About once a week, I grab a snack, my favorite throw blanket, and my computer opened directly to Sephora, as I sit down to watch a series of makeup collection videos on YouTube that will put me in absolute awe and pure-happiness for at least a few hours. They usually range anywhere from 35 minutes to an hour and a half, and every time, I feel an immense pleasure that probably isn’t normal. I’m utterly amazed by giant makeup collections, but I’m also aware that more isn’t always more, and having a set of the basic items is enough for almost any look you can imagine.
We’re already huge fans of a capsule wardrobe here—a selection of items that mix and match together to create a cohesive look without buying tons of items every season. And after some thinking, I realized this exact principle could be applied to your makeup collection. So, here we are: a capsule makeup collection that works for pretty much anyone’s needs, whether it’s going into an office every day, wanting some nighttime looks, or if you just wear makeup for special occasions. These products work together beautifully to create whatever look you can imagine: neutral, glam, sexy, editorial, dramatic, and beyond. Here’s our capsule makeup collection, with a selection of our editors’ favorites, reader favorites, and best-selling products in their categories, as well as a high-end and drugstore option for each, because every good capsule has a mix of high and low.
Don’t feel like you have to buy all of these at once—just like a closet full of clothes, a good selection of makeup is developed over time based on your personal needs.
Primer creates a barrier between your skin and any base products, making it less likely those products will clog your pores, lead to breakouts, or slide around your face all day long. A really good moisturizer can be a great primer for someone with very dry skin, but something that prolongs the wear of your makeup while helping your foundation to look even better is the key in our book.
A good foundation is exactly what it says: a foundation for your entire makeup routine. A good one isn’t just nice to have; it’s necessary. Makeup is only as good as the base underneath, so take your time trying different formulas and discovering what works best for you. If you’re trying to get your bang for your buck, choose something medium-coverage that can be built up to full with an extra layer (and doesn’t get cakey) or sheered out when mixed with a moisturizer. A natural, satin finish is also a great way to go, because you can powder it down to make it matte or wear it with a glowy primer and extra highlighter to get a dewy finish. You’ll get basically everything you could want in a foundation, all in one bottle.
An editor and reader favorite can be found in Bite’s Changemaker foundation. It’s everything I described above and more. It’s lightweight and natural, but it has some coverage if you like to cover up any spots or discoloration. For a drugstore alternative, you can’t go wrong with Revlon’s Candid foundation.
Finding a concealer that works for you is quite the goose chase in the makeup world. With thousands of formulas out there (I don’t know if that’s a real number, but I’m going with it), there are a lot of products to choose from. So, you’ll also want something versatile, lightweight, and medium-coverage. It is important to know what you’ll likely do with your concealer (some formulas that are amazing under the eyes don’t cover blemishes well, and vice versa), but opting for something that is buildable rather than full coverage straight out the gate might make this a little easier. NARS Radiant Creamy has been a favorite of many for years, and the hype is completely real. A similar drugstore option lies in Maybelline’s Fit Me concealer that is creamy and lightweight—and under $10.
Whether your skin is desert-dry or uncontrollably oily, powder is a must if you want makeup to stay on all day. The reasons are obvious for oily skin (to soak up oils and keep makeup in place), but for dry skin, powder keeps your makeup from bunching up in fine lines or sticking to dry patches. If you like to keep a natural radiance, choose a fine powder (pressed or loose) that contains mica or synthetic mica (the ingredient that gives the sparkly quality to highlighters and shimmer eyeshadows) to keep the glow without splotchy glitter all over your face.
Blush is a staple in many people’s beauty routines—it makes you look alive and like you have a natural flush to your cheeks. There are so many blush formulas on the market. If you like a powder blush (has a longer staying power), this one from ELF is one of the best on the market—and it’s under $6. But for a more natural stain, Glossier’s Cloud Paints are the name of the game.
Whether it’s summer or the dead of winter, it’s good to add a little bronzer to the perimeter of the face to add some color back to your skin and get rid of the flat look you can get from high-coverage foundations. A matte bronzer is good to add dimension and color, while something with a sheen or shimmer adds a glow and a natural-looking tan. Neither is wrong—opt for whichever you think will work best for your skin tone. Bronzer is typically a warm tone; for some, a natural tan looks red, but for others, it might be yellow or olive. Some people even prefer a neutral bronze. Pay attention to your skin tone, and shop from there.
To add an extra glow to your cheekbones, a shimmery highlight is the way to go. To pick the best highlighter for you, find something that is the same tone as your skin. If you have a warm undertone, try something golden; go for something pink or icy if your skin is cool; or if you have neutral or olive undertones, champagne works really well. Along with the tone, the depth of the tone is important too. To avoid the much-hated stripe along your cheeks, your highlighter needs to be the same shade or lighter than your skin tone. This way, it’ll blend in instead of being an obvious shimmery line across your cheekbones.
Unlike bronzer, contour is a cool-tone that is meant to shade and sculpt your face. It’s used in the hollows of your face to make your cheekbones higher, your jawline more defined, your forehead smaller. Oh, the magic of makeup! Charlotte Tilbury’s blends easily, and even though the product is a little expensive, it lasts a long time. NYX’s is a cream palette, so you have a few color options for contouring, highlighting, and concealing on the face.
If you plan to use eyeshadow, you need an eye primer. Without a primer, shadows can crease, fade, and get patchy on your lids, making them hard to blend (and just not cute). An eye primer is basically the same as your face primer: it puts a layer between your lids and the makeup, and it gives your eyeshadows something to stick to. Dry eyelids and oily lids alike can benefit from a primer.
