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The Myth of Universally Flattering Makeup

Beauty products that promise to flatter every single skin tone sound too good to be true. Hint: They are.

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You’ve probably heard of Nars Orgasm.

(If not, please make room for us under that rock.)

Whether or not you’ve had the, uh, pleasure of wearing Nars’s iconic product, it’s almost common knowledge by now that it’s the number one selling blush in the US. And since its launch in 1999, it’s spawned eight other products, including a lip gloss and nail polish.

Its name probably has something to do with it, but so does the shade itself, a soft pink with flecks of gold. It works on just about everyone. “It’s a pretty shade for most,” says celebrity makeup artist Pati Dubroff, who counts Natalie Portman and Margot Robbie among her clients. “I can understand why the brand would tout it as being universally flattering.”

First, how does a shade even qualify as flattering? In the context of makeup, color combinations deemed flattering traditionally adhere to classic color theory. Think way back to art class and the color wheel. Complementary colors, like blue and orange, are considered visually appealing. So are analogous colors (those that sit next to one another on the color wheel, like dark blue, purple, and light purple), which is why eyeshadow palettes, for example, often group shadows in analogous shades. (Just check out the shade selection of Lancôme’s Color Design 5 Pan Eyeshadow Palette for proof.) “Generation X worried about colors that went together,” says Karen Young, founder of marketing firm Y Group and a former marketing exec at companies like Estée Lauder and Lancôme. “Did this light pink go with this dark pink?”

On the flip side, a not-so-flattering color isn’t exactly the end of the world, particularly in terms of makeup. If the colors don’t “go together,” your skin may look a little more sallow, and certain tones of lipstick can make your teeth look yellower, according to Dubroff. But that’s the worst-case scenario. Plus, “If it makes you happy, the confidence you have when wearing it will cancel that out,” says Dubroff.

Universally flattering makeup ostensibly brings out the best in people with every skin tone, leaving everyone with brighter skin, whiter teeth, and a generally harmonious look. But Dubroff has found that the modifier “universally flattering” is a misnomer. She notes that even the products she gravitates toward in her own makeup kit — those with muted pink or brown tones, like Orgasm — work on roughly 90 percent of her clients. And those clients usually fall in the midrange of skin tones, from peach to brown skin. But if you fall outside of that range, you’re out of luck. “I think ‘suits most’ would be more authentic,” says Dubroff.

It’s not just makeup artists who feel this way. In multiple threads on Reddit’s MakeupAddiction subreddit, redditors call out “universally flattering” shades and products that actually aren’t. A few of the regular offenders: Clinique Almost Lipstick in Black Honey, Maybelline Color Sensational Creamy Matte Lip Color in Touch Of Spice, and — wait for it — Nars Orgasm. One member commented: “Clinique Black Honey gave me undead-looking gray lips, but not in a cool way. Just in a patchy and diseased way.” It’s worth noting that many of the products and shades that appear on these threads are wildly popular. Whether they’re popular because they’re universally flattering or people assume they’re universally flattering because everyone loves them, no one can say for sure. “I went out and bought [Maybelline Touch of Spice lipstick] after seeing a thread that said it was the most amazing color ever,” said another. “It looks absolutely terrible on me.”

Despite the naysayers, more and more makeup products are making this claim rather than, unfortunately, the more honest “suited for most.” Along with Nars Orgasm’s entire collection, new products that claim to be universally flattering include Revlon’s Love Is On™ lipstick (a ruby red), Charlotte Tilbury Instant Look in a Palette (which, really, looks like it would only flatter the cast of Friends), and RMS Master Mixer (a rose gold highlighter). Admittedly, some formulas do flatter a wider range of skin tones than before. “Compared to 20 years ago, color cosmetics are so much more translucent,” says Young. “They used to look a little bit mask-like.” New formulas are so sheer and easy to blend, allowing one’s own skin tone to show through, which creates a sort of personalized base within the color.

It’s not just the formulas that have led to a rise in universally flattering products. Part of the equation is demand. Many consumers, while they do shop online, are nervous about buying shades without trying them on first. According to a 2016 Mintel report, 39 percent of female internet users buying makeup worry that the shade or color won’t look good on them in person. In fact, it’s the most common deterrent to buying makeup online. Enter the “universally flattering” signifier. If you’re not one to swatch shades at Sephora — or if you don’t live anywhere near big-name beauty retailers — the “universally flattering” callout assures you that the color will still look good even if you can’t try it on in person. Probably.

The claim plays a surprisingly big role in whether or not a consumer will click all the way through checkout. “It addresses the fear that the shade or tone will be off, which is one of the biggest stumbling blocks consumers have to purchase,” writes Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., a professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, in an email to Racked. “We've all been there. You walk by a mirror in bright sunlight and notice you've got clown face going on.” With a universally flattering color, you minimize the odds of that happening.

It’s a key factor in what Yarrow calls the “buy equation,” which is a combination of three factors: an appealing claim that addresses consumer concerns (that’s your “universally flattering” status); a reassuring endorsement, either from reviewers or a blogger; and a guarantee that you can return it online. Check all three, and you’ve probably got a sale.

That doesn’t mean you should opt for a universally flattering makeup shade over another you like more. The focus in beauty is no longer on matching colors. If anything, perfectly matching makeup is actually a faux pas nowadays. And when you discover an amazing new lipstick color, do you stop and think “Wait. I don’t think this will complement the cool undertones in my skin”? Probably not. (Although if you do, kudos.) Choosing colors this way is about as cool as wearing a twinset. And if your purchase totally clashes but you really love the color, would you even care that it’s not necessarily harmonious with your skin tone?

“We don’t tell consumers anymore what to wear or how to behave,” says Young. “No one does that. Look around.” That’s wise, since the word “flattering” is a loaded one that Racked tackled in a piece on fashion and body positivity last year. It enforces a sort of conformity among consumers and derides individual preferences. (Think of the thousands and thousands of women wearing Nars Orgasm at this very moment.) Plus, it’s worth noting that the concept of “harmonious” color only counts in the eye of the beholder. If you’re out and not in constant view of your reflection, it doesn’t really matter if your blush has too much of a blue undertone. So it may be worth wearing a traditionally flattering shade if you’re, say, heading to a job interview, but not so much if you just want to go out with your friends. You won’t transform into a gremlin.

The universally flattering claim has an obvious financial value to brands, even if its legitimacy is dubious in some respects. Although efforts to make cosmetics more broadly flattering benefits online beauty buyers, that advantage only extends to a certain demographic. Everyone who doesn’t happen to fall into the Kate Hudson to Priyanka Chopra range of skin tones should be wary when buying, because “universal” doesn’t actually mean universal. If it doesn’t matter or apply to you, and you just really like that purple lipstick, you should go for it. But if you’re on the fence, we’ll leave you with Dubroff’s keen insight: “It’s a great marketing strategy.”


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