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Inside the Minds (and Vanities) of Self-Proclaimed Makeup Addicts

Here’s how our brains — and the internet — can turn a hobby into a full-blown obsession. (We’re looking at you, YouTube gurus.)

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The glossy sheen of brand-new packaging. The pristinely smooth surface of an unsullied lipstick. The anticipation of uncapping a new product, and the triumphant victory upon realizing you’ve finally discovering a “holy grail.” Makeup can prompt a dizzying array of sensations. It’s seductive, it’s indulgent, it’s perhaps a bit hedonistic. Buying makeup is fun. Feeling like you cannot stop buying makeup even if you wanted to, however, is not.

It’s those fun sensations that draw some makeup hobbyists into a cycle of irresistible craving, harmful decision-making, and consequential guilt and shame. Being addicted to buying makeup may sound laughable, but for those who’ve veered into the territory of compulsive buying (and have the credit card bills to show for it), it’s no joke.

Emma is a 24-year-old graduate student who loves sequins, bright colors, and — until very recently — spending money on makeup. Through her early 20s, Emma was more casual enthusiast than collector, rarely straying from drugstore cosmetics and maintaining a pretty modest collection of the basics. But everything changed when she befriended a hardcore beauty buff who introduced her to the world of makeup beyond the drugstore. Seemingly out of nowhere, Emma’s once-chill attitude toward cosmetics quickly spiraled into obsession as she plunged down the rabbit hole of fancier brands, gleefully scooping up new products along the way.

Roughly a year later, Emma’s makeup hobby had changed radically. She was a card-carrying VIB Rouge member (the top tier of Sephora’s loyalty program, achieved by spending a minimum of $1,000 in one calendar year). She had amassed nearly a dozen different eyeshadow palettes and over 70 lipsticks, consisting almost entirely of mid- to high-end brands. Despite rarely splurging on clothing or other material goods, makeup had become a fixation, and it totally altered her perception of value. “I would probably turn down a $50 dress, but didn't bat an eye at a $50 makeup price tag,” she says. And her buying behavior had completely transformed. “I was one of those people who set my alarms for 3:30 a.m. or some ungodly time to try and scoop up the Too Faced Sweet Peach palette when it came out.”

Beginning to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff she’d accumulated, Emma tallied up her inventory’s dollar value. “It was like a fever broke or something, and I snapped into reality,” she says. “When I realized I had a $1,000 lipstick collection, I just felt a bit hollow.”

Emma’s abrupt about-face into makeup obsession may sound like a story from the fringes of daytime TLC programming, but her anecdotes probably resonate with anyone who’s felt an inexplicable compulsion to add just one more highlighter to an already diverse collection. It also might hit home with anyone who feels like their own makeup-buying habits have gotten a little out of control. As it turns out, there are quite a lot of people who feel that way.

On Reddit’s Makeup Rehab subreddit, subscribers post confessionals about their spending relapses, share tips for “destashing” (streamlining a collection by getting rid of under-used items and duplicates), and collectively fawn over photos of almost-empty eyeshadows and blushes showing the pan in which they’re stored, colloquially known as “pan porn.” (Learning to actually finish a product before buying another one is a key strategy here.) Members celebrate accomplishments as seemingly minuscule as uninstalling the Sephora app on their smartphone, and regularly talk each other out of making unnecessary purchases. Here, the focus isn’t on abstaining from makeup so much as buying more mindfully, and, most of all, learning to identify and conquer the impulsive behaviors that frequently lead to unnecessary purchases.

The community has over 10,000 “members in recovery” — many with stories a lot like Emma’s, caught in a cycle where makeup spending habits go far beyond the realm of a playful hobby and into something that, at its worst, more closely resembles hoarding. “‘I buy so much makeup I need professional help’ sounds like it should be some silly phrase on a poster by someone's makeup vanity,” writes one user, “not an actual description of someone's problems when they're talking to a doctor.” Yet, consumers at the extreme end of this spectrum talk about debt, secret credit cards, and vanity drawers stuffed with old, barely used products they cannot let go.

Most of the people I spoke with say they find themselves repeatedly buying variations of the same thing over and over again — another brick-red lipstick, another luminous BB cream. Many also say they have an extremely difficult time throwing away their products, even when they rarely or barely use them. Almost all say they’ve felt like their cosmetics “hobby” had become financially harmful. At what point did that realization occur? “When I had to buy a chest of drawers to keep it all in order,” says one. “When it was over 50 percent of my paycheck,” says another. “When I couldn't make rent but I dropped $60 on makeup without even thinking about it; when I mindlessly pick up a random drugstore makeup product because I'm bored; when my drawer for makeup got too crowded for everything I owned; and so on.” Yikes. “I so badly want to stop,” writes one. “I need help,” writes another, punctuating her plea with a smiley emoticon.