You can definitely have a makeup collection without eyeshadow, but what would be the fun in that? Start your collection with a neutral palette that has a mix of mattes and shimmers to make daytime, work-appropriate looks as well as shimmery night looks for happy hours and date nights. Anastasia Beverly Hills’s Soft Glam and Colourpop’s Nude Mood totally embody those qualities, offering natural everyday shades that can be amped up for more dramatic looks.
Curled lashes make any mascara look a thousand times better—I don’t make the rules. But there are definitely a lot of eyelash curlers on the market that don’t hold the curl well, rip out your lashes, pinch yours eyes, and basically, do more harm than good. To get the best lash curl, hold the curler a little bit away from the base of the lashes (to not get any pinching) and hold down for about 10 seconds. Feel free to wiggle the lash curler around to make sure every lash gets an adequate curl.
Mascara was probably one of the first makeup items you ever purchased. It’s an ever-changing market with new formulas dropping constantly, and while some of our old favorites still reign supreme (*cough cough* Better Than Sex), there are a few newer formulas we love too. Mascara is personal, so some trial and error is expected. Milk’s Kush Mascara is amazing for lots of drama, but you can make it more natural by taking the excess off the brush before applying. CoverGirl’s isn’t as dramatic but can be built up without getting clumpy.
Use an eyebrow pencil to fill in any sparse areas of your brows and to shape them exactly how you want. Your eyebrows are a frame for your face, so a solid eyebrow pencil is essential in any makeup kit. A small, micro pencil is important for creating hairlike strokes. Pay attention to the tone of the eyebrow pencil as well—using a very warm brow pencil on your very cool eyebrows won’t exactly look natural. Anastasia Beverly Hills’s Brow Wiz is iconic, and for good reason, but we also love this micro pencil from ELF.
You can count on a brow gel to hold your eyebrows in place, add a little extra volume to the hairs, fill in the brows, and shape them exactly how you want. Whether you use a brow pencil or not, a gel is a really easy way to amp up your brows, and it takes maybe five seconds. These two are some of the best on the market: Glossier’s iconic Boy Brow gel and ELF’s Wow Brow, which is a dupe for Glossier’s and costs about one-fourth of the price.
Eyeliner has changed a lot from the days we put a rim of black around our eyes. Instead, eyeliner can be used to open up your eyes, to draw a wing (much easier than a liquid liner if you’re a beginner—or just cannot get the hang of it, same here!), or smudge on the lower lashline to add a little smoke.
A lip balm is a must for anyone—beauty-lover or not. Dry, crusty lips obviously don’t look great, but they don’t feel so good either. Laneige’s Lip Sleeping Mask is a best-seller and can be used as a heavy lip mask at night or applied sheerly as a balm during the day. If you’d rather something just for inside your purse, you can’t go wrong with the cult-favorite Smith’s Rosebud Salve.
Having the perfect nude lipstick that goes with every outfit is a must. Finding a good nude used to be impossible, but Charlotte Tilbury’s iconic Pillow Talk lip color (which is now available in Pillow Talk Medium and Pillow Talk Intense!) basically did it for us. Pillow Talk looks good on basically everyone—which might explain why it’s the best-selling lipstick in the world! If you’d rather not invest just yet, L’Oreal’s Colour Riche line has a few nude shades with a comparable formula. And a mid-range editor favorite is KKW Beauty’s Crème Lipsticks—their nudes are incredible, but I also love their red options!
Although it’s not a necessity, if you love fun lip colors or want your lip color to be really long-wearing, invest in a neutral lip liner. Charlotte Tilbury’s Lip Cheat in Pillow Talk and Iconic Nude will pair well under any nude lip color, whether it’s a Charlotte formula or not.
A few years ago, we probably wouldn’t have this on the list, but lip gloss has come back in a huge way. Many are choosing light, glossy formulas over the intense, liquid matte lipsticks of most of the 2010s. Lip gloss isn’t made like it was when we were kids; they’re light and wet-looking instead of sticky and goopy.
Keep a setting spray in your arsenal for special events, long hours, and hot days. A good setting spray will make you makeup last longer while setting it down and getting rid of a powder-y finish. Urban Decay’s setting spray is basically the gold standard for long-wear (made by Skindinavia who was basically the originator of setting spray and is still used in a lot of bridal and stage makeup!), but it contains alcohol, so it can be drying if applied every day on dry skin. Colourpop’s setting spray isn’t as long-wearing as Urban Decay, but it contains hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and coconut water to hydrate and refresh dry skin.
Having a basic set of makeup brushes will go a long way to creating basically every look you can imagine. Once you have a basic set, you can add as you need—a small stipple brush for cream blush here, a smudger eyeliner brush there. Brushes are certainly an area of your makeup collection that it’s a good idea to invest, but there are also tons of inexpensive, high-quality brushes out there. We love Sephora Collection, Smith Brushes, and Fenty Beauty for investment brushes, and BH Cosmetics, Real Techniques, and ELF if you’re on a budget.
A beauty sponge is a must if you prefer a dewy finish to your foundation and cheek products, or if you just want a super seamless blend. Aside from blending in foundation, you can use a beauty sponge to blend in blush, apply powder in a concentrated spot, tap out your highlighter, clean up the lines on your eyeshadow, and touch up throughout the day. Basically, the uses are endless. Make sure to wet your sponge and let it expand before using it; a dry sponge can hold extra product in the sponge (and no one wants to watch their expensive beauty products go to waste).
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