are not all Pamela Anderson or Selena Gomez going makeup-free on a red carpet; few of us have the privilege of questioning our relationship with beauty products to the extreme of never wearing makeup. Taking the one day off from my makeup-free month allowed me to understand that though it was valuable for me to question my relationship with beauty, there are also way bigger things for me to worry about than whether or not I’m doing “the right thing” by applying mascara every morning.

I re-evaluated my relationship with my skin

Three weeks into the month, I caught myself looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, admiring how healthy my skin looked. Considering the fact that I hadn’t applied any new skincare products, I wracked my brain for the reason why I might be feeling such a boost of confidence before realizing that for once in my life, I had gotten my recommended eight hours of sleep the night before. When I was mindlessly applying makeup every day, I had no reason to recognize the impact that my physical and mental health was having on my skin; regardless of whether there was a flaw, blemish, or under-eye bag, it would get covered up anyway. Going makeup-free forced me to pay closer attention to my skin and the tiny shifts in habit that were showing up much more prominently on my face than I realized. Who knew that beauty sleep was a real thing?!

My makeup-free skin after a good night of sleep.

In all seriousness, going a full month without foundation, concealer, or skin tints allowed me to better understand my skin as an important part of my body—as an organ that deserved to be taken care of. When we are immersed in beauty culture, we understand skin as almost separate from the rest of our bodies, like it is an entirely outward-facing thing that exists only to be visually appealing to others or to be adorned with makeup. In reality, our skin can be an important indicator of our health and well-being. Realizing this did not mean that I continued to get eight hours every single night, nor that I felt compelled to alter my diet and exercise habits according to what made me look the most “glowy.” It simply meant that by going makeup-free, I felt more connected to my physical body, and that was extremely rewarding.

I don’t need makeup—but I do really enjoy it

Living without makeup for a month had financial, time, and health benefits for me. It boosted my confidence, helped me feel more connected to myself, and allowed me to question beauty standards that I had previously taken at face value. At the same time, forcing myself to never reach for my favorite blush or eyeshadow was, quite frankly, boring.

By week four of my 29 days without makeup, I was desperate to switch up my look with some sort of glittery eyeshadow, bold lip, or pop of blush. In many ways, this craving for fun makeup that I felt at the end of this month was reassuring—it reminded me that I don’t just like wearing makeup because it’s a habit that I’ve never questioned. Ultimately, my life is more fun when I let myself put together a makeup look that I enjoy from time to time, and I don’t think I’m going to rob myself of that enjoyment any time soon. It serves as a great reminder that like anything having to do with appearance, the point of makeup should be self-expression above all else.

My first day back wearing makeup after 30 days off.

Whether you’re like me and have been applying some kind of makeup since a young age, or you just want to hard reset your beauty routine, I highly recommend going makeup-free for an extended period. Even if it’s not a full month, the changes I saw in my relationship to myself and to beauty in general after just a week without makeup were pretty striking. As I return to the world of the mascara wearers—and yes, I have returned—I feel more confident, less stressed about the daily labor of applying makeup, and more excited about the occasional fun makeup look than I did before. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned how to have self-compassion for my relationship to beauty standards as I face and respond to social pressures to appear a certain way, old and new. I likely won’t go another decade without going makeup-free again after pushing myself for this month. Heck, maybe I’ll even go bare-faced tomorrow.