For some of these shoppers, makeup purchases serve as a coping mechanism for other problems, like anxiety, stress, or depression. “I usually buy things when I'm feeling stressed out by school,” says Johanna, 25, who recalls making five impulse purchases in one month but, upon paying her credit bill, couldn’t actually remember what the purchases were. Another woman I talked to, who spent over $4,000 on cosmetics in one year, recalled her spouse pointing out that her most stressful weeks at work almost always preceded an influx of Sephora packages on their doorstep. “That was the first time that I felt maybe my approach to makeup wasn't healthy,” she tells me. Emma herself echoes this: “I think that I was a bit vulnerable at the time that I got into makeup, self-esteem-wise, and it was definitely filling a hole,” she tells me. “Eventually, I realized that I wasn't any happier with all the makeup and it wouldn't fix my problems.”

A photo from Reddit user daaatgekko, regrading this post.
Photo: Imgur/daaatgekko

Anyone who’s indulged in a “treat yourself” moment during a stressful or sad time knows what Emma’s referring to, and research backs it up. A 2008 study in the Psychological Science journal found that unhappy people were more prone to plunk down more money to acquire a commodity: those who reported feeling sad or depressed ended up offering to pay more for a product. This 2014 research review from the Journal of Behavioral Addictions cites low self-esteem, poor self-control, emotional distress, hedonistic enjoyment, and cognitive overload (i.e., internet-induced overstimulation courtesy of the beauty bloggers in your Instagram feed) as some of the most common predictors to online shopping addiction.

Kim Johnson, a University of Minnesota professor whose research focuses on socio-psychological aspects of clothing and consumer behavior, cites fear as a common motivator of compulsive shopping as well. “People link certain objects or situations with fear and learn to avoid those objects or situations by performing rituals that reduce the fear,” she explains. “So if you see stress as a form of fear, compulsive buyers make purchases as a ritual.” Women, specifically, can be susceptible to these patterns, Johnson adds. “Compulsive buying may be an outcome of all the encouragement women are given to shop, to pay attention to their appearance, to keep up with fashion changes,” she says.

It also comes down to neurological fireworks, thanks to the infrastructure of the rewards and pleasure systems in our brains, and that resident tawdry temptress of neurotransmitters, dopamine. Indulging in a bright new lip stain or highlighter is obviously not the same thing as doing a line of cocaine, but the blueprint is similar: It’s released in anticipation of a reward. Click “submit order” in the Ulta checkout, and the floodgates open. And in conversations with self-described makeup addicts, you’ll notice a few common phrases that might sound more at home in a DARE video than a beauty message board. Getting their hands on a new product feels “like a sugar rush,” “like a high,” “like an itch has been scratched.” For Emma, even the accumulation of Sephora loyalty points felt like an addictive game. “Collecting the points to go toward my status became pretty intoxicating,” she says. As with any addiction, that zap of short-term satisfaction weakens over time.

Those who are predisposed to compulsive or addictive behavior are only further enabled by the internet, where the specter of instant gratification looms that much closer. We have accessibility to more products than ever before, and buying them couldn’t be easier: You’re almost always just a few clicks or swipes away from mindlessly forking over $100 for a few eyeliners. Digital advertising is, of course, ubiquitous, and social media is like a switchboard of triggers tempting shoppers to buy the newest life-changing lip formula or holy grail foundation, thanks to the hype machine of beauty gurus.

“On Instagram, it's hard to see anything but the accounts with the massive collections and to not end up desensitized to that,” Emma explains. “In a way, it normalized my spending, because in comparison my collection doesn't seem as big.” Genevieve, 35, went on her first buying spree after discovering Reddit’s cosmetics cult, the Makeup Addiction subreddit — a stronghold of over a quarter million members sharing their “HG” (holy grail) finds, posting swatches of new products, and trading notes on technique. “I quickly realized that I was making rash decisions and impulsive purchases that were not right for my skin type or style,” she says.

It’s a roller coaster built on the thrill of the hunt, the adrenaline rush of an impulse buy, the temporary high of unboxing that sleek new product, and the inevitable ebb of gratification before something else catches your eye.

After finally disembarking that roller coaster last year, Emma made a concerted effort to curb her spending, use the many products she already has, and avoid the hype on social media. That heightened awareness has kept her from succumbing to the relentless onslaught of marketing. Being mindful about her motivations for purchasing makeup, plus all the solidarity and support from those who’ve had similar revelations, has helped rewire the way Emma sees (and buys) makeup. “I don't feel the intense need to buy now that I've kind of sorted myself out, and I'm happy just using what I've got,” she tells me.

Of course, there’s not a thing wrong with throwing your disposable income at all the YSL Touch Eclat you could possibly want. There’s zero shame in the makeup-collecting game: It’s a legitimate passion for a lot of people, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It’s when things start to feel toxic — you’re racking up debt, feeling like you’ve lost control over your spending habits, or no longer even enjoying what you buy before moving on to the next purchase — that taking a step back and focusing on your own patterns might be a good call.

Emma, who recently shared a photo on Reddit of her $2,000 eyeshadow and lipstick collection to remind herself of what she has, sums it up best: “I'm realizing that I don't actually get the happiness I expected to have gotten from this,” she wrote. “Do I love my lipstick collection and use it regularly? Yes. Would I trade that all back for a grand? In a heartbeat.”


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